Oh Disney Musical, Where Art Thou?

I distinctly remember when it hit me. I was walking out of
the theater back in 2001 after watching Atlantis: The Lost Empire and I had
this feeling like there was something just not quite right. Atlantis wasn’t a
horrible movie, so it wasn’t disappointment. It was just this nagging feeling
like there was something missing.

That was
when it hit me. There were no musical numbers.

It was a
startling revelation. I began to wonder, were my favorite Disney movies so
heavily influenced by music that the absence of a strong musical tie such a
shock that I actually disliked the movie for that reason?

From 1989
to 1999, Disney was the master of the animated Broadway musical. Beginning with
The Little Mermaid and continuing through Tarzan, Disney was defined by their
animated musical masterpieces. To give you a feel for just how great that era
was, five of the best movies from that time (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the
Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King,
and Pocahontas) not only won the Academy Award
for Best Song, but also won the Academy Award for Best Original Score. 400
songs were nominated for AFI’s 100 years… 100 songs, and those five films had
nine nominations together.

These films
were defined not just by their score or by their songs. Rather, they were defined
by the scene that accompanied the song. For instance, “Beauty and the Beast”
(the song) was amazing by itself, but combined with the stunning dance
sequence, it is enough to give me the chills every time I watch it. Think about
it. When was the last time you heard a song that was so heavily connected to a
single scene in a movie? Try watching the scene without the sound. In fact, it
is a lot easier to listen to the song without the scene, because you instantly
picture Belle in her golden dress.

That just
might be the problem. Today, more and more movies use songs as background music
to set the mood in their films. Pixar’s movies include many good scores by
Randy Newman, but the songs complement the action. It isn’t nearly as
interesting, but you can watch many parts of Monster’s Inc without the music
and not miss much. In contrast, Aladdin’s “A Whole New World” is the star of
the scene. The characters speak through the songs, they feel through the songs,
they lay their hearts out for all the world to see (accompanied by music). Of
course, Aladdin is a musical and therefore, it is logical that the song is more
heavily emphasized.

I guess
really that is what I am looking for. Where is today’s “A Whole New World,”
“Beauty and the Beast,” “Under the Sea,” or “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”? I
am talking about the one song that defines the film – the defining song. Do not misinterpret me,
there are many good songs in recent releases (like Monsters Inc), but if I
asked you to name the song that won the Academy Award for Best Song from Monsters
Inc
, could you? (If you said “If I Didn’t Have You” you were right). Now name
the song from Aladdin that won the same award. I would hope all of you would be
able to name “A Whole New World.” The difference is as I said before, in the
latter, the song itself was the star.

For years
and years, every Disney movie had that one powerful song. I once started
whistling “A Whole New World” outside a dorm room one night, and my friend next
to me started to sing along. In a few minutes he was joined by another (female)
friend and together they sang a duet. How many other songs does that happen
with?

Now, you
might be wondering why I am just now writing about this. Well, Walt Disney
Records released two volumes of their Archive Collection ( Vol. 1, Vol. 2), both of which were
made available on iTunes on November 6th. They are $9.99 each and
considering they include 25 songs, I consider them a good deal. A word of
caution though: they are redone by current artists and are not the originals.
Listening to these songs, I am ever amazed of just how powerful each of them is.

And I am
reminded of what is missing from today’s movies. I anxiously await the return
of the Disney musical (is The Frog Princess my savior?), and with it, the
return of the defining song. Until then, I will listen to “Reflection” a couple
more times and long with Ariel to be a “Part of Your World.”

So what are your thoughts? Is the defining song the major ingredient missing from today’s Disney movies?

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7 Responses to Oh Disney Musical, Where Art Thou?

  1. Lisa says:

    Absolutely! You are not alone in lamenting the demise of the Disney musical. “The Littler Mermaid” was what single-handedly brought me back to loving Disney movies. My best friend and I went during a slow college weeknight. I went expecting Bambi, and got “Part of Your World” instead. I was instantly hooked! I believe that the reason the non-Pixar Disney flicks are declining in popularity is simply because people are waiting for the next “Aladdin” and they don’t want to settle for less. I know I don’t! I’m a huge Disney fan, yet I have not seen a non-Pixar flick since “Atlantis”. And look at the rising popularity of the Disney musicals hitting Broadway–need there be more proof?

    Bring back the good old Disney musical! It is sorely missed!

  2. KlarkKent007 says:

    Well…

    Disney made music important to their films long ago, but focusing on making it a musical is not what is needed.

    Look at the classics from when Walt was alive: there was music that was sung, but it was in the context of maintaining the story. Today when music is sung the entire story stops for an over the top song, that quite often leads away from the story.

    Compare the work of the Sherman Brothers (clever, witty, simple) to Rice, Menken or Elton John (Broadway, trite, pop), there is a major difference.

    Making an animated film with the pretense that it could go to Broadway defeats the purpose. It no longer (as Walt called it) “plusses” the project, but makes it merely a marketing campaign to be milked for all it is worth (e.g.: Lion King)

    Time to follow Pixar’s lead (e.g.: Walt’s way), instead of Katzenberg’s way (he is no longer at Disney, right?) Just remember: Pixar has been successful due to the fact that they carried on Walt’s culture, now that Pixar is part of Disney, the culture has come full circle.

    When was the last Pixar musical film again?

  3. SkylarKD says:

    I definitely agree that Disney needs to bring back the musical animated feature film. Not that all of them need to be musicals though (I agree with the previous poster that the songs need to complement the plot line, not just be a story break).

    I think Disney has been creating movies that rely too much on celebrity voices, unbelievable characters, sidekicks with snappy comebacks, and as many adult jokes and double-entendres as possible, with the hopes that it will spell box office success, regardless of how strong the story is. It hasn’t happened though. I think a return to more plot-driven stories with characters people can relate to (regardless of whether they’re mermaids, beasts or dwarves) will put Disney back on track again. Disney movies used to have heart.

    I think a resurgence of musicals and traditional animation would help, though.

  4. Carstairs38 says:

    I’m torn. I love the songs from Disney movies, going all the way back to Snow White. But I really did enjoy Chicken Little and The Wild, too. I think a mix of both would be good.

    How’s that for indecisive?

    And welcome aboard.

    Mark

  5. Tim says:

    i definitely agree… disney needs to find some musical geniusses on par with the sherman brothers, alan menken, howard ashman, and tim rice. they’re just not bothering to cover all the bases like they used to. here’s hoping iger realizes what’s been lacking in the eisner-era films.

  6. Derek says:

    How about a Danny Elfman musical with Pixar? If I’m not mistaken, The Nightmare Before Christmas DID belong to Disney, AND it was a musical. If we tore him apart from Tim Burton for a few seconds, it’d be interesting to see what he has to offer, and hope that it’s as bright as his Edward Scissorhands days.

  7. Swoosh says:

    In respone to Klark Kent, my opinion is that there is room in the Disney world for both types of storytelling – I get goosebumps when watching the old Disney musical era films as well as the new – admittedly, for different reasons, but that’s part of the fun, isn’t it? With Pixar carrying on Walt’s culture, would it really be such a shame to go back to the way things ran during the Sherman/Menken era?

Comments are closed.