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One Good Thing: If you love Disney movies, this Disney+ documentary is essential viewing

The new film Howard tells the story of how Little Mermaid lyricist Howard Ashman brought new life to Disney animation.

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A photo of Howard Ashman.
Howard Ashman (center) is the genius behind some of Disney’s best songs.
Courtesy of Disney+
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

One Good Thing is Vox’s recommendations feature. In each edition, find one more thing from the world of culture that we highly recommend.

When Mulan begins streaming on Disney+ this Friday, it will be the studio’s 13th live-action remake in 10 years, a roster that includes Maleficent, the Alice in Wonderland movies, and 2019’s pseudo-live-action remake of The Lion King. The pandemic delayed Mulan’s theatrical release but brought it to the streaming platform instead, where it will cost an extra $29.99 for subscribers — making the film an interesting experiment for big studios like Disney during a time when in-person theatergoing isn’t the best option.

Despite being far less buzzy than Mulan, there’s another new movie on Disney+ that’s also worth a watch right now: a documentary about a creative genius whose magical songs and vision helped make the animated Disney movies these live-action films are (mostly) based on so successful.

It’s called Howard, as in lyricist Howard Ashman. If you have a favorite Disney song from the last 31 years, chances are Ashman helped write it. If you have a favorite Disney movie, chances are Ashman helped create it. And if Ashman somehow didn’t create your Disney favorites, chances are his work inspired them. And Howard explains why.

Howard tells Howard Ashman’s story and struggles

The conversation around Ashman has usually painted him as the godfather of the Disney resurgence, the golden age of animated movies from 1989 to 1992 that included The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. Paired with composer Alan Menken, the two had the golden touch in creating songs like “Part of Your World,” “Belle” [from Beauty and the Beast], and “A Friend Like Me,” songs that are imprinted in the minds of nearly everyone who’s heard them or seen the movies.

But some of the most fascinating parts of the documentary are when it shows you Howard’s pre-Disney life, giving you a glimpse of his struggles to bring his songs to big, mainstream audiences.

Prior to joining up with the House of Mouse, Ashman was using his musical talents for the stage. As the film explains, he had the superpower of making cult hits out of intimate shows, including God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, a 1979 musical adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1965 novel. That same lyrical storytelling ability did wonders for the off-off-Broadway and off-Broadway musical-turned-motion picture Little Shop of Horrors.

Ashman’s struggle, though, was turning these smaller shows into bigger, made-for-Broadway spectacles geared toward a more mainstream audience.

When Ashman’s Rosewater upgraded from a lauded showcase to headline a bigger theater in October 1979, it closed a little over a month later after 49 performances. Ashman’s biggest disappointment, though, was the beauty-pageant musical Smile with composer Marvin Hamlisch, which opened in November 1986 but closed after 48 performances. It received a dismal review from the New York Times’s Frank Rich, and it seemed as though Ashman would never get over the hurdle of Broadway superstar.

And in a sense, he never really did.

Jeffrey Katzenberg, then the chairman of Walt Disney Studios, reached out to Ashman after Smile’s dissolution and convinced him to work with the entertainment giant. Its animation studio, like Ashman’s career after Smile, was struggling. Ashman and Menken, who worked together previously, were approached to make a new Disney movie called The Little Mermaid — and it was a match made in heaven.

Ashman and Menken’s partnership resulted in several Oscar-winning Disney blockbusters and songs that, to this day, are passed down from generation to generation. But there’s also a strange irony to Ashman’s story, in that while he struggled to translate his work and his talents to a broader audience onstage, he managed to create Disney songs whose listenership eclipsed the biggest Broadway audiences.

Howard explains Ashman’s genius in a way that’s easy to understand

For practical purposes, anyone who’s heard a good Disney song can tell you that it’s a good Disney song. But my favorite thing about Howard is that it explains the what of these songs’ successes to non-theater kids. Through interviews with Ashman’s creative partners, producers, songwriters, singers, and others from Walt Disney Studios, Howard picks apart the songs accessibly, unlocking the way we (theater newbies, that is) think about the entire piece.

One example is “Poor Unfortunate Souls” from The Little Mermaid. The song itself is 4 minutes, 52 seconds. In that finite amount of time, the song has to introduce the villainous Ursula character — her backstory, her worldview, her sinister side — as well as Ariel’s dream of living on land, the danger she’s put herself in because of her desperation, the terms of Ursula’s voice-stealing deal, and Ursula’s wicked plan to scam Ariel.

It’s a lot. But Ashman’s lyrics accomplish all that and more.

As Ursula clarifies that the deal will cost Ariel her voice, we also get a scathing social critique. Ursula sings:

The men up there don’t like a lot of blabber
They think a girl who gossips is a bore
Yet on land it’s much preferred for ladies not to say a word
And after all dear, what is idle prattle for?
Come on, they’re not all that impressed with conversation
True gentlemen avoid it when they can
But they dote and swoon and fawn
On a lady who’s withdrawn
It’s she who holds her tongue who gets a man

Ultimately, we know Ursula believes that she’s deceived Ariel into taking a bad deal. But in the meantime, she also lands a blistering critique of land-dwelling men. She believes that the men above the sea just care about what a woman looks like, not what she has to say. Even though Ariel is falling for a scam, the seemingly impossible task of getting a man to kiss Ariel without her ever uttering a word just might work because land-dwelling men are sexist idiots.

Reflexively, Ursula’s song interlocks with Ariel’s “Part of Your World,” which comes two songs before it. “Part of Your World” is so hopeful and optimistic; it’s the movie’s “I Want” song — a song that vocalizes what Ariel wants, what Ariel’s frustrations are, and what her destiny should be. Ursula’s “Poor Unfortunate Souls” offers the cognizance that the world Ariel wants isn’t what she thinks it is. Ursula seems to know about that world, measured it, and judged it accordingly. And whose worldview does the audience trust?

Ursula is evil, sure. But she’s just a fictional sea witch. Some of the things she and Ashman are roasting humans for cut a little too close to reality. Ursula’s is just one song in a trove of Ashman’s treasures.

Ashman’s Disney songs all tell a clear story about someone’s life, who they are, their belief in (or cynicism toward) humanity, and what they’re looking for in a way that’s easily understandable, charming, memorable, and deep. You could play any of these instantly memorable songs, and you’d know the characters and what’s at stake without ever seeing a second of the animation.

Why the documentary feels like it shortchanges Ashman’s legacy

While I loved Howard as a documentary about his talent and Disney career, it stumbles toward the end of the film.

Throughout it, we’re told how Ashman was gay and living with AIDS. He was in the hospital dying from the virus while writing Aladdin. At the same time, President Ronald Reagan and his administration’s handling of the virus was a failure. AIDS was (and still in many ways is) seen as a gay disease, and gay men, on top of experiencing already-existing prejudice, were portrayed as dangers to society.

Ashman died of AIDS at age 40 in 1991.

The documentary, primarily told through the voice of Ashman’s sister, comes to the bizarre and very firm conclusion that even though Ashman had firsthand experience of being stigmatized, suffering from the disease, and witnessing the deaths of friends and former lovers, his songs were apolitical.

And it’s puzzling in its rigidity and in its insistence. This is the same doc that goes to great lengths to explain how subversive he was in creating progressive theater, so to argue that Ashman neglected his politics in creating his most famous works doesn’t quite ring true.

Prior to Little Mermaid, the biggest hit of Ashman’s career was Little Shop, a wicked musical featuring a man-eating plant, the faults of acting on greed and desire, and the frustration of being stuck in a redundant life. Little Mermaid and its signature song “Part of Your World” are about feeling trapped in a life that you were born in and the search for something better. And Beauty and the Beast is an entire story about feeling like a dying, monstrous outcast from society.

Beauty and the Beast’s “Mob Song” is cited in the doc as an example of Ashman’s genius. It’s a song about how prejudice is the absence of understanding and the beginning of fear. People who don’t understand and are scared of others are the most harmful:

We don’t like what we don’t understand in fact it scares us
And this monster is mysterious at least
Bring your guns bring your knives
Save your children and your wives
We’ll save our village and our lives
We’ll kill the Beast

Given Ashman’s story, which the documentary tells extensively, it’s hard for me to accept that the same doc can then posit an unchallenged theory that his work was free from political messaging. His life experiences, and the words he put into song, go against that reading.

Ashman seemed to be too smart and too self-aware to not challenge his audiences to think about the parallels between his real life and the fantasies he dreamt up. Given what Howard, the documentary, tells us, the inclusion of his politics wouldn’t be a simple yes or no, was or wasn’t. And I’d invite you to watch it yourself to understand why.

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