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.
And that is what we’re talking about.
In this series, I am going to go through every Disney soundtrack that accompanies each of the Disney Animated Canon– currently, 56 films starting with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and going to Moana— and pick the best song out of each album. I will be breaking this series up by era and releasing them over the next couple of months, with other stuff in between so that this doesn’t just turn into a Disney blog. This week, we focus on the Golden Age of Disney. This era includes Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi. These first five movies are all classics, made in quick succession within the span of 6 or 7 years. These movies put the Disney company on the map as a movie studio, establishing the tropes that they continue to use, and setting the standard for family entertainment for years to come.
So, like, no pressure, right?
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
The Snow White soundtrack is… a product of its time. Adriana Caselotti is very 1930’s in how she voices Snow, and it shows. There are some more forgotten songs on there– could you name a lyric from “With a Smile and a Song” that isn’t the title?– but easily the stand out is “High-Ho”. This song introduces the Dwarfs (not “Dwarves”, which had only just been introduced in The Hobbit that year and would not become standard practice until much later) who are by far the most entertaining characters of the film. I’m not certain where the correlation between Dwarfs/Dwarves and mining comes from, but I like how the song uses the sounds of the mine as a part of the texture of the peace.
“When You Wish Upon a Star” is the Disney song. Literally, it’s the song that plays during the Disney logo in a film. Disney gets a lot of flack for this song, but it is gorgeous. It is one of a handful of Disney songs that have become jazz standards, having been covered by artists like Louie Armstrong, Gene Simmons, and The Muppets (ft. the cast of Star Wars in an amazing bit of real life foreshadowing). It’s used in almost everything with the Disney brand– movies and television, the parks, the cruise line– the song is no less than an icon. I know that word is used too much, but it really is.
While all of the sketches in Fantasia are absolutely stunning, the best song of Fantasia has to be Igor Stravinski’s “The Rite of Spring”. It’s not the best animated segment, nor the most iconic, but if we’re judging based on the merits of the songs themselves (and I am), then “The Rite of Spring” is miles above the others. The Pastoral Symphony is not Beethoven’s best, and The Nutcracker isn’t as complex as The Sleeping Beauty or Romeo and Juliet. “The Rite of Spring” was groundbreaking in its day, and still entertains modern audiences, while also challenging them. It’s not often you can say that of a song on a Disney album.
Of the Golden Age, Dumbo is probably the weakest film– though certainly not bad. “When I See An Elephant Fly” is the strongest song on the soundtrack, though it certainly has its more problematic elements. That seems to be a reflection of the film, while it is a certified Disney classic, it is also removed from itself in a way. The biggest reference most Gen X and Millenials have for it is the Dumbo ride at the parks. I would put money on many people my age having never seen it, or if they have, wouldn’t remember the plot. Not all, but many.
I really, really wish more people knew “Love Is a Song”. It’s absolutely gorgeous, and beautifully simple, much like the film it comes from. It’s also an early example of Disney’s use of choral works to tie into the film’s theme– like “The Second Star to the Right”, “Steady as the Beating Drum”, and “We Know the Way”. This helps bring the viewers into the what the film is about, and functions almost more as incidental music than a musical number. These songs are also sometimes non-diegetic, meaning that they do not exist within the context of the story that is being presented.
Thoughts? Comments? Concerns? As always, the comment section is open.