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The Independent Critic

Howard Ashman, Alan Menken, Sarah Gillespie, Bill Lauch, and Jeffrey Katzenberg
Don Hahn
94 Mins.

 Heartland Icon Don Hahn is Back with the Magical "Howard" 
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There is a reason that Don Hahn is considered an icon at Indy's Heartland International Film Festival. 

Okay, actually there are quite a few reasons. 

The recipient of Heartland's Pioneering Spirit Award in 2003, the two-time Oscar-nominated Hahn has spent his entire career it seems giving the world truly moving pictures. He has produced such films as The Lion King, Maleficent, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame along with a myriad of other films including a good number of the DisneyNature docs and this film, Howard, for which he returns to the Heartland International Film Festival with the film screening as a finalist in competition amongst documentary features. 

Howard is the kind of film that you sit there watching and wondering to yourself "How has no one ever thought to make this film?" The answer, of course, is rather simple - it's hard to imagine anyone other than Don Hahn making this film. 

In case you're possibly still guessing, and you sure shouldn't be, Howard centers around the story of the legendary playwright and lyricist Howard Ashman, most known for his collaborations with Alan Menken and his unforgettable work that helped to revive the Disney musical with such films as The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Beauty and the Beast. Ashman, who was diagnosed with HIV while The Little Mermaid was becoming a stunning success, held on to his secret for years during the early years of the AIDS crisis when AIDS was considered a death sentence and coming out as gay was still taboo. Ashman passed away in 1991 at the age of 40, but Howard reminds us that he's still very much with us to this day. 

As part of Ashman's Disney inner circle, Hahn's access to materials that might otherwise have evaded other filmmakers turns Howard into an absolute must-see for fans of Ashman and for fans of Disney musicals. If you're not hooked by the film's opening moment sequences in which a Beauty and the Best recording session comes vividly to life and within moments you'll find yourself transported back to the first time you watched the film with Angela Lansbury's pitch-perfect notes and Jerry Orbach's exceptional vocal control creating an instant classic. 

Howard had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival and should, without question, be popular amongst Indy's Heartland audiences who will also appreciate Hahn's planned return to Indy for the film's screenings and for a very special panel called A Conversation with Don Hahn. While Howard undeniably celebrates Ashman and his impact on what had been a struggling Disney animation division, part of the power of Howard, especially in the film's latter half, is that Hahn doesn't hold back in showing the more human, exacting and precise Ashman who didn't suffer fools easily and who had no hesitation in fighting for artistic integrity. 

However, a good majority of Howard simply and beautifully immerses us in Ashman's world from the imaginary worlds he created in childhood to his breakout work on Little Shop of Horrors to the disappointing reception offered for his collaboration with Marvin Hamlisch called Smile! and, finally, into his years with Disney and the final years of his life where even the ravages of AIDS couldn't slow down his epically creative mind and uncanny ability to manifest a tune even in the most difficult of circumstances. 

There are little intimacies in Howard, scenes likely only available to Hahn, that will leave a smile on your face and leave you singing along. While part of me wants to sit here and discuss these scenes with you, they're inevitably more magical and impactful if you experience them for yourselves. 

So, for now, I stay silent. 

At times joyous, other times quietly heartbreaking, Howard is yet another magnificent effort by a Heartland icon who has spent his career producing, directing and writing similarly magnificent efforts proving time and time again that cinema has the power to change lives and leave an indelible mark on culture over and over again. 

Howard will screen during the Heartland International Film Festival at the following times:

  • Oct. 14th at 7:45pm at The Toby at Newfields
  • Oct. 17th at 12:30pm at AMC Showplace Traders Point 12
  • Oct. 19th at 8:15pm at AMC Castleton 14
  • Oct. 20th at 10am at AMC Castleton 14
  • Oct. 21 at 1:30pm at AMC Castleton 14

For information on ticketing, visit the Heartland website. 

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic