One of the hidden strengths of Disney Plus — a streaming service whose subtler assets are indeed easily overshadowed by the library of blockbuster movies available — is its collection of entertainments that pay tribute to the history of its parent company. For die-hard fans, “The Imagineering Story” and “Prop Culture” pull back the aperture a bit and allow fans to feel a bit closer to the action, a mission that only really makes sense for a streamer with quite so precisely calibrated a brand identity.
“Howard,” a new documentary directed by longtime Disney producer Don Hahn and launching on the service August 7, is likeliest to appeal to diehards who’ve already familiarized themselves with what else is on offer there. But there’s stuff there to appeal to anyone who’s ever hummed along to “Under the Sea” or “Be Our Guest,” too. Telling the story of Howard Ashman — the lyricist whose words played a crucial role in some of the key films of the late 1980s-early 1990s “Disney Renaissance” — Disney makes both a stirring, if not unexpected, case for his, and its own, legacy. It also introduces viewers, more fully than skeptics of the studiously family-friendly corporation might expect, to Ashman.
Narrations from Ashman’s mother and sister introduce us to Howard as a lad, with detail — young Howard did not care for sports and preferred living in a world of glamorous make-believe — that might feel prosaic elsewhere. On Disney Plus (which, in a different context, was criticized for shifting the series “Love, Victor,” about a gay teen, off its air to Hulu), they remain a bit surprising; so, too, is the introduction first of Stuart White, a creative partner and early love of Howard’s, and then of Bill Lauch, his partner until his death. Both White and Howard Ashman died of AIDS.
At 94 minutes, “Howard” is not and does not try to be a plumbing search through the generation of talent lost to HIV and AIDS; what it is trying to do, appealingly narrowly, is illuminate one life and the work done therein. We see Howard’s gifts as a lyricist as he instructs performers precisely how to phrase his carefully-chosen words. We see his impact on the culture, as Lauch picks up an Oscar Ashman won after his death. (Just this past month, Ashman’s writing partner Alan Menken won the Emmy that completed his “EGOT,” raising the question of just how high remained for Ashman to fly, had he not been prematurely taken.) Most moving of all to viewers of a certain cast of mind, we see his encyclopedic knowledge of his own tradition, as in an archival interview where he describes “Little Shop of Horrors,” the musical for which he wrote the book and lyrics, as “the ‘Dames at Sea’ of horror movies.” Many children live in fantasy worlds of their making; few grow up to bring them to bear on quite so grand a stage.
That wit as well as that rock-solid adherence to the traditions of American popular culture (all the better to subvert them) ported in a fragrant camp sensibility to animated films remembered, and frequently re-adapted, still today. Ashman’s legacy is secure; this film exists to share it, as well as biographical detail that, for its audience and context, feels happily refreshing, a tie to the recent past that keeps it from slipping away too quickly.