Howard review: an essential film for Disney animation fans

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Howard Ashman was pivotal to Disney’s The Little Mermaid and Beauty & The Beast – and a new film on Disney+ tells his story.

By reputation, Howard Ashman came across as a volatile man. The Oscar-winning lyricist behind the likes of The Little Mermaid, Beauty & The Beast and Little Shop Of Horrors – all of which he worked on in collaboration and conjunction with Alan Menken – never gave the impression of suffering fools gladly, and this documentary of his life – Howard – openly acknowledges that.

But then it also explores something that its director, Don Hahn, had devoted a segment of his terrific documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty to. That Ashman, at the point he collected his Oscar for The Little Mermaid and was knee-deep in Beauty & The Beast, was dying. An absolutely pivotal man in the renaissance of Walt Disney feature animation in the late 80s and early 90s wouldn’t ever get to see Beauty & The Beast fully complete.

Howard is an affectionate, moving telling of his story. Of his early musical adventures off-Broadway, through to the career-changing collaboration with Menken, and the monster success of Little Shop. Hahn, who produced Beauty & The Beast, has the contacts book and access to tell the story properly, too. Ashman’s sister and many of his key collaborators are on-camera telling their tales, and Hahn gently, diligently, jigsaws the pieces together.

He narrates it himself, and it’s like a warm relative telling a fireside story. But it’s a story with lots of haunting moments. Ashman’s partner, for instance, talking about the home that he and Howard built together is heartbreaking, and the period of time where Ashman kept his illness quiet – in spite of his fast-failing health – is a very stark reminder of humanity’s more judgemental side.

It’s a hugely touching, affecting film, all the more commendable for the obvious lengths it goes to offer a three-dimensional take on a man whose loss is still being felt so many years on. It’s an ideal companion piece to Waking Sleeping Beauty too, and the starker of the two pictures. But the pair feel like documents of record, the telling of a transformational time in feature animation.

They’re also both very good movies.

Howard is now available on Disney+, and it’s very much worth seeking out.


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