Tribeca Review: HOWARD Honors Disney’s Musical Genius

Remembering the man who taught a plant, a mermaid, a beast and a genie to sing.

The first minutes of Howard, a world premiere at the current Tribeca Film Festival, take us back to a recording session for the Disney animated classic Beauty and the Beast, as Paige O’Hara sings “Belle” while Angela Lansbury, Jerry Orbach et al. wait in the wings. If that’s not enough to get viewers who grew up during the studio’s animation renaissance of the ’90s misty, I don’t know what is. It’s the perfect opening for a tribute to the life and achievements of the lyricist whose musical achievements still echo powerfully to this day.

Howard Ashman died in 1991 of complications from AIDS at just age 40, but his short career had a major impact on movies and music. Howard, written and directed by Don Hahn (Beast’s producer), will have a particular nostalgic tug for those who, like this writer, came of age while he was active. I went to see Little Shop of Horrors during its original Off-Broadway run, lured by the simple promise of a monster musical and then mightily amused by the cleverness of Ashman and composer Alan Menken’s songs. When he and Menken joined the Disney fold, their triptych (The Little Mermaid, Beast, and Aladdin) reintroduced me and the rest of the world to the joys of animated musicals.

Hahn traces Ashman’s life from his childhood, when he would turn his room into a fantasy world of hand-adorned toys, through the development of his craft in college and then as part of a black-box theater group in ’70s-era New York City, leading to his breakout with Little Shop. Along the way, details crop up that signpost Ashman’s transition from the stage to the Magic Kingdom: One of his early jobs was editing a Mickey Mouse Club scrapbook; his master’s thesis was an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” later the basis for Frozen; and Jodi Benson (who would go on to voice the Little Mermaid) sings about going to Disneyland in a song from Smile, an ill-fated post-Little Shop collaboration with Marvin Hamlisch. The disappointing reception to that project helped spur Ashman to join the Disney fold, where he reteamed with Menken to help reinvigorate the foundering animation division.

Numerous collaborators, family and friends of Ashman’s share their memories, but the present speakers never appear on screen in Howard. This creates something of a distancing effect in the documentary’s first half, even as the images that illustrate their recollections—vintage photographs, film clips and paraphernalia from his various productions—offer plenty of visual delights. There’s one point where the accompanying pictures at first seem inappropriate; we hear Ashman giving a talk at New York City’s 92nd Street Y, but we see shots of the audience facing an empty stage. Then Ashman’s life partner Bill Lauch begins speaking, recalling that on that day, Ashman had just received the first diagnosis indicating he had contracted HIV—and the meaning of that juxtaposition becomes clear.

Ashman brought Disney animation back to life while he himself was facing a death sentence, and that contrast makes the second half of Howard intensely dramatic and moving. This portion features a wealth of on-camera interviews and behind-the-scenes footage from those years, rounding out a true sense of Ashman as a man with great perseverance and gifts; even as his body was suffering the ravages of AIDS, his creative mind never faltered. Though sympathetic and celebratory, Howard stops short of idealizing Ashman, who is remembered by some as a perfectionist who didn’t suffer meddling gladly. And he was usually right: Among the doc’s revelations is Ashman’s clashes with then-Disney chief Jeffrey Katzenberg, who initially wanted to cut “Part of Your World” out of Little Mermaid.

As part of Ashman’s Disney circle, Hahn had access to the studio vaults that many another documentarian might not, and in Howard he shares early recordings in which Ashman himself sings his own lyrics, more Beast sessions (seeing Orbach belt out “Be Our Guest” is magical), rough animation sequences, unused material et al. All this will thrill devotees of the form, who will also learn a lot about a man who brought heart and soul to feature-length cartoons, introduced millions of young viewers to the musical-theater form—and also, a few interviewees suggest, used Beast’s “Mob Song” and an unused Aladdin tune called “Humiliate the Boy” to express himself as an HIV-positive homosexual at a time when AIDS was a controversial cause célèbre. These observations make sense, though Howard’s final analysis lies in the simple words of Peter Schneider, the president of Walt Disney Feature Animation during Ashman’s years there: “He was not political, he was human.”