Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Top Ten Songs in Disney Animation.

If the animation, voice overs, and the unique storytelling of a Disney movie are its meat and bones, then the music of a Disney movie is most assuredly its nutrients. While the studio is often applauded for its revolutionary leaps and bounds in art-direction and character animation, one other area that has always seen Disney towering over other creative forces is in their music department.

Even when making their feature length entrance onto the scene amidst the gigantic early musical hits, at a time when Fred Astaire and Busby Berkeley dominated the market, Disney's unique musical talents were instantly distinguishable from their more established competitors. Even with Snow White having already laid the groundwork with its own lovely songs, I doubt anyone saw the studio becoming the powerhouse it is today, churning out film after film decade after decade of iconic and instantly catchy earworms. "From the Sherman Brothers to Kristen and Bobby Lopez, writing 'Let it Go', all these perfect musical moments." Just as their films have done, the music of Disney Animation has journeyed through endless and diverse styles of music, big and sweeping, fast-paced and vibrant, sinister and haunting, with the studio also trekking through various different genres, and enlisting an eclectic batch of musicians for every film. Whether it be Alan Menken, Elton John, Terry Gylkison, or more left-field like Sting, there's no denying that their songwriting branch and library of tunes is nothing short of untouchable. So, in celebration of my retrospective's closing, I'll be counting down my picks for The Top Ten Songs in Disney Animation.

I only have two rules for this list:
1) The song must have originated strictly from Disney's own Classics banner, so Pixar films such as Toy Story, or other Disney films like The Nightmare Before Christmas, do not count.
2) I will be limiting each selection to only one song per film. The reason I'm doing this is because if I didn't, 1 or 2 films would dominate 8 or 9 spots, so I've done this in order to diversify my choices. 

And before we begin, some honorable mentions:
15. "I See the Light" - Tangled
The standout moment of a gentle and heartfelt piece of comfort food viewing, and while Glenn Slater's lyricism still needs work, the accompaniment of Menken's music more than makes up for it.
14. "Bella Notte" - Lady and the Tramp
For one of the less musical-ly Silver Age Disney films, this elegant love song is beautiful both as a flawless piece of storytelling, but just as lovely a standalone listen.
13. "I'm Still Here" - Treasure Planet
Such an atypical trip into new musical roots for the studio, the risk definitely pays off with John Rzeznik's deeply felt and grungy character piece, standing out during the film's best sequence.
12. "My Funny Friend & Me" - The Emperor's New Groove
A late composition from Sting after his original songs were scrapped, this end credits tune is a fantastic and beautiful summation of the friendship between its lead characters. I especially love the epic Gospel choir that comes in near the end.
11. "Colors of the Wind" - Pocahontas
Some would criticize the song for its air of preachiness, but there's still just a powerful and affecting subtext and subtlety hidden beneath its lyrics, terrifically laid out by new Menken collaborator Stephen Schwartz.

So with those out of the way, let's get into the real top ten...

Number 10
"When You Wish Upon a Star"
from Pinocchio (1940)

While it certainly wouldn't be a song to take at face value (why haven't you answered my wishes, stars?!), there's certainly a reason that this song has become an anthem for the Disney corporation in general. A soothing and classic piece of old-fashioned composition, the song's simple but brilliant and metaphorical lyrics continue to retain the resonance they still had some seventy years ago. A song about believing in the best of the world, and that a better, brighter day may still yet come, it continues to give listeners hope in a crazy world of fear and uncertainty, that it's important to still retain those glimmers of hope no matter how dark the situation, that maybe an unexpected kindness of fate is just around the corner, but of course wouldn't possess the power that it does if not for Cliff Edwards' enrapturing singing.

Number 9
"Friends on the Other Side"
from The Princess and the Frog (2009)

Louisiana style jazz is the type of music Randy Newman was born to write, and his selection for the New Orleans themed Princess and the Frog was an obvious, but no less fiting recruitment. Still, amidst the swinging blues and brassy showtunes, I doubt anyone saw his sinister villain song being the standout set-piece of the feature. Newman's lyrical strengths are pushed to inspired new lengths in this jazzy and sinister number, almost seeming to take influence from Paul McCartney's "Live and Let Die" in how it changes tempo throughout its progression, moving the story forward with alluring moments of character background, and brought roaring to life by the devious and charismatic low pipes of Keith David, all while the song eventually reaches its peak building to its spooky and appropriately chaotic finale. "Hush..."

Number 8
"The Bare Necessities"
from The Jungle Book (1967)
Perhaps the defining "laid-back" Disney song to come from the studio, while the rest of the movie's songs by the Sherman Brothers were terrific stuff, it's this piece by Terry Gylkison that winds up becoming the movie's highlight. Admittedly something of a simple and utter gibberish song, the very nature of the song in general doesn't seem to have anything to do with anything, more concerned with jazzy instrumental breaks and fruit descriptions than moving plot forward. Yet strangely enough, that approach to the song is precisely what makes it stand out, as it's a refreshing opportunity to let the audience breathe and enjoy the scenery of the film, and a nice little anthem about enjoying the little things in life, and rolling with the punches as they come, cemented further by the irresistible zeal of Phil Harris.

Number 7
"Friend Like Me"
from Aladdin (1992)

As the last hurrah for the late, great Howard Ashman, while "A Whole New World" was the one that took the world by storm, it's this more comical piece that has always stuck with me most. A big showstopper during the film's second act, the song serves as an early precursor to the manic and fast-paced comic energy of Robin Williams' Genie, showcasing in just over two minutes a plethora of wild and thoroughly entertaining sights and sounds, with the music and the lyrics no doubt having seen appropriate adjustments to fit with Williams' energy, and with how much improvisation Williams contributed to the film, I've no doubt that the man himself left his own personal stamps on the spot. The overall result is a feast for the eyes and ears, and such an entertaining number. Also, be honest, how many people learned what the word "nabob" meant by listening to this song?

Number 6
"You're Welcome"
from Moana (2016)

Too soon? I don't think so, as while Moana may not have been on par with Aladdin or Mermaid as a film, its soundtrack was more than worthy to join their ranks. In fact, this spot came down to one of two songs from the film, one being Jemaine Clement's Ziggy Stardust based "Shiny", and my eventual choice, Maui's grandiose introduction number. One thing that can be said about Maui is that he sure knows how to make an entrance, with the song being an enjoyably boastful self-celebration of his legendary exploits. It's an hilarious song brought giddily to life by the charismatic pipes of Dwayne Johnson, himself a seamless fit for Maui's cocky energy, and Hamilton mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda's infectious set of snappy lyrics and rapid fire rap verses, some of which even feature Maui as his own backup singer. It's become a recent obsession of mine, and I just love absorbing every subtle little touch in it every time I hear it. Don't mess with Maui when he's on the breakaway.

Number 5
from The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)

Villain songs in Disney films are often noted for their dark or sinister nature, but I doubt any have ever gone as dark as this piece has. The standout quality of Hunchback was in the complex characterization of Judge Claude Frollo, a vicious and prideful religious zealot who believes that the ends justify the means. However, in this musical number, Frollo faces a rare moment of fear for his own salvation, driven mad with obsession and lust for the gypsy Esmeralda, and still refusing to come to grips with the fact that he is merely human like us all. It makes for an absolutely haunting and frightful narrative and introspective piece, an ingenious match-up of visuals and music, and tremendous dramatic strength by Tony Jay's emotionally conflicted performance. It's a song that leaves you with goosebumps long after it's finished. Even the three annoying talking gargoyles can't dampen its lingering intimidation.

Number 4
"Part of Your World"
from The Little Mermaid (1989)

There's a reason The Little Mermaid has been so revered decades since its release, particularly in creating the classic musical formula of the Renaissance we all know and love today. This sweeping recurring anthem for the film sees the duo of Ashman and Menken working at their peak, putting great care into the development of lead character Ariel, and squeezing every ounce of potential out of Jodi Benson's passionate and beautiful vocals. However, it's also a song that Ashman and Menken had to fight tooth and nail in order to keep in, as then Disney CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg was insistent on its removal for fear of boring child viewers. Thankfully artistic integrity eventually won the day, and gave us a generation defining song in the meantime, executing and perfecting Disney's famous obligatory "I Want" formula to such a high degree that no song before or since has ever been able to top it.

Number 3
"Let it Go"
from Frozen (2013)

Out of all the songs on this list, I'm sure this is the one whose mention makes you the most nauseous, due in no small part to its sheer ubiquity. But so what? *I'm* still not sick of it. Frozen had a number of great and instantly catchy tunes from the Lopezes, all of which subverted and rejuvenated the age old customs of the Disney musical, and none better than this showstopping powerpiece. An epic number in no small part thanks to its grandiose Broadway instrumentation and wonderful lyrics, spinning a number of thoughtful thematic touches, particularly the relief and freedom to vent frustrations over the pre-conceived expectations placed on your shoulders by others, with Wicked's Idina Menzel slowly growing from timid and fragile beginnings, to her confident and powerhouse finale. It may be overplayed and overexposed, but there's no denying that it was the point of the film where the creative teams were at their collective peak.

Number 2
"Beauty and the Beast"
from Beauty and the Beast (1991)

While The Little Mermaid was vital in building Disney's modern musical formula, it's their next great hit Beauty and the Beast that perfected the format, especially in regards to the film's numerous beautiful and memorable songs. When it finally comes time for the spectacle of the ballroom dance, one would expect the moment to be accompanied by sweeping and grand crescendos, but its to the credit of Ashman and Menken that the two didn't fall into this easy trap. Much like the central romance of the film, the duo know that romance more often takes more modest forms than any giant gestures, instead approaching the song with a more simplistic and minimalist touch that the song is all the better for having. Its end credits pop ballad may have had more radio time, but that version has nothing on the unmistakable grace and warmth that Angela Lansbury provides within the film. Not only the most romantic of the Disney songs library, it's one of the most romantic pieces ever written for a film, and I dare anyone to listen to it without being moved.

Number 1
"Circle of Life"
from The Lion King (1994)

From the moment that Lebo M's chorus comes in, you know that you're in for something special. The Lion King is without doubt my favorite soundtrack of the Disney Animation banner, and all of its songs (minus the added "Morning Report", which is better left forgotten) would have been more than worthy of a mention on the top ten. But for me, out of all the songs that Elton John and Tim Rice wrote, it's the opening cue that strikes the biggest chord with me. The song is not a very complex one lyrically, with Rice's lyrics having this very simple and unassuming presentation style, but it's a very fitting and humble approach, as like John's music and the singing voice of Carmen Twillie eventually move from quiet to unleashing their grandiose punches, it reflects brilliantly the nature of life being built of small, but key players in a delicate balance greater and more vast than we understand. So confident was the studio in the song for how perfectly it set the emotionally epic tone, that rather than have an advertising team cut together a trailer, they merely took the film's prologue to fill in for it, a marketing risk that absolutely payed off. The film itself is gargantuan, iconic, and a flawless piece of filmmaking, but its thanks to this song and this sequence - for my money, the greatest moment in the studio's history - that it had as much power as it did. Not only the Magnum Opus of the studio's music department, but simply one of the all time great songs in cinema. Period.

 And I thank you all very much for joining me for my countdown. I hope you've enjoyed seeing and listening to my selections, and if a favorite of yours didn't make it on here, please don't think I hated it. It's just that sometimes, ten slots and one pick per film really are not enough.

And now with the songs addressed, join me back on December 2nd when I'll be running through my next countdown, my picks for The Top Ten Animated Disney Films.

1 comment:

  1. I completely agree with this list!!! I love Ariel and The Little Mermaid is my favorite but on a critical standpoint, Circle of Life is the greatest Disney song of all time.