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Howard – Movie Review

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Howard – Movie Review

Rating: B+ (Very Good)

Trailer/Thumbnail Courtesy Walt Disney Studios

One of the greatest lyricists to ever bring his talents to the stage and screen was arguably Howard Ashman. He had an incredible way with words and, especially when paired with composer Alan Menken, could create magic. There is a reason his work on Little Shop of Horrors and Beauty and the Beast still resonate to this day. Don Hahn, who previously documented the Disney Animation Renaissance in Waking Sleeping Beauty, gives a solid overview of his life and career and makes sure to get enough comments from those who knew and worked with him. That Howard doesn’t shy away from his personal life and the HIV diagnosis that would sadly take him is appreciated.

Even though this is a Disney-distributed documentary, his time creating unforgettable tunes like “Be Our Guest” and “Part Of Your World” only comprises the very end of the film. Through most of it, we learn about his early years and his eventual rise in the theatre world. While the documentary does start off a little slow when going over Ashman’s childhood, it eventually picks up when he makes his way to New York and opens his own theatre company. Of all of the projects highlighted in Howard, Little Shop of Horrors is given the most attention. We are able to see his determination to get this oddball musical on the stage and how important it was to him. The beloved film adaptation is surprisingly only briefly touched on as the focus is largely on the uniqueness of the original stage production.

The interviews, done entirely in voice-over, give us a decent amount of context and Hahn also utilises plenty of archival recordings of Ashman himself. His alienation at a time when homosexuality wasn’t widely accepted is depicted as well as the relationships he held. When he finds out he has AIDS, the rest of the documentary can’t help but feel like a ticking clock as we see him working hard on his projects before he’s unable to. It adds an emotional undercurrent to the film and it’s good that Howard is open about the effect this terrible disease had on him. It also doesn’t ignore the occasional temperament he had in trying to make the best possible entertainment.

At 94 minutes, Howard does rush through some of his accomplishments. Aladdin was a very personal project for Ashman, but we’re only given a small smidgen of information about this. Despite this, Hahn and editor Stephen Yao do a good job of piecing together the archival materials and letting the interviewees tell the story rather than relying heavily on clips. While narration played an important role in Waking Sleeping Beauty, the device is absent here. That allows Howard to stand out from Hahn’s previous documentary, although it still serves as a welcome companion piece.

Howard is a decent look at Howard Ashman’s life and accomplishments and gives us just enough insight into how his brain worked and what inspired him. It’s an understatement to say he was pivotal to Disney Animation’s rise with his eye for not only clever songwriting, but good story structure, too. This film is a worthwhile watch for anyone with an interest and admiration for musical theatre and animation. There isn’t any attempt to sanitise his life and repackage it as a happy Hollywood story. It’s a tragedy that somebody with Ashman’s talent was gone too soon and one wonders what he would have contributed to film and theatre had he lived on.

Stefan Ellison