Howard: An emotional tribute to under-celebrated Disney Hero

Going into Howard, here’s what I knew: Howard Ashman was part of celebrated Disney songwriting duo with Alan Menken and that he died with AIDS. That is about it really. I knew he was important. I knew that he was made a Disney Legend but his story was pretty unknown to me. Then along came the announcement of the documentary Howard, and I was immediately excited to learn more. When Don Hahn was linked to the documentary, my interest was confirmed.

A story told by those who loved Howard

The most striking thing about Howard is that this is not a simple documentary where somebody narrates his story. Every single voice you hear during the film is somebody who had a deep and intimate connection with Howard Ashman. From this, you get a feeling for the man, as he was. There is also room for Howard to tell his own story through extensive archival interview footage. The result is a complete anthology of the life of a man who was vital to the success of the Disney renaissance.

Howard Ashman with Paige O’Hara in the Beauty and the Beast recording sessions. Photo: Disney
Howard Ashman with Paige O’Hara in the Beauty and the Beast recording sessions. Photo: Disney

Why Howard Ashman matters…

Howard Ashman was the man who gave a beast his soul and a Mermaid her voice. This much we already knew, but we perhaps did not know just how instrumental to these successes he was. Through footage and stories, we learn how much of a role Howard Ashman played in kickstarting Disney animation’s return to form. The documentary highlights how much influence he had in production. An influence that goes well beyond the simple songwriting that we all knew about.

Howard Ashman and Alan Menken celebrating the successes of The Little Mermaid soundtrack. Photo: Disney
Howard Ashman and Alan Menken celebrating the successes of The Little Mermaid soundtrack. Photo: Disney

A moment in American history

Howard Ashman also lived in a period where homosexuality was taboo than it was now, the HIV/AIDS pandemic was only just getting starting. Hahn navigates these issues with such skill, highlighting the absurdity of the “gay cancer” title but also how worried Ashman was about the effects of his diagnosis on these beautiful Disney films and his role within them. It is a truly masterful section of the documentary that is captivating and enlightening.

A wonderful documentary that is intelligent and emotional

Howard is another quality Disney+ production that the company seems to be interested in developing. Disney documentaries were few and far between, but the rich history of the company is finally coming to life. With people like Don Hahn at the helm, we know that the stories will be well treated and presented in ways that allow viewers to have a deep and personal connection with the subjects. This is one of those films that all Disney fans will have to watch.

Howard documentary poster, Disney+
Howard documentary poster, Disney+

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