Oh Disney Musical, Where Art Thou?

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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
, 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

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?