Movie review by
Jennifer Green, Common Sense Media
Howard Movie Poster Image
Poignant docu about Disney lyricist has mature themes.
  • PG
  • 2020
  • 95 minutes

Parents say

age 8+
Based on 1 review

Kids say

age 7+
Based on 1 review

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Artistic and imaginative kids, properly nurtured, can find like-minded friends and pursue relevant careers. Creative professionals work hard at their craft. A vast number of people collaborate behind the scenes on animated films and theatrical productions.


Positive Role Models & Representations

A boy with a creative calling grows up to find his place in the world of theater and movies, enjoy success, and create works that live on in the collective imagination. Two men enjoy a loving and stable intimate relationship. Friends and colleagues support each other through tough times. Protestors carry bigoted signs like "God sent AIDS to punish gays."



New York City in the 1970s is recalled as a dangerous place, with images of street fights and police wielding their batons, and stories of people getting mugged or not wanting to go to certain areas at night. The AIDS epidemic was a constant threat for years, ultimately taking the life of this film's subject as well as many of his friends.



A 'live burlesque' establishment opens up next to a theater in New York. A man in a long-term relationship with another man starts looking for "sexual adventure." AIDS is referred to as the "gay cancer."






The film, produced by and for Disney, is about a Disney lyricist. Howard Ashman's work for Disney, including on The Little MermaidAladdin, and Beauty and the Beast, is discussed in detail. Disneyland and Disneyworld are portrayed in images. Clips are shown from CBS News and 60 Minutes. The Walkman Pro is said to have been the best in its day. In footage of New York City, we see various theaters and storefronts. Howard spends his final days at Saint Vincent Hospital in New York.


Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

A young and "self-destructive" man is recalled as "constantly loaded, constantly drinking." A homeless man is seen passed out on the street. A film is described as silly "unless you're stoned and still in college."


What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Howard is a moving documentary that offers both a behind-the-scenes look at the making of some modern-classic Disney animated films and the poignant life story of an exceptionally talented man. The documentary warns viewers at the start that its subject, lyricist Howard Ashman, died young. In fact, Ashman died at age 39 of AIDS, and his slow physical decline is discussed in some detail in the latter part of the documentary. This could be upsetting for young viewers, but his death as well as his homosexuality are treated in a forthright and natural way. Ashman's ex-lover died of AIDS even younger after a "self-destructive" lifestyle that involved seeking out "sexual adventure," drugs, and alcohol.  Protestors carry bigoted signs like "God sent AIDS to punish gays."The film questions whether some of Ashman's best-known lyrics paralleled experiences in his life, an idea that should fascinate Disney fans. Someone says "damn."

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Parent of a 8-year-old Written byCarolyn F. August 13, 2020

Great for adults, fine (just a little boring) for kids.

This documentary is the story of an inspiring and talented lyricist and composer, who is responsible for not only the musical version of Little Shop of Horrors... Continue reading
Kid, 12 years old August 17, 2020

Great for the whole family

The film encourages creativity through storytelling and music. 7 and 12 y/o enjoyed it.

What's the story?

HOWARD mixes archive footage, old photos, and home movies with voiceover interviews to tell the life story of Disney lyricist Howard Ashman. Ashman died young of AIDS, but accomplished quite a lot in his 39 years. His personality and story are described by those closest to him, including his mother, sister, colleagues, lovers, and friends. The film begins with his childhood in Baltimore, where he displayed a prodigious imagination and knack for storytelling, then traces his first real steps into the theater as a child, during college, and as a young man in New York City. After early success, Ashman is recruited by Disney to work as a lyricist on animated films like The Little MermaidAladdin, and Beauty and the Beast. The film delves into his gift for evoking character and story through his song lyrics, especially in collaboration with musician Alan Menken. Just as he's reaching the pinnacle of success, including an Oscar, Ashman is diagnosed with AIDS. Behind-the-scenes glimpses of the creative process at Disney are contrasted with Ashman's physical decline due to AIDS. He died young, but his movies live on.


Is it any good?

It's no easy task to tell a person's life story in an hour and a half, and filmmakers have attempted to do this in a variety of ways. In Howard, director Don Hahn uses old photos of people and places, together with archive recordings from Howard Ashman's life, to try to let the subject speak for himself. Hahn combines this archive material with a variety of interviews with the people closest to Ashman, including his sister, mother, best friend, lover, and colleagues. You definitely leave the film with a sense of who Ashman was, how he was formed, and what his life and work meant to those around him.

Interestingly, there are no talking heads in Howard, except in the archive footage. Hahn uses the interviews as voiceover narration only. This keeps the piece visually interesting and focused on the past, when Ashman was alive, though viewers may miss seeing the speakers as they are today. Hahn also takes a bit of a risk with some staged scenes, including a child's room with toys casting long shadows used to evoke Ashman's early gift as a storyteller, and an empty auditorium where Ashman gave an on-stage interview the very night he found out he was sick. These feel a little odd at first, but they turn out to be the most memorable images after the film ends, their symbolism lingering on.


Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the process of creating music for animated films, as depicted in Howard. How big of a role does music play in animated films?

  • Except for archive footage of past interviews, we don't see the people interviewed in this film while they're talking. What do you think of this decision by the filmmaker?

  • What did you already know about the outbreak of and controversy surrounding the AIDS epidemic in the 1970s and 1980s? Where can you go for more information?

  • What surprised you most about Howard Ashman's life story?

Movie details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love Disney

Themes & Topics

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