One of my all-time favorite things to watch are Disney documentaries. Whatever the era or subject covered, I love learning about all aspects of the Walt Disney Company, particularly from the people who were actually there. So imagine my excitement when, in 2018, I was able to acquire a ticket for a special screening of a new documentary about lyricist Howard Ashman. This screening was in affiliation with the Pacific Northwest Mouse Meet, an annual event that celebrates Disney and always features special guests which range from Disney artists and filmmakers to Imagineers. That year, one of the special guests was filmmaker Don Hahn. Even if you are unfamiliar with the name, you are no doubt unfamiliar with his work. Hahn worked as a producer for Disney during the 1990s and 2000s and helped create such blockbusters as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. Apart from the films Hahn has produced, he is also an accomplished documentary filmmaker. Many of his documentaries detail Disney history, the most notable being Waking Sleeping Beauty, which covers the Disney renaissance during the late 80s and throughout the 1990s and features narration from Hahn, with photos from the past and anecdotes from fellow Disney creators. That film was personal to Hahn, and so is this new movie about the life of Howard Ashman, whom he had worked with on Beauty and the Beast. At the time of the screening, his documentary had no release date and we were one of the first audiences to see it. Finally, everyone now has the chance to see this film on Disney+. This is something that I am thrilled about because Howard is a film that needs to reach a wide audience, both to inform and to inspire.
There are two parts of me that love this film: the Disney history enthusiast and the musical theatre fan. As someone who has studied musical theatre, both in college and on my own, there is no doubt that Howard Ashman was one of the most prolific voices in the industry. His knowledge of song and musical structure made him a pioneer in using these techniques in animation. When paired with songwriter Alan Menken, they were an unstoppable team. However, that partnership was cut short when Ashman lost his battle with AIDS in 1990. Though his work has lived on in such forms as The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, his story has not been told in the way it deserved until now. Through photos and archive footage, Hahn paints a beautiful story that highlights Ashman’s life, in all of its ups and downs. Disney fans will love seeing the recording sessions for such songs as “Beauty and the Beast” and “Part of Your World” with Paige O’Hara and Jodi Benson, respectively. Alan Menken has written a beautiful score for the film, and it is lovely to hear from him about their partnership as well. However, the highlight of the film are the recordings we hear of Ashman himself, who was incredibly well-spoken and a joy to listen to. His knowledge and passion for his craft come through brilliantly.
For Disney and musical fans, this is not to be missed. It is lovingly made and beautiful to look at. But also for creative people, both young and old, it is extremely valuable to be reminded of the difference that one person can make. Howard Ashman made such a difference and he inspires me, and so does this film.
Be sure to watch Howard, now streaming on Disney+