The “I want”-song is a stable of musicals and has at this point parodied a couple of times. Is it really needed? Yes and no. For a musical to work, you have to convey the motivation of the characters to the audience. You don’t have to do it in song, but then, it is a musical, so singing it is the most logical way to do it.
In Disney movies, the “I want”-song has been a stable long before the studio decided to go full Broadway-style during the Disney Renaissance. Snow White was already intonating “I’m wishing” into her well, and since then, there have been a couple of well-beloved “I want”-songs. Interestingly, none of them ever won an Oscar. Those honours usually go to the love song or the fun song of the movie. A little bit unfairly, since the “I want”-song tends to be the heart and the soul of the movies in question.
Today I want to discuss two examples of “I want”-songs which have been perfectly utilized in very different ways. And I guess, I’ll do it chronologically and start with “A Dream is a Wish your Heart makes”.
Cinderella as a whole does not really have much of a score. Oh, there are a lot of songs, but there are also a lot of scenes in which there is no music at all. There is one theme which keeps turning up, though, and that is the melody of “A Dream is a Wish your Heart makes”. It gets reprised from the off at Cinderella’s lowest point in the movie, when she has lost all hope, and again at the very end when she gets her happy end. The lyrics in itself are simple. “Have faith in your dreams” is the message, “Now matter how your heart is grieving, if you keep on believing the dream that you wish will come true” the promise. It is a (fairly short) song about never giving up hope. And every time it is played in the background, it reminds the audience of the message, which is also the underlying theme of the movie as a whole. Simple, but effective.
Not so simple is “Belle”. Unlike “A Dream is a Wish your Heart makes” this song is very detailed and very specific. It also is an example of “how to establish a whole setting in one song”. “Belle” not only introduces the main character to the audience, in the song we also meet the whole village, the villain and learn everything we need to know about the motivation of half of the cast in “Beauty and the Beast”. Just look at the first passage:
“Little town it’s a quiet village.
Everyday like the one before.
Little town full of little people, waking up to say.”
We are not even fully into the song, and we already get a sense of the village we are about to enter. The use of “little” especially in connection with “people” suggests that we are dealing with a place full of narrow-minded people, something which will be detailed even further when we see them all wrapped up in their everyday business. Belle even comments on it:
“Every morning just the same since the morning that we came,
To this poor provincial town.”
This lines not only make it clear how disconnected Belle feels, it also subtle suggests that she and her father are outsiders in more than one way (note that they also life at the edge of the town and not in the village itself). Belle did not grew up at this place, her point of view is from the get go broader than the one of the villagers, who most likely never left their little space of the world. But we also learn their perspective on Belle in great detail:
“Now It’s no wonder that her name means beauty, her looks have got no parallel.
But behind that fair facade, I’m afraid she’s rather odd.
Very different from the rest of us.
She’s nothing like the rest of us. Yes different from the rest of us is Belle.”
This also introduces the main theme of the movie, which is all about outer beauty vs. inner beauty. Belle is more than her looks, but the villagers would like to reduce her to her beauty. Especially Gaston:
“Right from the moment when I met her, saw her, I said she’s gorgeous and I fell…Here in town, there is only she, who is as beautiful as me. So I’m making plans to woo and marry Belle.”
Thanks to this line the audience knows from the get go that Gaston’s interest in Belle has nothing to do with love and everything with vanity. He is not interested in her, but in getting the “best” available. Not that he doesn’t have other options:
“Look there he goes, isn’t he dreamy? Monsieur Gaston, oh he’s so cute!
Be still my heart, I’m hardly breathing. He’s such a tall, dark, strong and handsome brute.”
Not only do we get the view of the villagers on Belle, we also learn how popular Gaston is, especially with the ladies. Notable is the use of the word “brute”, which does imply that the villagers are well aware how rogue his character is, but for some reason, they consider him desirable nevertheless. Or maybe even because of it.
The song concludes in a big climax, in which all the different opinions and motivations are set against each other.
There must be more than this provincial life!
Just watch, I’m going to make Belle my wife!
Look there she goes
The girl is strange but special
A most peculiar mad’moiselle!
It’s a pity and a sin
She doesn’t quite fit in
‘Cause she really is a funny girl
A beauty but a funny girl
She really is a funny girl
The conflict which will later provide the backdrop for the climax of the movie is already set up in great detail, and everything we learn later about Belle, Gaston and the villagers will built up on it. Just imagine how much time it would have cost to set all this up in dialogue and scenes, without doing an exposition dump.
In conclusion, a well-done “I want”-song is more than just an introduction for the main character, it can be so much more. It can establish the theme of the movie, a conflict, even a whole society. It can be about general ideas, but also very specific. Well utilized, it is the core of a movie, the base on which everything which comes later is built on. So we shouldn’t joke about the “I want”-song in general. Just about the ones, which are badly done.