Howard review – Disney documentary is one for the fans

This touching tribute to one of Disney's most iconic lyricists has some fascinating insights, but could use more creative spark

One of the leading lights of Disney Animation’s renaissance in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, lyrical genius Howard Ashman receives the biography treatment in this Disney + documentary that focuses in on his creative process and tragic death from AIDS at the age of just 39.

Don Hahn’s film follows Ashman’s life chronologically, starting with his childhood rejection of baseball in favour of theatre and poetry before following him through his college years and into his superstardom at Disney. For hardcore Disney fans, the latter third of Howard is truly unmissable, with illuminating behind the scenes footage of iconic songs from Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, and Beauty and the Beast being conceived and recorded.

For less passionate audiences, though, reaching the best moments of Howard might feel like a bit of a slog. A lot of the pre-Disney story is told entirely through voiceover set to a slideshow of still images, even when taking in Ashman’s time as one of New York theatre’s most exciting figures. It’s an unimaginative approach that doesn’t fit with the exuberant creativity that so defined Ashman’s work.

Importantly, the impact of AIDS on Ashman’s life is neither sanitised nor ghoulishly obsessed over, and the insights into how his declining physical health informed his writing are both moving and fascinating. Songs from Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin take on a new resonance, and the tearful tributes paid to Ashman as the film approaches its conclusion are very touching.

Howard strikes a careful balance between a celebration of a true innovator and a mournful look at unfulfilled potential in both work and life. It could do with some more spark, but it’s a documentary that Disney die-hards will want to return to again and again.

Howard is streaming on Disney + from August 7

Where to watch

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