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Howard review: Disney Plus documentary digs into a musical renaissance

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If Howard Ashman were alive today, perhaps we wouldn’t have that godforsaken comic troll song as the last musical beat in Frozen, interrupting the drama as Anna is dying.

The Academy-Award winning lyricist was deliberate about using music to push the story forward and deliver poignant character moments. Ashman worked on The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, penning some songs for Aladdin before he died in 1991 due to complications from HIV. The musical-theater sensibilities he instilled in animated movies fueled the Disney Renaissance and the expectations of the medium for more than a decade afterward — and perhaps if he were still with us, the song order and selection in modern Disney movies would be a touch more cohesive.

The new Disney Plus documentary Howard tells the story of Ashman’s life and his career, but his work and impact at Disney are only a small fraction of the story. Ashman’s contributions to the company were certainly important, but longtime Disney vet and Howard writer-producer Don Hahn makes the film about Ashman’s entire life, starting from his childhood in Baltimore and following him to college and throughout his career. All the anecdotes are stepping stones that eventually led to Ashman’s stint at Disney — and his final moments of working from a hospital bed. It’s a bittersweet portrait of Ashman that doesn’t elevate his time at Disney over the rest of his career. While it’s a touching look at Ashman’s entire life, it feels a bit restrained when actually discussing his continued legacy at the studio. But it does effectively address who he was outside his work.

Image: Disney

Instead of a talking-heads approach, Howard places interview clips over photographs, news clips, or old video footage. Sometimes that works to augment the interviews, like when an old audio clip of Ashman describing why his songs in Little Shop of Horrors were so effective is juxtaposed against a scene from the movie version of the musical. At other times, when the images are very similar, it adds nothing of note to the audio, dulling the experience, and sometimes makes it hard to tell who’s even talking, since we never see their faces.

But slow points aside, the earlier stories paint a fascinating picture of Ashman’s life as he struggled to make a name for himself in New York City, working on Off-Off-Off Broadway projects and slowly discovering a love for lyric-writing. Each success and failure is discussed as an important part of his journey, helping his creative philosophy expand. Old interview clips from Ashman reveal his thoughts on movie musicals and how he felt animation was the last viable medium for translating musicals to the screen.

The interviewed subjects — some old friends, some old collaborators — all speak fondly of Ashman, coloring the big points of his career with anecdotes about his character. The documentary begins with Ashman’s sister discussing the stories he used to tell when they were children, which sets the tone for the personal insights into Ashman’s life. Jodi Benson, who went on to voice Ariel in The Little Mermaid, talks about how approachable he was during her audition for one of his musicals, while school friends reminisce about college theater. It all weaves a more complete portrait of Ashman, extending beyond his remarkable career.

Ariel singing “Part of Your World” and reaching a hand out to the surface

Image: Disney

Hahn touches on Ashman’s experiences as a gay man living with HIV, mentioning how he felt the diagnosis would threaten his career at Disney, and how he initially refused to get tested out of fear that the company would cancel his insurance. But beyond some still images of crowds with anti-gay signs, the doc just skims the surface of the deep-seated homophobia at the core of the AIDS epidemic. While some former coworkers theorize about the possible AIDS metaphor at the center of Beauty and the Beast, the film never moves past theoreticals or points to any risk more specific than random sign-holding bigots. Then again, Ashman never talked much about his personal life or struggles, and as his sister Sarah Gillespie mentions, he never imbued his specific experiences into his work.

The other thing notably missing from the documentary is the extent of the legacy Ashman left behind. The Disney Renaissance wouldn’t have been possible without the roaring success of The Little Mermaid, and The Little Mermaid wouldn’t be as successful without its music. Ashman fought to keep “Part of Your World” in the final movie, where studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg wanted it removed because it slowed the movie down. The success of Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast paved the way for the rest of the sweeping Broadway-style animated musicals that defined the next decade of animation. Hahn discusses Ashman’s work on those projects, focusing on his clear directions for the musicians and his talent for using songs to their full potential to develop characters and advance plots. But beyond some vague compliments at the end, the lasting impact Ashman had on the studio is left nebulous, an inference the audience is meant to piece together.

But then again, this isn’t a documentary about the Disney Renaissance; it’s a documentary about one man. Howard succeeds in illustrating Ashman’s life before Disney, and separating him from his career. It fleshes out who Ashman was outside of his work: a spirited, ambitious, gentle, and imaginative man who left this world too soon.

Howard is now streaming on Disney Plus.

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