“A bad song can ruin a good Disney”
Animated film specialist, Pierre Lambert deciphers for “Le Point” the central role of songs in cartoons and their evolution.
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“Music has tremendous power. You can watch any of these movies and they'll be boring, but as soon as you add music to them, you breathe life into them that they wouldn't have had any other way. Walt Disney has always designed his cartoons with great importance to music, to the point of devoting a large part of his production budget to it. The songs integrated into the cartoons have marked generations of children around the world, an art that many of its competitors have tried to copy without ever succeeding in equaling it.
A specialist in the history of animated cinema, Pierre Lambert has published numerous works on Disney masterpieces, in particular Alice in Wonderland* (published in October 2020), which offers a behind-the-scenes look of the production of the film through drawings taken from the studio's archives. From Snow White to Frozen, passing through the hits of The Lion King, he deciphers the importance of the songs that made Disney's success… and judges the Point ranking.
The Point: We have classified all the songs from Disney and Pixar cartoons. “I'm Your Best Friend” (Aladdin), “Hakuna Matata” (The Lion King), and “Prince Ali” (Aladdin) come out on top. Is it surprising?
Pierre Lambert:That only half surprises me. The public has more in mind the most recent films [Aladdin and The Lion King date from the 1990s, Ed]. They are also the most developed and covered songs, especially thanks to the amusement parks, where they have been highlighted: they have had a larger audience, so it is quite logical that they come out on top.
If we were us, what songs would you have chosen?
It's a question of generation. This is the strength of Disney, to be intergenerational. When, like me, we were born in the 1960s, what marked us was The Jungle Book, The Aristocats… But we remember all the songs.
At Disney, songs have been present in cartoons since the first feature film of the studio in 1937, Snow White. How to explain that they occupy such an important place?
Walt Disney always said, “When I make a movie, half the budget goes to the music. It shows how important it was to him. The song gives rhythm to the cartoon. There is the soundtrack, then the songs punctuate it, bringing joy to the film. Take Snow White: you have both drama with the witch and joy with the dwarfs when they start singing. We even have the romantic side with “One day my prince will come”. The composers worked permanently at the studio, Walt Disney was very keen on it. They followed the development of the films and had the storyboard, resulting in songs that fit perfectly into the story.
Today there is commercial interest: the songs make a lot of money.
After the death of Walt Disney, the songs are less and less present in cartoons, until the end of the 1980s, when they are their big comeback in The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, The Lion King…
It's a return to basics. The new president of the Disney animation studio, Peter Schneider, is passionate about musicals. He brings in Alan Menken, a composer for Broadway shows. Schneider has found the rare pearl, who brings a renewal to the studio while reconnecting with the musical cartoons of the 1950s. With Alan Menken, cartoons become musicals. The styles change with the composers, but there is always the Disney touch. There have also been very few composers: apart from Carl Stalling, hired by Walt Disney for Steambot Willie in 1928 [the first animated short film where Mickey appears, editor's note] and who only stayed two years before leaving for Warner, most stayed ten or fifteen years. There was Franck Churchill (Snow White, Dumbo, Bambi…), then Oliver Wallace (Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan…) and finally, before Menken, the Sherman brothers, who greatly changed the style, and to whom we owe in particular The Jungle Book, Mary Poppins, and music for Disneyland attractions. These few names have made 30 years of Disney history!
Again in recent years, we have seen a great comeback of songs in Disney cartoons, especially in Frozen. Is the old recipe applied with the same success?
The recent songs are a success, it is undeniable, all the children know them by heart. But I have the impression that today, we adapt the cartoon to the music rather than the reverse. The songs sometimes arrive like a hair in the soup. In Peter Pan, “Tu t'envoles” is completely integrated into the script and direction. Walt Disney was very demanding: dozens of songs were written and then dropped. In Snow White, for example, there is a song where the dwarves drink their soup. This sequence of several minutes was entirely animated, which represents a colossal budget, but was finally deleted. Not that it wasn't successful, but it was removed for the pacing of the film, as Disney deemed it too long. Today, songwriters don't work full-time in the studio anymore, which affects the quality, but above all there is the commercial interest: the songs make a lot of money, and they feed the amusement parks. Walt Disney had considered, during his lifetime, adapting the story of Frozen, which is a tale by Andersen, but he surely would not have done it like that.
But what is 'a good Disney song?
It has to be well placed in the story, that it sticks with the script. There are so many great ones it's hard to say. Even the oldest ones, from Snow White or Peter Pan, have remained.
Now we hire stars to do the voices. This is an error.
Does a bad song make a bad cartoon?
It's not so much that it makes a bad cartoon, but it can ruin a good one. We see it in particular with competitors of Disney, who have tried to copy the recipe without success. Disney has always taken the best artists, the best animators, the best composers… There's no secret!
The peculiarity of these songs is that they are written and composed in English, then translated. Are the French versions still as good as the original?
Most of them are excellent. Armand Bigle, who ran the Walt Disney Company in France for a long time, took great care in dubbing films. We think in particular of Roger Carel who was very important. Now, we take stars to do the voices. It is a mistake. At the time, we chose the actors for their voices, so that they stick to the original. Take The Nightmare Before Christmas, produced by Disney: when Tim Burton, the director, saw the French version, he found it as good as the original.
Disney would have he lost the recipe of what made his success?
The market is not the same today. Before, there were three or four cartoons a year, and we waited for a Disney for several years. Today, an animated film is released every week on average, so there is less originality than before. It's only at Pixar [studio bought by Disney, editor's note] that we take the time and work with Walt Disney's philosophy. That's why it works and why it's good. Pixar is the most creative studio in the world. And when there are songs, like in Coco, it's because they serve the story.
*Alice in Wonderland by Pierre Lambert, Huginn & Muninn, 39.95 €.
Consult our file: The musical rankings of the “Point”