My first-ever film at the Portland International Film Festival was today's showing of the documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty, about Disney Animation from the 1980s to the mid-90s. I knew some of this story, being an animation fan; now I know more, and wonder how close we came to having no Disney Animation come the mid-80s. I remember that era, when Disney Animation was considered a joke. (I still remember a review of 1985's The Black Cauldron that was somewhat begrudgingly positive, saying something like "It doesn't boil, but it does bubble.") I've also followed Disney's ups and downs since then, being worried when it and Pixar almost went separate ways and being cheered by Pixar becoming a true part of Disney (not to mention the smart move of making John Lasseter head of Disney Animation, giving him basically the amount of power over animation that Walt Disney himself had had). I got caught up in the further details in this documentary -- fairly unsparing about the egos, the clashes, and the problems behind the scenes during decade-plus -- and the material about Howard Ashman? Made me tear up.
Howard Ashman was a huge part of Disney's resurgence. You know his Disney work: The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. He's also someone who was taken from us too young (damn you, AIDS). And in his usually quiet way -- but a way that, this documentary shows, sometimes included a dragonfire temper -- Ashman influenced the stories Disney told and the way Disney told them. I'd known he'd been brought in surprisingly late on Beast to change it from a straight drama to a musical -- the doc, by the way, shows test footage from that straight-drama try at the film, and what's shown looks deadly -- though I hadn't known that Ashman actually hadn't wanted to do it; his heart at the time was far more in Aladdin. But he made it work. Heck, he helped make Disney hip and sexy. (Yay Jamaican music! There would've been no calypso in The Little Mermaid without him. There probably wouldn't have been Aladdin without him, either; he and Alan Menken had pitched it to Disney in 1988.) The music he co-wrote is still wonderful, and still gets me. And even just the quick clips the doc shows of his films -- including the finale from the workprint of Beauty and the Beast, that (even with much of the animation being just rough pencils) earned a huge standing ovation at the New York Film Festival -- still move me.
It reminded me how I feel there's enough about Howard Ashman's life to support a biopic. And what I first thought was a great idea hit me during the screening: Ashman played by Alan Tudyk! It took me until the end of the doc for me to think Wait: another film where Tudyk dies?! This is the sort of thing that I find funny.
I don't know if or how Waking Sleeping Beauty will be further released -- PIFF has one more screening of it Monday -- but Disney appreciators (you hear of it, puppetmaker40?) will be rewarded if they get a chance to see it.