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Matthew Belinkie, Peter Fenzel, Jordan Stokes, and Matthew Wrather watch Howard, a documentary about brilliant lyricist Howard Ashman’s life and career, and discuss his work with composer Alan Menken, from Little Shop of Horrors to the perhaps unequaled trifecta of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin.
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- Howard Ashman on Wikipedia
- Little Shop of Horrors (1960)
If anyone wants to look at Ashman’s work through new eyes, though, consider that Hans Christian Andersen was very probably in a relationship with Edward Collin (so, a forbidden romance with someone he couldn’t be with) when he wrote the original “fairy tale,” for one, but Disney’s adaptation is explicitly about someone who doesn’t fit in at home, runs away from an abusive family, is exploited by someone who claims to understand, and needs to keep silent about her past. Ariel gets a lot of criticism for jumping into a relationship with someone she doesn’t really know, but intentionally or not, it takes the shape of a classic LGBT story for a certain age.
There’s a more direct comparison to how people describe Ashman–the perfectionism, the bitterness, and obviously the degenerative disease with a short future–and the Beast, to the point that it’s hard to imagine the mob being accidental. But of course, that’s true of pretty much every artist who “tries to avoid politics,” since there isn’t really a more political act than creating something and, if you’re not conscious of it, your unconscious politics seep in, just because they’re encoded in the choices we make.
Ashman was really good, and I still don’t think Disney has recovered from his death. The highs of its recent “princess movies” have been fine, but with the exception of Moana, a lot of the movies since…oh, let’s say starting with Hercules or so (though even the Lion King tries it), the movies have had these weird schisms, where there’s a serious movie with an almost entirely separate, sillier movie (led by a known comedian) stapled to it. The most obvious examples, here, are the Frozen movies, where you have deep A-plots, but the narrative randomly cuts away for the snowman to get into Tom and Jerry antics. The documentary never gets into it other than the brief mentions of Ashman fighting to keep certain elements, but I wonder how much that unity of plot–there are antics in the Ashman/Menken movies, but they’re brief and often tie back to the main plot–was his perfectionism.