2020, NR, 90 min. Directed by Don Hahn.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Aug. 7, 2020
The mermaid Ariel, showing off her collection of human’s gadgets and gizmos: Look at this stuff – isn’t it neat?You wouldn’t begrudge the brilliant lyricist Howard Ashman for showing off his body of work with similar flourish. They were neat, his effervescent rhymes and sophisticated, sometimes biting turns of phrase, there in Belle’s cheerful lament at life in a poor provincial town and Seymour Krelborn begging his not yet homicidal house plant to “grow for me”.
Ashman’s catalogue is relatively small, but it’s potent. (If you’re the same vintage as me, or just any old dedicated Disneyhead – we are legion – his lyrics and inflections are muscle memory, and you know how regularly applicable Zut alors! I have meeeeesed one! is to daily life.)
After a sit-up-and-notice start in New York theatre, including the smash Little Shop of Horrors and followup Smile (not so much), Ashman and his frequent collaborator, composer Alan Mencken, set up shop at Disney just as the studio was emerging from a decades-long creative slump in its animated division. There, the Ashman-Mencken team produced the music and lyrics for a dazzling twofer, The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, before Ashman died in 1991, from HIV/AIDS complications, at the achingly early age of 40.
Director Don Hahn employs the same casually first-person approach in his documentary portrait Howard, debuting Aug. 7 on Disney+, that he brought to his 2009 doc about Disney’s late Eighties/early Nineties creative reboot, Waking Sleeping Beauty. Makes sense – Hahn was at ground zero of the so-called Disney Renaissance. (Most notably, he produced Beauty and the Beast.) But Hahn also recycles a lot of material from that first Disney doc, which means if you’ve already seen Waking Sleeping Beauty, then some of Howard’s standouts – especially the scenes from Disney recording sessions with Angela Lansbury, Jerry Orbach, and Jodi Benson (Ariel) – will play a lot less revelatory.
In addition to archival footage, Hahn uses audio from interviews with Ashman’s collaborators, friends, and family to supply a running commentary to the cradle-to-grave narrative. That constant narration from unseen/unfamiliar speakers, coupled with Ken Burns-signature pan-and-zooms of still photography, makes the film’s first stretch, detailing Ashman's childhood and early days in experimental theatre, not especially inspired. The film grows livelier when there’s more film and video to pull from, especially the rare footage of Ashman touching on his creative process.
But mostly it will just make you hungry to revisit Ashman’s work. That’s perhaps not the intended result of this fond tribute/merely serviceable survey of a too-short career – but it’s not necessarily a bad one.
Howard is streaming on Disney Plus now.