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Disney+’s ‘Howard’ reflects on legacy of one of Disney’s greatest minds



The first movies I fell in love with were Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid. I don’t remember how old I was, but I do remember watching them constantly, reenacting the best scenes with my older brother, and singing to the soundtracks on long car rides over and over again. There was just something about those movies that I could never get over.

Though I didn’t know what made them so great when I was young (I only knew that I liked them), I can look back as an adult and see what made these animations so enchanting. While the visuals were dreamy and the stories were compelling, the music is what has stayed with me the longest. All the songs, from “Be Our Guest” to “Part of Your World,” have a larger-than-life quality to them that could have only been made by a person with a larger-than-life imagination. And that person is Howard Ashman, the lyricist at the center of Disney’s newest documentary, Howard

All those songs had a larger-than-life quality to them that could have only been made by a person with a larger-than-life imagination. 

The film, directed by Beauty and the Beast producer Don Han, claims to tell the “untold story” of Ashman, though to be honest, I’ve heard at least most of it before. If you’re a hardcore Disney or Broadway fan, maybe you have, too. However, I’ve never seen it presented in a dramatic fashion alongside such polished visuals — and yes, the tale’s new packaging is enticing.

The first half of Howard takes viewers on a journey through Ashman’s pre-Disney life. His sister recalls their upbringing in Baltimore. His friends and colleagues continue by covering his early involvement in theater, years in college, and relationship with a self-destructive lover. Eventually, the documentary breaks into his success as the director, lyricist, and librettist of the Little Shop of Horrors stage musical in 1982 as well as his continued renown for screenwriting the 1986 movie adaption. However, it also tackles the total flop of Smile, in which he served as the director, lyricist, and bookwriter. That musical closed in 1987 after showing only 2 months on Broadway. If something good did come out of Smile‘s failure, however, it was that Ashman met Doria Hudson’s actress, Jodi Benson, who would become the voice of Ariel in The Little Mermaid.

Howard continues to explore Ashman’s personal life in the second half, juxtaposing the magic of his work at Disney with the tragedy of his declining health due to an AIDS diagnosis. One moment we see him watching Mrs. Potts (Angela Lansbury) and Lumière (Jerry Orbach) record a spirited rendition of “Be Our Guest,” and the next he’s struggling to move forward as sickness steals away his voice. It’s even suggested that he wrestled with the cultural unrest around AIDS by subconsciously writing his pain into songs like The Little Mermaid‘s “Part of Your World” and Beauty and the Beast‘s “The Mob Song.” The film ends with his untimely passing at the age of 40 and demonstrates how his creative contributions have lived on far past his death.

Howard is a surprisingly mature release for a streaming service that’s censored the curse words in Hamilton and covered up the skin in Splash. While the documentary’s content stays within Disney’s PG-13 parameters, Ashman’s struggle with AIDS is tackled head-on — and, let’s be real — sexually transmitted diseases aren’t exactly kid-friendly. Even though some of the details of Ashman’s life were likely cleaned-up for a Disney+ release, the reality of Ashman’s impending death hangs heavy, as does the fact that he had to struggle in secret for so long. But even with Howard‘s sorrowful undertone, it’s still loaded with charm.

Photographs, recordings, and archival footage give the narrative a nostalgic feel. And, naturally, the music Ashman wrote — as it is featured — does the same. It’s thrilling to watch Howard give voice actors specific instructions on how to perform a now well-known song. It’s exciting to hear the orchestra bring life to his vision. And it’s enlightening to see his lyrics scroll down the screen in time with the songs they’re from. Because Ashman’s rhymes have a definably tongue-in-cheek quality, this feature helps audiences visualize the density of Howard’s writing and proves his wit in the process.

The documentary is sprinkled with little bits of wisdom from the lyricist that, if followed, would help build tighter, more meaningful narratives.

Speaking of his cleverness, creators — including the people who currently work at Disney — can still learn a lot from Ashman’s creative process. The documentary is sprinkled with little bits of wisdom from the lyricist that, if followed, would help build tighter, more meaningful narratives. Ashman stresses the importance of movies not pausing for songs but instead using musical numbers only when the emotion gets too intense and it becomes necessary to move the plot forward. Advice like this had me thinking back to more modern Disney films — especially the live-action remakes — and questioning whether they would have passed Ashman’s song test. Most of them would have not.

That makes it kind of curious when the documentary gets into how Ashman’s work paved the way for the (largely unnecessary) live-action remakes of Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast that — while commercially successful — did not live up to the magic of the animated classics or follow his advice. Time literally freezes in 2019’s Aladdin so that Jasmine can get her own song. The mention is an annoying flex, but in light of the entire documentary, it’s quick. And while Disney played a big part in Ashman’s later life, Howard feels as if it was created more to honor its subject than to flatter the company he worked at. This was a pleasant surprise.

Whether you’re Disney-obsessed or not, you can get a lot out of Howard. If this film recognizes anything, it’s that story — even in the context of a documentary — is what will keep the audience engaged. And what better story is there to tell than one about a man who used songs to tell some of the greatest stories?

Howard is now streaming on Disney+

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