Tag Archives: Howard Ashman

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)

Quasimodo

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is among the darkest films Disney has ever produced, on par with The Black Cauldron for sheer terrifying evil and outpacing Scar for inciting chills.

But Quasimodo is a different kind of hero. Far from the bumbling unlikely hero of Cauldron, or a would-be king rising to challenge his usurper, Quasimodo’s quest is simply to learn to love himself and dare to let others love him. His is a far more universal story than the dark tales Disney had previously told.

The film is based on Victor Hugo’s 1831 classic, but as with all Disney adaptations, it differs significantly from the source material. As Walt famously told his team to ignore everything about The Jungle Book’s plot, the Disney studio in the 1990s was set firmly on making Hunchback as family-friendly a film as possible.

Frollo, rather than being the archdeacon of the church is now a judge. Esmerelda is threatened and hurt, but does not die in the end and the sexual tension of the story is toned down significantly.

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Aladdin (1992)

A whole new world

When I was in elementary school, the junior choir sang “A Whole New World” at the Christmas concert. That was in 1994 (it could have been 1995, my memory of the time is a little hazy). The Disney magic from The Little Mermaid, which I clearly remember my parents taking to my sister and I to see in theatres, to Beauty and the Beast, which my grandmother was told to buy two copies of since the VHS tape would run raw from repeated viewings, had certainly continued to Aladdin.

A few of Howard Ashman’s songs survived from his early work on the film. “Arabian Nights,” “Prince Ali” and “Friend Like Me” were all Ashman’s songs. But it was a new lyricist, Tim Rice, who wrote the now iconic “A Whole New World” and the somewhat less iconic but still fun “One Jump Ahead,” which does a great job of setting up Aladdin’s character.

Sadly, many of Ashman’s songs wound up on the cutting room floor due to changes in the story. In the original treatment, Aladdin had three friends and the story was a fast-paced comic adventure about a young man trying to prove himself to his parents. The story didn’t work, though, especially as a musical. When John Musker and Ron Clements took over directing — fresh off their success with The Little Mermaid — they re-worked the plot to be about a young man searching for self respect and love, leaving many of the story-based songs no longer usable.

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Beauty and the Beast (1991)

The Beast learns to love.

Beauty and the Beast is my all-time favourite Disney film.

Belle is the first Disney princess (though, thankfully, not the last) to have a brain and value reading over chasing down a man. She pursues her dreams, challenges authority, stands up for herself and is whip-smart while doing it. The Beast, meanwhile, is the first deeply flawed hero the studio celebrates. He must overcome his internal pain to grow as a person and deserve to be loved, not simply handed love for the simple merit of being a prince.

Combining the two of them, the studio does a startlingly good job of telling young people that they must value themselves as people first and learn to love honestly in order to be loved truly in return. It condemns those who value themselves only through superficial standards like beauty and desirability. When Gaston says Belle is “the most beautiful girl in town. That makes her the best! And don’t I deserve the best?” the statement is comical, silly but almost dangerous. Better lessons are rare in modern film.

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The Little Mermaid (1989)

Ariel’s signature tune, “Part of Your World,” is one of Howard Ashman’s best-known works.

Dear Howard Ashman,

Thank you for my childhood.

Growing up during the Disney Renaissance, you, Howard, were more Walt Disney to me than Walt himself ever was. You weren’t just one of the many working on the great films of this time, you breathed life into these timeless masterpieces. Watching The Little Mermaid, it’s not hard to see your fingerprints all over it, your vision infused throughout. You had such an unparalleled sense of music and storytelling. Your numerous Academy Awards (some even awarded posthumously) with longtime collaborator and composer Alan Menken are a tribute to the way you reinvented the Disney animated musical. (Between you and me, Alan hasn’t quite been able to hit that level since you left this world.)

The soul of Mermaid is, of course, Ariel. And she really has your heart. As a girl, I found qualities in Ariel to which I could aspire. She is naturally curious, genuinely accepting and fiercely loyal. She is not afraid to stand up for herself — a rare characteristic in the Disney canon up to this point. While, today, I want Ariel to aspire to more than catching Prince Eric’s eye, I still love her just the same. She wanted more from life, and would stop at nothing until she got it — even if that meant trading her beautiful voice for the legs that would get her to her end goal. And that’s something to admire. I love her spunk, I wanted her red hair, I even tried to use a dingle hopper once.

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Oliver & Company (1988)

Oliver, wide-eyed at the world.

Oliver & Company continues the Disney Renaissance in good style. Taking a popular story and adapting it for the screen without binding themselves too much to the source material is a tried and true Disney tactic. With the addition of celebrity voice talents and the courage to return to the Disney formula of story-telling, Oliver was perfectly suited to steal the hearts of a generation.

But the film still has its drawbacks as the studio prepared for a full-on animation rebirth. The Black Cauldron was still fresh in everyone’s memory and even with the success of The Great Mouse Detective, the best from that project were already hard at work on The Little Mermaid, slated for a 1989 release In fact, one of the lead animators and the brains behind the computer-generated clock tower sequence in The Great Mouse Detective, Michael Peraza, was tapped to lead the design team on The Little Mermaid at the wrap party for Mouse Detective. Work started shortly thereafter.

That left many of the same brains who worked on Black Cauldron, including art director Dan Hansen, director George Scribner and several story writers, as the team of second stringers working on Oliver & Company as a stop-gap until Ariel could take centre stage the following year.

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