Imagine a world without Ariel from The Little Mermaid or Belle from Beauty and the Beast. No motormouth genie from Aladdin, no noble Simba from The Lion King. And maybe Buzz Lightyear or Cowboy Woody never existed, either.

If Walt Disney's once-mighty animation studio had, in the early 1980s, continued its downward trend of failed concepts and lackluster 'toons, it's quite likely that these now-iconic figures - not to mention merchandising brands - would never have seen the light of day, or of a projector bulb.

Don Hahn's Waking Sleeping Beauty offers a fascinating, albeit self-congratulatory, account of how Disney's fabled animation department was reenergized and reimagined between 1984 and 1994. It's the story of Hollywood titans - Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and the late Frank Wells - and of Roy Disney, Walt's nephew, and of a group of upstart artists and writers drawing (so to speak) from the Mouse House's past and looking to its future. And of a lyricist, the late Howard Ashman, who injected a playful Broadway-musical sensibility into the Disney-animation formula.

With a first-person voice-over by Hahn, a Disney-animation exec at the time, but also surprisingly candid commentary from Eisner, Katzenberg, and Peter Schneider (another animation topper), Waking Sleeping Beauty is a story of egos and artistry, of failed projects and inspired collaborations. At the outset, we see a small band of young animators working without enthusiasm on The Black Cauldron. (And we see a lot of cheesy homemade videos of office parties and backlot shenanigans, too.)

But under the leadership of Eisner, Katzenberg, and Schneider - and who was responsible for what remains a matter of heated dispute - a new sense of purpose and creative drive kicked in. The Little Mermaid, with its Ashman and Howard Menken songbook, started things rolling, and by the time Beauty and the Beast had its work-in-progress premiere at the 1991 New York Film Festival, Disney was not only making millions with its animated fare, but it was earning critical raves as well.

Eisner and Wells' alliance with a former Disney artist, John Lasseter, and his CG-animation start-up, Pixar, was just icing on the cake.

Waking Sleeping Beauty *** (out of four stars)

Directed by Don Hahn. With Roy E. Disney, Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Peter Schneider, and others. Distributed by Walt Disney Pictures.

Running time: 1 hour, 26 mins.

Parent's guide: No MPAA rating (adult themes).

Playing at: Ritz Five.EndText

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/