Disney's Greatest Hits
Watching - and listening to - The Princess and the Frog, is like stepping back in time. Not just to New Orleans in the 20s, when the film is set, but to Burbank in the 1950s, when Disney films found their groove.
It's a deliberate throwback to the classical Disney fairtyale style, from the cutesy animals to the caricatured comic relief human heavies, the exotic atmospherics and especially the regular song and dance interludes. Randy Newman's vivacious score has been deemed ineligible for Oscar recognition, but the songs are another matter, and thoroughly deserve to outshine Nine on the night.
Music has always been a key ingredient in the Disney magic - even "the" key ingredient. The first movie I took my son to see was The Jungle Book, when he was just shy of three years old - and I'll never forget him dancing in the aisle to "Bare Necessities" and "I Wan'na Be Like You". That's the essence of Disney, surely?
When Walt started out as an animator in the 1920s he wasn't very knowledgeable about music - he was frustrated that musicians couldn't speed up or slow down to make the score fit the action - but he was quick to grasp the potential. In 1928 his Steamboat Willie - a proto Mickey Mouse - was the first cartoon with a synchronized soundtrack of music and effects. Disney engaged an orchestra for two sessions and worked out the process of using a bouncing ball on screen to cue the conductor - similar to the technique the studio still uses for its infant singalong features on DVDs.
Steamboat Willie was a big success, and judging by the ho-hum quality of the animation, the soundtrack was the reason why. Composer Carl Stalling (previously a cinema organist) persuaded Walt to produce a cartoon series in which the music - not the story - came first. They called them "Silly Symphonies", and the first was Skeleton Dance (1929), a merrily macabre number in which half a dozen skeletons dance and make music in a graveyard. It was, you could say, the first music video - some 54 years before Michael Jackson resurrected the concept for Thriller.
This combination of music and animation kindled Walt's enthusiasm. In 1933 "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" became the first hit song to come out of a cartoon, Disney's version of Three Little Pigs. And when it came to producing his first feature length film, Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs (1937) the songs would be crucial to the movie's appeal. Try to imagine it without "Whistle While You Work"; "Heigh-Ho" and "Some Day My Prince Will Come"... There wouldn't be much left to savour.
The integration of music and animation became such a talisman to Walt Disney that he embarked on the wildly ambitious and in many ways uncharacteristically arty Fantasia (1940), a feature in which the pictures evolved in illustration of music by Bach, Beethoven and Stravinski. It was music for the eyes; a labour of love - probably the last movie that Walt took personal pride in - and a rare commercial misstep.
Nevertheless, the lessons learned from the hard work on Fantasia would serve the studio well, laying the groundwork for the trippy "Pink Elephants on Parade" sequence in Dumbo (1941), and many another imaginative musical grace note in the years to come, from Alice in Wonderland to "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah".
Don't trust any Disney Greatest Hits playlist that ignores the visual component - they're missing the point. The most memorable musical moments from these films also tell the story. They illuminate character. They make us laugh, or cry... or dance.
Disney's Top 10 Greatest Hits
1. Song: When You Wish Upon a Star
2. Song: Heigh-ho
3. Song: The Bare Necessities
4. Song: Part of Your World
5. Song: Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah
7. Song: Baby Mine
8. Song: Once Upon a Dream
9. Song: Beauty and the Beast
10. Song: He's a Tramp
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