Few individuals had as much of an impact on the resurgence of Disney Animation than lyricist and screenwriter Howard Ashman. Ashman, whose brilliance was well-known thanks to the Off-Broadway musical Little Shop of Horrors, which he worked on with composer Alan Menken and later adapted for an equally brilliant film by Frank Oz, brought an element of theatricality and storytelling stability to projects like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. The key to Ashman’s success wasn’t just his ability to write a catchy tune, but his innate sense of story and character. He didn’t just come in and write songs, he suggested ideas, refined characters, and impacted the narrative. He was a force of nature. And he was gone too soon.
Thankfully, writer/producer/director Don Hahn has crafted a feature-length tribute to Ashman with the new documentary Howard. While the movie had been in development for a while (there were early screenings as far back as 2017 and the film premiered at Tribeca in 2018) and we knew it was coming to Disney+, but now we have a release date and a trailer. August 7 might be right around the corner, but after watching the trailer, it feels very far away.
Howard promises to cover Ashman’s childhood in Baltimore, his Broadway and film work, and (of course) his defining work on a trio of unforgettable Disney classics. (He also, it should be noted, contributed lyrics to “Once Upon a Time in New York City,” the Huey Lewis song that opens Oliver & Company, but I doubt that will be covered in the doc.) Ashman was diagnosed with AIDS halfway through production on The Little Mermaid and died from complications related to the disease shortly before Beauty and the Beast was released and became a widely celebrated game-changer. The text in the trailer (“He gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul”) was from the dedication at the end of Beauty and the Beast. No you’re crying!
Howard features new interviews with Menken (who also scored the documentary), Paige O’Hara (from Beauty and the Beast), Jodi Benson (from The Little Mermaid), and people who were pivotal in Howard’s life, including his longtime partner Bill Lauch and his sister Sarah Gillespie (we also recognized the voice of Aladdin and Little Mermaid director John Musker in the trailer).
Quite frankly, the importance of Ashman’s legacy cannot be overstated. And it’s so great that Hahn (whose amazing Waking Sleeping Beauty doc covers some of the same territory and is available on Disney+ right now), is giving him the documentary that he deserves. Howard is easily one of our most anticipated movies of the summer (or, heck, the whole year) and we cannot wait for it to drop on Disney+ next month.