Movie Review: Howard
By Matthew Huntley
August 23, 2020
Disney movies, and in this case, by “Disney movies,” I’m referring to the studio’s popular line of traditional animated features that ruled the market for about a decade starting around 1990, have become so embedded in our collective consciousness that we might assume these staples of popular culture simply rolled off an assembly line, or were somehow easy to produce. I often think the same thing about modern Disney computer-animated fare or the now Disney-owned Marvel superhero films. Because of their popularity, prolificacy and digestibility, we tend to think any Disney movie doesn’t take a whole lot of creative effort to pull off.
But that’s obviously not true, and one of the lasting arguments of “Howard,” a thoroughly fetching and joyful documentary now available on Disney+, is there’s reason Disney movies, particularly its once-dominant animated musicals, remain so universally appealing and timeless, and that’s precisely because of their creativity, and it was lyricist Howard Ashman who played an integral role in it. For starters, Ashman helped pioneer the idea that songs, of all things, could actually be used to drive a story and plot, which seems obvious now, but as “Howard” points out, such a conceit wasn’t obvious 30 years ago. In a way, Ashman spurred a new way of thinking about storytelling altogether, which is quite an achievement.
Ashman became a major player at Disney at time when the traditional Hollywood musical had all but faded from the moviegoing public’s interest. He knew the idea of a character suddenly interrupting the narrative to sing a song was no longer appropriate or believable. After all, it was the late 1980s, decades after the Great Depression, an era in which it was more fitting for a woeful character to look off into the distance and sing about his or her “want” (think Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz”). Now such a notion seemed silly and out of style.
At least it did for live action, and one of Howard’s gifts was recognizing that animation was different. He believed it was an area of film that opened up “a whole new world” of possibilities, one in which Broadway qualities could still be applied. He instinctively knew that in an animated space, song and dance could seamlessly blend into the narrative and feel natural, perhaps even stand out as the most memorable part of the production. Music and lyrics could still generate laughs, excitement, slapstick, romance and pathos, but they could also push the story forward instead of halting it.
We see this strategy work wonderfully and magically across Howard’s short but indelible Disney repertoire, including “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin,” so it doesn’t take a whole to convince us of his genius or that he left a major mark on Hollywood. Luckily, then, “Howard” director Don Hahn, himself a longtime Disney movie producer, chooses not to make Howard’s Disney movies the center of the documentary. “Howard” is ultimately more about a complex and talented man instead of an Oscar-winning lyricist who wrote popular songs such as “Part of Your World,” “Under the Sea” and “Prince Ali” for a major studio. One of the ways Hahn underlines this by having the renditions of Howard’s catchy, well-known tunes we hear in this film be Howard’s own test recordings instead of the polished finals versions.
Visually, “Howard” presents a wide array of still photographs, home movies, archival news interviews, and making-of footage from various Howard Ashman-produced pieces. Hahn has substituted the typical modern talking heads with recent auditory recollections from Howard’s family, longtime partner, friends, bosses and co-workers. We also hear from Howard himself, who, despite passing away in early 1991 from complications related to AIDS, just prior to his 41st birthday, has a palpable screen presence, which speaks to his everlasting charm, eloquence and enthusiasm.
Given that “Howard” is, at the end of the day, a Disney production, which, it’s no secret, prioritizes content of a safe and family-friendly nature, it’s impressive and relieving the film allows itself to not always paint Howard’s life as rosy and comforting as, well, a Disney movie. We get a fairly deep sense of his rich and complicated personal and professional travails, including the battles he faced as a gay man who came of age during a time when homosexuality wasn’t as tolerated or accepted; as the better half to a partner who chose to live more riskily, particularly when it came to substance abuse and promiscuity; as an up-and-coming artist who often struggled to make ends meet and encountered many failures when he tried to graduate beyond small-time productions; and as an in-demand Hollywood talent who tragically became physically weak and sick because of AIDS within a very short timeframe.
Hahn nicely balances the darker, more serious memories related by the interviewees with equally upbeat ones, and collectively, Howard’s wide-ranging experiences resemble a traditional Hollywood biopic, which, just like the songs he wrote, are probably why “Howard” is so watchable. We get a full yet concise spectrum of Howard’s multiple ambitions and endeavors, from his humble beginnings in Baltimore, where he pursued entertainment right from the get-go, crafting his own stories, characters and sets in his room to put on a show on for his younger sister; to opening a real independent theater in New York City and adapting such works as Kurt Vonnegut’s, “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater,” which would mark his first collaboration with his longtime music composer partner, Alan Menken; to writing and producing the rock musical “Little Shop of Horrors” and later penning the screenplay for the feature film adaptation; to being recruited by Disney to write the lyrics for “The Little Mermaid,” which started a new Renaissance in Hollywood in which animation served as the new vessel for the dormant musical.
Although it may play like an easy-to-read biography and isn’t particularly complicated with its methods, “Howard” gives us plenty to learn, absorb, reflect upon, and smile about. It’s touching and engaging for the simple fact it presents an exceptionally talented individual who worked hard to realize his dreams. Howard Ashman was often stubborn, yes, but he knew what he wanted, and by never settling for less, his audience reaped the benefits because his creations are (still) so entertaining. Plus, it’s important to remember that “easy-to-read” and “uncomplicated” don’t necessarily mean simple to pull off. One of the takeaways from the documentary is that it takes rhythm, calculation, trial-and-error, and input from many people for any story to come together fluidly and maintain momentum. Howard knew this and clearly bestowed it upon Hahn. Hahn, in turn, has nicely summed up not only Howard’s legacy, but also the love and appreciation the world has for him.