Disney is such a ubiquitous force in commerce, media and culture in 2020 that it’s hard to imagine there was ever a time it wasn’t one of the most powerful brands in the world. But back in the 1980s, the studio that Walt built was in dire straits—though Disney World has never not been the happiest place on Earth (well, except maybe right now), a few decades back the company’s film slate was a disaster, its once-storied animation department was unable to produce a hit, and its sinking stock made it a prime takeover target.
The story of how Disney survived to become the mega-conglomerate we know and love (sort of) is a tumultuous one—there’s a fascinating book chronicling every sordid detail, backroom deal and boardroom coup that I highly recommend—but if you ask me, the Mouse of today owes a massive debt to a man named Howard Ashman, the subject of Howard, a new documentary premiering this month on the Disney+ streaming service.
Ashman and his writing partner Alan Menken probably seemed like unlikely saviors of Disney animation in the late ‘80s. When they were brought on to create the music for Disney’s The Little Mermaid, their major claim to fame up to that point was
the darkly satirical, not-quite-for-kids Broadway smash Little Shop of Horrors. But their songs and score for that animated aquatic romance—infused with cheeky, slyly subversive sass (did you know the sea witch Ursula was inspired by the drag queen Divine?)—helped turn it into a smash, kicking off the so-called “Disney Renaissance.” That string of animated films, several of them with music by Ashman and Menken (including Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin) almost single-handedly reversed the studio’s (and the company’s) fortunes, generating new IP, indoctrinating a new generation of fans and (along with the rise of Pixar) positioning Disney as a true entertainment powerhouse.
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Sadly, Ashman’s contributions to Disney’s rebirth were cut short by his death from AIDS in 1991, though Menken would continue their shared legacy, creating the music for half a dozen more animated hits. How would Disney’s fate have differed without the work of this powerhouse duo—and Ashman in particular? We’ll never know—but Howard, directed by Beauty and the Beast producer Don Hahn, promises to be a fitting celebration of his legacy.
Check out the trailer for the documentary below; the film premieres on Disney+ on August 7.
Here’s everything that’s coming to Disney+ in August 2020.
- Disney Family Sundays (Series finale)
- It’s a Dog’s Life With Bill Farmer
- Muppets Now
- One Day at Disney
- Pixar in Real Life
- Weird But True!
- Hidden Kingdoms of China
- Howard (Disney+ Premiere)
- Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
- Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge: Adventure Awaits
- The Peanuts Movie
- UFO Europe: The Untold Stories (S1)
- Alaska Animal Rescue (S1)
- Ant-Man and the Wasp
- India’s Wild Leopards
- Jungle Animal Rescue (S1)
- Magic Camp (Disney+ Premiere)
- Nature Boom Time (S1)
- The One and Only Ivan (Disney+ Premiere)
- Sam’s Zookeeper Challenge (S1)
- Scuba Sam’s World (S1)
- Spaced Out (S1)
- T.O.T.S. (S1)
- The Greatest Showman
- Wild Cats of India (S1)
- Zombies 2
- Back to the Titanic
- Beauty and the Beast
- Mars: One Day on the Red Planet
- Alice Through the Looking Glass
- Fantastic Four
- Phineas and Ferb the Movie: Candace
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