The Walt Disney Company is responsible for some of the most recognizable music of the 20th and 21st centuries. From “When You Wish Upon a Star” to the recently Oscar-nominated “How Far I’ll Go”, they’ve put out so many great albums, and have more platinum albums (20, according to the RIAA search function) than Led Zeppelin (18), Madonna (17), or Bob Dylan (15). Kids around the world learn the lyrics to their favorite songs, from their favorite movies– every girl knows the feature song for their favorite princess, at least.
But that’s not what we’re talking about.
A John Williams Moment is a moment in a film that is carried by the music. The last time I talked about these, I talked about the man himself, and that was easier to some extent. That’s because John Williams moments are generally not musical numbers (there will be some exceptions in the list, but bear with me for now). Disney, on the other hand, is the champion of the movie musical, more so than most other studios. This means that many moments of high emotional impact are sung– “Let it Go”, for example, or “Part of Your World”. That’s not a John Williams moment. Luke looking out at the binary sunset contemplating his future and dreams, that’s a John Williams moment. But given this is Disney, some of the following “moments” are more full scenes/sequences. Here are what the rules will be:
- It has to be something that Disney put their name on. This list will not have PIXAR (they deserve their own list), LucasFilm (kinda covered that in the last post), Marvel (they don’t really have great scores), or Touchstone pictures.
- If there is singing, it will not be by a named character (that is, one named on screen), at the very least. Disney has some great choral scores and I want to recognize that tradition.
- There will be some live-action, a lot of animation, and one from the park. That’s not really a rule, more of a statement.
As before, this will be in chronological order, because my brain hurts just picking only 15.
“Waltz of the Flowers”, Fantasia (1940)
Fantasia is the Platonic ideal of the John Williams moment. It’s entirely about the music, and it’s actually pretty close to what animation had been doing. Like most things with Disney, it started with a mouse– “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” was supposed to be one of Disney’s standard Mickey Mouse shorts, but they got such talent and creativity behind it that it snowballed into one of their most artistic and daring movies of the Walt years. Why this particular segment? Well, Disney and Tchaikovsky are kind of like Shakespeare’s Richard III and Depression-era Europe. You wouldn’t think they’d fit together, but get the right talent and it’s amazing.
“The Great Prince of the Forest”, Bambi (1942)
(Stop at 2:14)
Bambi gets credit for one thing, and that’s traumatizing two generations of children. That’s really unfair, because the movie is very beautiful, it’s just very small compared to the rest of the canon. It’s the life of a young deer… and that’s it. But it’s also filled with moments like this one. Music is just as much about contrast as animation is, and the two play off of each other here: each frantic when the other is frantic, then still and regal when the Great Prince arrives. The music bears the weight of the audience’s expectations here, it tells us “this character is important, pay attention”. It takes the small idea of a stag walking through a meadow and makes it grand– and that is emblematic of the entire movie.
True Love’s Kiss, Sleeping Beauty (1959)
Tchaikovsky and Disney, right? Sleeping Beauty has one of the most gorgeous scores outside of a Fantasia film, and some of the best animation that side of the Renaissance. Though if I were ranking this by the quality of the moment, it would probably end up lower on the list– they could have stood to take some cues from the ballet and kept their characters silent. But the ultimate triumph over Maleficent is no less triumphant, and it is a very happy ending.
“Banks”, Mary Poppins (1964)
This scene is a man walking to work. He knows that when he arrives, he will be fired for an incident that happened earlier that day. But at that moment, he is simply walking to work. This is also the most important scene in the movie. Beyond “Jolly Holiday”, beyond “Chim-chim-er-ee”, beyond “Let’s Go Fly a Kite”– this is where Mr. Banks starts to become the man he needs to be for his children. The beautiful orchestral arrangement of “Feed the Birds” is especially potent as he stops at St. Paul and finds that the Bird Woman isn’t there. It’s left ambiguous as to what happened, but Jane Darwell (The Grapes of Wrath, Gone With the Wind) was hand-picked by Walt himself to play the Bird Woman, and it was her last screen appearance.
“Transformation”, Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Skipping ahead a few… decades… The Disney Renaissance was a golden age of Hollywood Animation, and not just for Disney. Don Bluth was at his prime during these years, PIXAR and DreamWorks were founded, but the Mouse was still king and had the Oscar nomination (and box office numbers) to prove it. The score is possibly the most important part of the film, both the numbers and the incidental music, and especially here. At the key moment of the transformation, it triumphantly reprises the Beast’s leitmotif— but that motif is in a minor key. It gives you both the joy of the climax (the Beast is human again!) along with the frightening nature of this transformation.
“Finale”, Fantasmic (1992)
Fantasmic is the best night show at any of the parks. Featuring everyone from Steamboat Willie to Queen Elsa, it is 30 minutes of the exact 8-hr long Massive Multiplayer Crossover movie that every hard-core Disney fan wants in their lives. (I know Kingdom Hearts exists, but there’s so much potential/money in making movies where the characters actually interact. Or just reboot House of Mouse, that would work.) The whole show is great, but this moment when so many of your favorite characters are all gathered together and celebrating just hits home.
“King of Pride Rock”, The Lion King (1994)
It’s difficult to pick between this moment and the opening sequence. The opening sequence is obviously phenomenal– they loved it so much they used it as the trailer– but here we go back to the idea of contrast. This scene starts from a moment of rest. “The Circle of Life” is all build-up to the chorus, it’s all leading somewhere. This has some build as well, but it allows itself to breathe before getting there. And it’s also framed by the best animation of the Disney Renaissance, so there’s that.
“You Have Saved Us All”, Mulan (1998)
(Stop at 1:29)
This is a briefer version of the third (fourth?) ending in Return of the King where Aragorn is crowned King of Gondor and bows before the Hobbits, but no less powerful. This one is cool because it’s also the reason Mulan is the only non-royal official Disney Princess, she saved the entirety of China. All of it. Twice, technically. And she is justly rewarded for it, both in-universe and out.
“Rhapsody in Blue”, Fantasia 2000 (1999)
Yes, the whole thing. This might be the best 12 minutes of animation outside of PIXAR. It’s sequences like this that make me wish Western Animation hadn’t basically killed their 2-D Animation departments. It’s also a great example of how you can, without any words, immediately communicate an entire character with a few frames. Plus, it’s George Gershwin.
“He Mele No Lilo”, Lilo & Stitch (2002)
(Stop at 2:27)
Lilo & Stitch is saturated with Hawai’ian culture, and it’s phenomenal. This sequence introduces us to Lilo, and a few of her quirks. We see Pudge, the fish, and his peanut butter sandwich. We see Lilo take a picture of the tourist (which is actually an act of satire, if you think about it). This is actually one of Disney’s better character introductions– it’s done through visuals and context rather than dialogue. The title of the song translates to “Song For Lilo” (or “A roller coaster ride”, if you believe Google Translate), and establishes setting as well as the animation establishes character.
Will and Elizabeth’s Wedding, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007)
I’m skipping to the end, but the video has the whole thing. Pirates 3 is an interesting movie in that as a stand-alone it’s probably my favorite of the franchise, but as a sequel to Pirates 2, it completely falls apart. Which is why I usually just watch the third film. This kiss was earned too, after everything these two went through to get there. The wedding also has to be the best wedding ceremony put to film, too (The Princess Bride being a close second, of course). It’s big and it’s a bit cheesy, but that’s par for the course with these movies. Where I think it succeeds as a moment, though, is that it’s almost completely unexpected. We know that for the relationship to have a satisfying ending, they will get married. We didn’t know going in that they would get married in the middle of a whirlpool by the villain of the first film while fighting off privateers and fish people. God, I love this movie.
The Lost Princess, Tangled (2010)
(Stop at 1:18)
Dramatic irony, as you probably learned in your 9th grade English class, is when the audience knows something that the characters don’t. We know going into this film that Rapunzel is the princess of Corona. We don’t necessarily know all the details, but we know the basics of how the story goes– almost all the fairy-tale based movies are set on that assumption. So we get to a moment like this, and it has to be satisfying to the audience because while we are not getting any new information, we need to feel like we are. The conceit of the kingdom’s symbol showing up subliminally in her artwork is great for that, and the music builds quickly to that “revelation”.
“Vuelie Reprise (The Great Thaw), Frozen (2013)
This scene was probably one of the more difficult ones for the filmmakers because it had to equal the emotional impact of “Let It Go”, but show the reverse effect. “Veulie” is that Norwegian chant in the title credits that you can never figure out the lyrics to, but sounds magical enough, so they brought it back for this scene, but about 20% cooler via an orchestral backing track. Elsa’s magic… really doesn’t make sense, and it probably never will, but this is one of the more impressive displays of it in the film, right with building the castle and completely stopping a blizzard in mid-air.
Ella Arrives at the Ball, Cinderella (2015)
(Stop at 2:31)
True story, I tried to find an equivalent moment in the original film to juxtapose with this one, but the original Cinderella really doesn’t have these kinds of moments. Director Sir Kenneth Branagh (yes, that Sir Kenneth Branagh) is probably the reason behind the change, as this film has several. Branagh can always be counted on to do something big. Not that these moments have to be big– as seen with Bambi and Superman, there are times for small moments to give everything, but the moments that are big are the ones that make or break the film. I can’t say all of the moments in this film work, but this one really does.
“We Know the Way”, Moana (2016)
Honestly, if I were on the Academy, I would have fought for this to be Moana‘s nom for Best Original Song. I would have lost, but I would have put up a fight. This is a moment of validation for Moana– the story’s answer to “How Far I’ll Go”. The “I Want” song is very popular with the Disney Princesses, but it is rare that we get a real reason why, beyond “I don’t fit in here, let’s try somewhere else.” Belle wants “adventure in the great wide somewhere”, yes, great wording, girl whose defining trait is reading too much. Merida wants “to stay single and let my hair flow in the wind as I ride through the glen firing arrows into the sunset.” Tiana is better, she wants to have her own restaurant to fulfill the dream her father had. Rapunzel wants to leave the tower so that she can see the lights. It’s fine to have simple motivations, Cinderella just wants a night off, but simply wanting “more” can fall flat. Moana wants to sail– this moment tells us why.
Any moments I missed? Disagree with the ones I have? Confused about the concept entirely? Let me know in the comments.
I’m feeling in a bit of a Disney mood, so stay tuned for next week– I might just have more for you.