What to Watch After Howard

Howard Ashman is, hyperbole be damned, one of the most important figures in the history of animation. It’s an impressive feat considering that he never once drew a character or directed an animated feature. You may not know his name, but Howard Ashman’s words have given life to some of the most beloved characters of modern Disney animation. What’s more, his lyrical compositions and collaboration with composer Alan Menken inspired the last 30 years of mainstream American animation in one way or another.

Ashman, who would’ve turned 70 in May, is having the cinematic celebration he’s always deserved with the new documentary Howard, premiering on Disney+ this week. Directed by Don Hahn, the Academy Award-nominated producer of Beauty and the Beast, Howard goes through this brilliant man’s life, cruelly cut short by the AIDS epidemic when he passed away in the spring of 1991. Hahn has, with Howard, done a fine job of creating a love letter to Ashman with the help of family members and loved ones, as well as creative partners, without making a documentary that’s truly remarkable. (If you know Hahn’s other Disney documentary, Waking Sleeping Beauty, you’ll recognize this film’s choice to include new interviews without any talking-head visuals. Still, that 2010 documentary is much better.)

The good news, of course, is that if you watch Howard and want to learn more about the man or simply luxuriate in the wonderful lyrics that he wrote, you’ll have plenty of options to enjoy on Disney+ and beyond. Though Howard doesn’t dig deep enough into the legacy that Ashman left behind, you can essentially remind yourself of that legacy entirely through streaming options. Let’s dig into all the choices you have at your fingertips, and which song best exemplifies Ashman’s work in each title.

Little Shop of Horrors (1986)

Before Howard Ashman and Alan Menken worked for the Walt Disney Company, they were a songwriting team with a couple of off-Broadway shows. Their major hit was Little Shop of Horrors, the 1982 musical based on the Roger Corman horror movie of the same name, about a mysterious talking plant with a thirst for blood and the nebbishy floral clerk who helps the plant get his feed on. The stage show was turned into a musical comedy adaptation a few years later, and you can fortunately stream the film right now on HBO Max. From director Frank Oz, Little Shop of Horrors brought together a pretty impressive cast of comic ringers, including Rick Moranis, Steve Martin, John Candy, and Bill Murray. (Fun fact: this is the only film in which Martin and Murray share the screen together, with Murray playing a masochistic dental patient and Martin his evil DDS.)

The film famously has a different ending than the stage musical – the vicious Audrey II plant eats and kills our heroes Seymour and Audrey there, as well as in the Corman film. But even though Oz staged a massive finale, the ending was too much of a downer for audiences that didn’t have the advantage of watching them take a bow. So the ending was completely reshot, giving us the much happier conclusion. But even with the revised ending, Ashman’s bouncy wordplay stands out and felt like a breath of fresh air at a time in American cinema when musicals were on the outs.

Best Song: There’s a lot of great numbers here, and more than a couple that feel like the origin story for some of the best Disney Renaissance songs. (Ellen Greene’s performance of “Somewhere That’s Green” is going to ring familiar to anyone who might know “Part of Your World” inside and out.) But I’m going with “Dentist”, both because it’s an extremely funny number in which Steve Martin’s nasty Orin Scrivello sings about how his sadomasochism at a young age set him on the path to be a DDS near Skid Row…and because it’s awfully easy to hear how the wonderful “Gaston” sequence in Beauty and the Beast got its start. Gaston is less comically abusive than Orin, but they both sing gleefully of their awful, selfish traits in such a way that it’s hard not to draw a straight line from one to the other.

The Little Mermaid (1989)

If you want to get technical, this film didn’t mark the first time that Howard Ashman worked with the Walt Disney Company on an animated feature. That would be Oliver & Company, the 1988 adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, set in New York City in the 1980s and populated with talking animals. But the song he wrote for the film, “Once Upon a Time in New York City”, is a fairly forgettable number performed by Huey Lewis. (How forgettable is it? Don’t expect Howard to spend a lot of time talking about this piece of work.) A year later, though, Ashman and composer Alan Menken worked side by side on The Little Mermaid, changing the face of mainstream feature animation forever.

Ashman’s legacy is cemented early on in the film, which hints at its musical trappings as soon as the film starts. Though this adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale is mostly faithful, it introduces enough modern flair and anachronisms to balance out any perceived stodginess that belonged in a prior era of Disney animation. And just as would the be case for so many future Disney animated titles, the music is the key. Ariel wants badly to be on dry land with humans like her beloved Prince Eric, a desire she expresses through song. That kind of verbal expression wasn’t new to the world of Broadway musicals, with its veritable treasure trove of “I Want” songs. Ashman famously described these songs in a lecture he gave to Disney’s animators during the film’s production, and the way that the studio has since used those songs over the last few decades has led to some of the most influential pieces of animation ever made. For a guy who never animated a single Disney character, Howard Ashman managed to change the face of animation immeasurably through a little mermaid.

Best Song: “Part of Your World” gets the pick here because of its sheer importance. So many mainstream animated films of the last 30 years are either directly inspired by this song and this film, or they’re a direct rebuke to its Broadway-tinged influence. (As much as this writer loves Pixar, its earliest films and their refusal to include characters breaking out into song were arguably intended to deliberately do the opposite of the Disney Renaissance.) As performed by Jodi Benson, Ariel is a winsome and dreamy teenager who can’t help it that the one thing she wants is the one thing her father doesn’t want: to spend time with humans, who might otherwise be scared of the anthropomorphized creatures of the deep sea. “Part of Your World” isn’t the most enjoyably fun song of The Little Mermaid, but Ariel’s desires are so simply, effectively expressed through Ashman’s lyrics and Alan Menken’s twinkling score. You can’t go wrong with this one.

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

One of the many heartbreaking elements of Beauty and the Beast, the greatest modern Disney animated film, is that Howard Ashman never got to see it. He died in the spring of 1991, having contracted AIDS a few years earlier; the film’s producer, Don Hahn, recounts in Howard that he and a number of the film’s other creatives visited Ashman soon before he died to inform him that test audiences adored the film. But Ashman never saw for himself a story so strongly shaped by his creative contributions and his personal life. The AIDS allegory present in the film, discussed within Howard, is embodied by the Beast. The young, callow man is being ravaged apart by a mysterious curse that may kill him by his 21st birthday, and those in the little town where the charming and intelligent Belle lives wish to kill the Beast simply for being different.

Allegory or not, Beauty and the Beast is a truly incredible fusion of old-school Disney storytelling and modern flair. More to the point, this is one of the rare Disney romances where both halves of the romantic pair are fleshed out as three-dimensional characters with hopes and dreams. After a haunting prologue in which we learn – via stained-glass paintings – how the Beast is cursed, the story picks up with Belle, who struggles against the confines of her village’s expectations for a beautiful young maiden. Once Belle and the Beast meet, their relationship is expanded upon thanks to plenty of supporting characters (with a killer voice cast including Angela Lansbury and Jerry Orbach), and some of the very best songs Ashman and Menken ever wrote. You know this movie already, but you should still revisit it. It’s a classic.

Best Song: Let’s be fair, you can’t go wrong with any of the songs in Beauty and the Beast, from the title track to the expansive opening number “Belle”. But for the purposes of this essay, I’ll be picking the song that’s full of joy, sharp wit, and incisive commentary on the destructive powers of toxic masculinity: “Gaston”. Few villains are more odious or more familiar than the big, wildly self-confident, idiotic man who most members of the little town where Belle lives idolize. As performed by Richard White, Gaston is booming, braggy, and bilious, talking about how many trophies he has, how big his muscles are, and how he’ll do anything to get his hands on Belle. It helps that Ashman’s dexterous lyricism has never been better than with lines like “As a specimen/Yes, I’m intimidating”. It’s a brilliant, bar-room sing-along from one of Disney’s finest films.

Aladdin (1992)

It may be hard to believe, but Beauty and the Beast isn’t the story that Howard Ashman wanted to make with Disney in the post-Little Mermaid haze. No, Disney convinced Ashman to help out with the 1991 story and promised him that his preferred title would be next for the animation studio. That story, of course, was Aladdin. The tale of the diamond in the rough who discovers a magic lamp and gets three wishes courtesy of a boisterous genie only arrived in theaters nearly two years after Ashman’s passing. But even though Ashman’s involvement was vastly diminished, his presence is keenly felt.

As was the case with the other Ashman/Menken films, Aladdin straddles the line between the old and the new. The story of Aladdin takes place in some indeterminate period in the Middle East, and yet almost all of the characters are anachronistic. It’s not just the Genie, voiced incredibly by Robin Williams. It’s in the way that Aladdin and Jasmine (Scott Weinger and Linda Larkin, respectively) talk to each other, how Iago and Jafar converse, and so on. Pop-culture references and flip humor aside, though, Aladdin is still meant to be a tender hero’s journey in which the title character grapples with rising to fame and power without really earning it. Aladdin suffering impostor syndrome would’ve been a bit more heartfelt with Ashman’s original intent, that he’s trying to make his mother proud of him. But even here, there’s a good bit of heart.

Best Song: Howard Ashman received writing credit on three of the songs in the 1992 film (Tim Rice would take over as songwriter after Ashman’s passing, with three full songs of his own in the film). “Arabian Nights” is now known as a source of controversy, with lyrics trafficking in nasty Middle Eastern stereotypes. Even leaving that aside – which you shouldn’t, not really – “Arabian Nights” is a slight number, leaving just the two big Genie songs, “Prince Ali” and the one that takes the cake. That would be “Friend Like Me”, which is just a hair or two better than “Prince Ali”. Both of the songs are hilarious, show-stopping numbers that lean into being, well, hilarious, show-stopping numbers visually and aurally. (“Friend Like Me” famously ends with the Genie smiling at Aladdin, with a neon “Applause” sign flashing next to him.)

“Friend Like Me”, like “Prince Ali”, benefits from the fact that Robin Williams was such a remarkable and irrepressible performer – even though you can’t see his face, his personality is fully imbued within each lyric he sings. But “Friend Like Me” also is just a bit wittier, and a bit more tuneful. The film is well-known for Rice’s love ballad “A Whole New World”, which is sweet and all. But “Friend Like Me” just about brings the house down, with its exuberant animation, vivid and heady colors, Williams’ delighted and manic performance, and Ashman’s shrewd lyricism. In truth, though, just about every song Howard Ashman wrote was full of smart lyrics, of memorable tunes, and unforgettable characterizations. These few films are available to stream now, as much for your entertainment as they are reminders of what we lost when Ashman passed away nearly 30 years ago.

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