Waking Sleeping Beauty

A scene from "Waking Sleeping Beauty" (Red Shoes/Stone Circle Pictures/Walt Disney Pictures)

As any 15-year-old will tell you, "Eclipse," the third movie in the "Twilight" series, comes to video this week... but not until Saturday. It seems unfair to devote a column to something you can't actually bring home just yet, so instead I'd like to direct you to a trio of really good documentaries you probably didn't even know existed. And here's the best part: They're all about Disney!

That's not as loaded a statement as it used to be. For decades, the studio Uncle Walt built was famous for its refusal to examine its own history - unless it was for one of those TV specials or DVD supplements where everyone stands around celebrating themselves and the studio's great legacy at the top of their lungs. (You've probably seen a few; the presence of Leonard Maltin as the host is a giveaway.)

But in recent years, Disney has loosened up a little, allowing documentarians to examine the studio's history from less flattering angles and even letting the resulting documentaries play to paying audiences. John-Paul Davidson and Trudie Styler's "The Sweatbox," which made the rounds of film festival circuit (with a stop at TIFF in 2002), looked at the near-disaster that was "Kingdom of the Sun," a musical epic set in the Aztec world that was shut down due to cost overruns and reconfigured into "The Emperor's New Groove" over the space of a weekend. The doc wasn't exactly critical of Disney - the studio comes out looking smart for scrapping an expensive, out of control project and turning it into something fun - but it was the first movie to suggest that things might not be all hugs and puppies within the House of Mouse.

The critical success of "The Sweatbox" - which still hasn't been released on DVD - paved the way for a new crop of Disney docs that offer genuine self-examination. Two of those are coming to disc this week, to accompany a newly remastered double-feature of "Fantasia" and "Fantasia 2000." They're both great, with Don Hahn confronting the renaissance of Disney's animation department in the late 1980s in "Waking Sleeping Beauty" and Gregory V. Sherman and Jeff Sherman telling the fascinating story of their own fathers - Walt's favourite songwriting team - in "The Boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story."

I wasn't aware that Robert and Richard Sherman, the California brothers whose songs drove "The Parent Trap," "Mary Poppins," "Bedknobs and Broomsticks," "The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh" and a dozen other indelible musicals (including "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," produced for rival MGM), spent decades sharing an office on the Disney lot but never spoke to one another outside of it.

Their adult sons, Gregory and Jeff, were similarly unaware of the gravity of the situation until they ran into one another when both men brought their families to the 2002 premiere of the "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" stage musical in London - and then decided to tell their dads' story on film. They never do explain what caused the split, but they do pay tribute to their complicated dads with an engaging and occasionally powerful look at their history in and out of Disney's orbit.

There's considerably less ambiguity in "Waking Sleeping Beauty." Director Don Hahn - better known as the producer of "The Lion King," which capped the amazing comeback run of Disney's feature animation division in 1994. Hahn had a front-row seat for the rejuvenation of the rudderless department in the 1980s, and his documentary - assembled largely from home-video footage shot by some kids named John Lasseter and Joe Ranft - re-creates the chaos and panic of the era. When hotshot animator Don Bluth leaves to start his own shop, poaching some of the studio's brightest talents as he goes, we can see the empty cubicles; when new hires Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner start talking about radical changes and the difficulty of rousing a moribund operation to new heights, you can feel the hesitancy and skepticism.

But then Howard Ashman and Alan Menken arrive at the studio with the idea for "The Little Mermaid," and everything changes. Suddenly, the animators can enjoy coming to work, and they're drawing characters they like, and the script is coming together and the songs are catchy and there's a sense that things might actually work out this time. And then, as "Mermaid" is on the way to production, they start work on "Beauty and the Beast" and "Aladdin." And we have a front-row seat to something wonderful.

Both "Waking Sleeping Beauty" and "The Boys" push past established Disney dogma to tell stories of conflict, resentment and anger that somehow managed to result in the creation of enduring art. And in so doing, both offer glimpses of the studio as it really is, rather than the way its marketing department imagines itself to be.

A third doc, Theodore Thomas' 2007 "Walt & El Grupo," looks at the goodwill trip undertaken by Walt Disney and more than a dozen of his artists to Latin America in 1941 at the behest of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It wasn't available for review at press time, but believe me when I tell you I'm looking forward to seeing it. In the meantime, you should probably start with "Waking Sleeping Beauty." It'll bring tears to your eyes.

E-mail Norman Wilner at houselightsup@hotmail.com