Category Archives: Disney Renaissance

Double Take: Bambi vs The Lion King

I am taking a break with my “By the Book” series, but meanwhile I want to examine two movies which I could have discussed in this context but decided not to. In the case of The Lion King because it is no official adaptation of Hamlet in the first place and in the case of Bambi because it is similar to The Fox and the Hound an adaptation in name only anyway. The original book is mostly an exploration of religion and the relationship between human and animals (and often very depressing). This in mind I feel that the movie will be served better if I discuss it in this new series. “Double Take” is about comparing movies, which have similar themes and elements but were made in a different time period. Other obvious cases I have in mind for future discussion are for example The Rescuers and the Fantasia movies. I have to emphasise though that the point of this series is not to declare one movie as the better one (unless the answer is obvious), but to examine how the approach to those themes differ and what this says about the development of the Animation Studios and animation in general.

I’ll do the following: I will identify elements which are similar in both movies and then compare how they are dealt with. Some will be quite standard – i.e. every movie has a certain set of characters, animation and music – others will be very specific to those movies. So, without further ado, let’s begin.5 Bambi-1

1. The Circle of Life

Even though The Lion King is the movie which made a big deal around the Circle of Life, Bambi was actually the first animated movie which tackled the concept. Well, kind of. A number of elements The Lion King is famous for already turn up in Bambi: Animals gathering to witness the birth of a new “prince”, the notion of nature recovering over time, the closing of the movie with the birth of a new generation and a character taking over for another character. But despite all this Bambi creates less the notion of something circular and more a sense of live continuing and new beginnings. The forest which burns down in Bambi doesn’t just magically appear again, instead you can see the charred wood under the new plants. In Bambi, life might be swift and fleeting, but what stays is the love which will ensure that there will always be a new generation.

In The Lion King the Circle of Life is a whole philosophy which boils down to everyone being part of a carefully balanced construct and if one group takes more than it should, then it leads to everyone suffering due to it. Though I am not quite clear how Scar’s leadership can cause a drought which conveniently ends as soon as Simba defeats him, the message is way more overt than it is in Bambi:  If you allow destructive elements to take over the government, than everyone will suffer. (And yes, I wish that the people in Venezuela, Turkey, Russia, the UK and the US had paid more attention to said message, just to mention a few countries in which the balance has been systematically destroyed).

2. The Concept of Leadership32 mufasa

Bambi was released 1942. The Lion King hit the theatres 51 years later. But even though there is half a century between those movies, it is oddly Bambi which is the more unusual one when it comes to portraying leadership. Even though Bambi is considered the prince, the movie suggests that his father is the leader because he is the biggest, strongest and smartest and when Bambi takes up the mantle he has already proven himself to be a great fighter, too. Though it is not like either of them ever does something especially kingly aside from looking over the forest in an impressive pose.

The Lion King on the other hand has an actual royal family in the traditional sense, with Simba being the next in line for the throne even though he is still a child. And there are responsibilities connected to the position, like keeping the hyenas at bay. In short, Bambi portrays how hierarchy works in the animal kingdom while The Lion King is built on a the concept of a very human monarchy. One in which apparently the animals are supposed to be happy that the lion eats them because otherwise they might get eaten by the hyena.

Yeah, I admit, I have a little bit of trouble with the notion of animals kneeling for a predator. Also with the notion that everybody has his place in live and should accept said place. It is better to take The Lion King not too literal in this regard and see the animals as stand in for different kind of people. In the case of the hyenas it is pretty obvious which kind is meant, the extremists, who believe in their own superiority. But, as the movie shows, if you actually do allow them to realize their visions, it is very much a case of “be careful what you wish for”.  In this regard The Lion King adds an element which is not present in Bambi, by contrasting good leadership with bad leadership.

3. The Coming of Age

Between Bambi and Simba, only the latter shows actual character development. We see Bambi as a babe, as a child, as a young adult and finally as a father, but his character doesn’t really change much through it. He is a little bit a blank slate, an audience surrogate. It is easy to just slip into his mind-set and experience his world from his point of view, to feel his pain and his joy, but this is pretty much all his character offers, we never learn anything about his desires, his dreams or even his opinions.

Simba is the absolute opposite, after a short scene with him as a babe, we get to know his child version, who is, frankly, an arrogant brat. Zazu is right, the idea that this child might be king one day is not a pleasant one. We then see him embracing a live without responsibilities, hiding from his own guilt. And finally we see him maturing and accepting his responsibilities. Unlike Bambi he has an actual arc in addition to just growing up, though the movie doesn’t quite stick the landing. The whole message of taking responsibility is a little bit muddle up in the end, because what actually gives Simba peace is not him facing his past but discovering Scar’s betrayal. Though naturally he would have never learned the truth if not for him going back. Like I said, it’s a little bit muddled. 32 hyenas

4. Hurdles and Adversaries

The Lion King has clear villains in Scar and the Hyenas. Now, Scar has one of the best villain songs Disney ever created in “Be Prepared”, and his demeanour is very terrifying – at the beginning of the movie. Once he actually is in power he comes off as kind of pathetic. I used to think that this is a little bit of a let-down, but recently I have started to realize that this is actually pretty realistic. People who are interested in the position of the king without any consideration what it actually means to be king are often pretty pathetic once they have all the power and are unable to wield it in a manner which will strengthen their position. Or for the benefit of the people.

In Bambi the adversary is live itself. Sure, “man” is a little bit of a villain in this because it whenever “man” turns up it means something terrible will happen in the forest, but there is no rhyme or reason to his presence, it is just something which happens once in a while, just like a thunderstorm, or a hard winter, or a rival wanting to lay claim on Feline. “Man” wrecks the most destruction during the movie, but he is still just one of the realities of live – though a particular terrifying one.

5. The Loss of a Parent32 Scar

There have actually been discussions which death scene has been done better, Bambi’s mother dying or Mufasa dying. I would say, it depends what you are looking for. Mufasa’s character is more fleshed out than Bambi’s mother is – who doesn’t even have a name – we get to see his terror when he realizes what Scar is about to do, we see his body and we see Simba crying beside him. All this is certainly a stab in the heart. But it is also a very expected tragedy. The movie is called The Lion King, Scar has been established as a scheming character who is out for the throne early on, and as long as Mufasa is around, he will always protect Simba. Ergo there was next to no chance that he would make it to the end of the movie.

But there is a reason why the scene of Bambi’s mother dying is so infamous that even people who never watched the movie know about it. The movie establishes early on that the meadow is a dangerous place to be because of “man”, therefore it is kind of expected that something terrible might happen at one point, but not exactly what will happen, consequently her death is not as expected as Mufasa’s is. Everything about this scene, from the music, to Bambi’s mother telling him to run, to Bambi suddenly realizing that she didn’t follow is just perfect. In a way him never seeing her body makes it even more effective, because she is just gone. One moment there was happiness because they finally found some green during a hard winter and the next all of it is gone and the only thing left is emptiness. It actually feels very realistic. In most cases death is something sudden and unexpected, you rarely get to say good-bye and sit by the bedside while someone passes on. 5 Bambi-Flower-Thumper

6. The Support

Ever noticed that Thumper and Flower have the same basic narrative function as Timon and Pumba have? Thumper’s role in the story is pretty much to share his “wisdom” with Bambi, from teaching him his first words to showing him how much fun snow can be, just like Timon explains to Simba the concept of Hakuna Matata, though he comes more from the place of a mentor (or crazy uncle), while Thumper is Bambi’s peer, being only slightly older than him. Flower and Pumba are both comic relief, though they use a very different kind of humour. The joke with Flower is how affine and nice he is for a skunk. Pumba is one big fart joke.

32 GroupAnother difference is that Bambi’s friends are never around to help him whenever he ends up in danger, while Timon and Pumba are supporting Simba during the final fight. They are more integral to the story than Thumper and Flower are.

In addition both movies have a bird character who is mostly around to complain about the world. Bambi has Owl, The Lion King has Zazu. Those characters are pretty similar to each other except that Zazu has personal stakes in what Simba does, while Owl is more a benevolent observer.  32 zazu

7. The Romance

The romance in neither movie is more than a plot point to create conflict and/or move the story forward. In both cases, the protagonist has a childhood friend and falls immediately in love the moment he sees her as an adult. To the credit of The Lion King, Nala is a little better fleshed out than Feline. She has an adventurous streak, but has a better sense for responsibility than Simba has. On the other hand, though, Bambi’s approach to the whole romance matter is refreshingly honest and funny. It’s spring, it is part of the animal instinct to mate in spring, so just go with it. The Lion King pretends that there is more to the story, but in the end, it also boils down to “oh, female I know as a child, let’s mate”. There isn’t much depth to either relationship.

8. The Animation

Both movies are made for the big screen to a degree that a lot of the experience is lost if you watch them on TV. Bambi has those beautiful detailed backgrounds and often looks like a moving painting. If I have one beef with it than that the characters sometimes look a little bit too cartoony in the setting. The Lion King stands out through its use of primary colours, but also through sheer scale. The most impressive scene is naturally the stampede, which demonstrates a giant jump in computer technology. It is also more inventive. Bambi mostly uses imaginary which already existed beforehand, you could simply freeze frame a lot of moments and they look like a typical hunting lodge painting. With The Lion King it is the other way around, you see an image of someone lifting a babe and you are immediately reminded of this movie. Some of what is done is based on something – for example Timon, Pumba and Simba walking over a tree bridge is similar to Aurora doing the same in Sleeping Beauty – but with a unique twist to it. Bambi is the movie you watch if you want to be in awe over the beauty of nature, but also be soothed by it. The Lion King is the movie for you if you want to be overwhelmed by the spectacle on screen and iconic imaginary.32 Pumba and Timon

9. The Music

Bambi is a masterpiece of Mickey Mousing, meaning the technique of replacing sound effects with music. It has gotten a negative reputation with time, partly because it originated in Disney cartoons, partly because some movies just overdid it. But in fact most movies are still using the technique to a certain degree. And if there is a movie which demonstrates how much atmosphere Mickey Mousing can create if used correctly, it is Bambi. Just listen to “Little April Shower”, you can hear the rain and the thunder and the lighting in the music itself. But this is just the most obvious example of this technique, through the movie the music often sounds like wind or, for the winter scenes, specifically cold wind.

In addition, Bambi is a ground-breaking movie. You know those music pieces which play only two notes in order to suggest looming danger? You know, along the line of Jaws and Psycho? Yeah, Bambi invented that concept. It’s still three notes there, but the basic idea of using a very limited number of tunes and then speed it up in order to suggest danger coming closer was first used in this movie.

The Lion King can’t really hope to be similar ground-breaking in this category simply because it was created decades later. What it did start is the trend in Disney movies to use foreign language in a song to give a setting an exotic vibe. But otherwise it does fall pretty much in the pattern Ashman and Menken have codified for The Little Mermaid. Which is kind of ironic, btw. Word is that Elton John only agreed to do this project if nobody forced him to write another musical. Disney agreed and the end result was a soundtrack which is now the basis for the highest grossing musical of all time.

Though while both movies feature music, Bambi isn’t really a musical. This is especially notable in the way the music is used. With one exception, all the songs are sung from the off and the one which isn’t is justified within the plot. In The Lion King there is only one song completely sung from the off (“Circle of Life”), and the character perform elaborate dance numbers while they blurt out their plans and feelings. The purpose of the music in The Lion King is character development as well as creating opportunities for the animators to go crazy. In Bambi it is used for atmospheric purposes. It still has something which passes as a love song, but otherwise it is completely devoid of the usual kind of songs to a degree, that none of the categories I put together for my Systematic of Songs would be a particular good fit for them.

10. A Fiery Finale 

When it comes to the finale, neither of those movies disappoint, and they both really amp up the action by throwing fire into the mix. Notably though, in The Lion King the fire is more a background feature, something to make the battle look cool (alongside the fake slomo, a feature Disney thankfully mostly stopped using after Pocahontas). In Bambi the fire is the enemy. Bambi last big feat in the movie is not to defeat an opponent (its his second to last instead) but to outrun something which is way more powerful than he is.

11. The Big Difference5 Bambi-4

If there are two movies which demonstrate that having similar elements says nothing about the end result, its Bambi and The Lion King. They have similar themes, similar characters, similar plot points and a lot of similar elements. And yet they are totally different, mostly because the approach is so different. The mind-set behind Bambi was largely realism. Disney even brought real live deer to the studio so that the animators could study their movement – which really paid off, btw, if you compare Snow White with Bambi, there is a giant leap in quality regarding the animation of the animals. We are still in a period in which Walt Disney experimented a lot. His desire was to not repeat the same thing again and again but to surprise the audience with fresh ideas. Hence Bambi ended up being a slice of life story. It isn’t really about Bambi, but about the experience of growing up.

The Lion King on the other hand falls into the Disney Renaissance and sadly the people who were in charge of the studio during this period were ready to milk a working formula. This is not a criticism The Lion King, despite it not being a fairy tale movie, the structure fits the story and it does enough new to not come off as stale. Even if it dips mostly into familiar structures, you can hardly argue with it when it does it so good. But in contrast to Bambi, The Lion King is more set on telling a story about a layered character with a very specific moral. That makes it kind of predictable at times, but only in the basics. You know that Mufasa will most likely die, but not that he will die by stampede, or that Disney would have the balls to show a dead body. You know that Simba will eventually go back home, but how he comes to the decision is really unexpected. And you know that Simba will triumph in the end, but there is enough going on in the finale battle to make it engaging.

12. Conclusion

My experience with both movies are very different. Bambi I say the first time when I was very, very little and it frankly kind of terrified me. Though what really got to me was less the death of Bambi’s mother specifically, and more the thunderstorm and especially the damned dogs in the end. I am actually kind of terrified of dogs, and this movie is one of the various reasons why. Then came a period in which I didn’t watch it at all. I am not really the type who is into slice of life stories, for me the characters are pretty much the most important element of any movie out there. Nowadays though I kind of adore Bambi. It is not the kind of movie I would watch just for fun, but the artistry in it is something really enthralling.

The Lion King I saw in theatres – twice. I was all over it during its runtime. But this is one of those cases where a movie doesn’t get better an better upon rewatch. On the small screen, it just looses a lot. It is kind of like Titanic that way. You can watch it on the small screen, but without drowning (no pun intended) in the pure scale of it the flaws in the narrative become more obvious. I was just never able to recapture the first experience of watching it, or to replace the feeling with something similar enthralling. That doesn’t mean that I don’t like the movie, it is still one of Disney’s greatest. I just don’t consider it as this big masterpiece. Maybe because I had my “shocking death experience which scarred me as a child” with Bambi while a lot of other people had it the first time The Lion King.

In terms of quality those movies are on the same level. They are excellent movies which will most likely continue to be relevant, no matter how much time passes. But if I had children, I think I would show them Bambi first. Terrifying or not, it is just better suited for younger children, while The Lion King is better suited for slightly older children who might at least partly get the political aspect of it. Bambi is just a little bit more self-explanatory.

And yes, I do think that every child should watch a movie in which a parent character dies on screen in a heart wrenching manner. It is a good way to prepare them for the notion of death and to give them an understanding of it. That Disney dared to venture into this territory at least twice is the main reason why those two movies are so enduring.

 

 

 

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By the book: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

To say it upfront: Between Victor Hugo’s two “big” novels, I tend to gravitate more towards Les Misérables, mainly because Notre Dame de Paris is downright depressing. Oh, both books delve deep into the social injustices of their time and the darkness of the human soul. But I think that Les Misérables is the more sophisticated take of those two, much clearer in the message it is trying to tell with much more relatable characters in it. Notre Dame de Paris is from a literature historic angle the more important one though, because it is considered the first novel about the society as a whole, including different classes, instead of concentrating on only the rich or only the poor. That Disney even tried a take on it is somewhat surprising, because Disney movies are not about social but about personal problems. When Disney does Dickens it’s never about the social aspect and always about the fate of main character of the story. But Dickens’ stories usually have some sort of happy end which plays well into the fairy-tale-like family- friendly storytelling Disney likes so much. Notre Dame de Paris has none of those elements, it is a very disturbing book made for adults. So, does Disney’s watered down version work?

1. The Setting

You might have noticed that I used so far the original French title for The Hunchback of Notre Dame. That was intentional, because the translated title is very misleading. It’s not the Hunchback who is the main character of the story, it’s Notre Dame. Most of the book is set there and a lot of time is spend on the description of Notre Dame itself. And the Disney version? Well, there Notre Dame is prominent, too. The most memorable parts of the movie feature the cathedral and the scales are very impressive. The difference is that Disney shows off the beauty of Notre Dame, while Hugo’s intention was to point out that this great building was neglected and slowly falling to ruins. The state of Notre Dame reflects the state of society.

I’m not too bothered by the change, though. The audience and the intention of the movie is entirely different from the book. A close adaption would try to stick to those kinds of details, but I think that a good adaption should try to be relevant. And for a modern audience it makes more sense to appreciate the beauty of what survived the decades (I guess Victor Hugo would be very pleased to know that his book made sure that Notre Dame is nowadays one of the most well-known places in Paris).

2. The Animation

Would you be surprised if I told you that Notre Dame is actually not that big of a church? The two big towers are only 69 metres high. Nor are there any steps leading up to the entrance. What is real, though, are the gargoyles, the giant rosette window and the bells. But I don’t mind it that Disney exaggerated a little bit, I put this down to artistic licence. What is truly important is not how realistic the church and Paris itself is, but if the portrayal works for the movie, and it certainly does. Nearly all Disney movies are visually impressive, but this one is especially memorable.

3. The Characters

The great thing about the original book is that none of the characters are totally good or totally evil. The one who comes the closest of being an “innocent” is Esmeralda, who is somewhat (to borrow a line of another Disney movie) a diamond (or Emerald) in the rough. The Disney version is somewhat clearer cut – therefore the characters end up being very, very different.

Disney Quasimodo: More or less imprisoned at Notre Dame he dreams of leaving the place. He is kind-hearted and doesn’t do a single bad thing during the movie. Original Quasimodo: Not only ugly but also practically deaf and nearly unable to speak he chooses not to venture out of Notre Dame very often. He tries to kidnap Esmeralda for Frollo, but later, after she showed some kindness towards him out of pity, he does his very best to defend her, killing a couple of people in the process, including gypsies who are actually there to rescue her. He eventually murders Frollo when he laughs about Esmeralda’s death by throwing him from the cathedral. And then dies of starvation next to her body.

34 FrolloDisney Claude Frollo: A judge who uses his power over Paris mostly in a crusade against the Gypsies. After he accidentally kills a woman, the archdeacon orders him to take care of her ugly child as penance. He gives the child the “cruel name” Quasimodo and hides him in the tower. When he falls for Esmeralda, he slowly descends into madness, burning half Paris and eventually trying to burn her. Original Claude Frollo: The archdeacon, who takes care of an abandoned Quasimodo out of compassion and named him after the day on which he was found. He also cares deeply for his spoiled younger brother (who gets later accidentally killed by Quasimodo). Despite being a man of the church he dabbles in alchemy and is therefore mistrusted by the people of Paris. When he falls for Esmeralda, he falls into sin, first by trying to kidnap her, later by offering her escape in exchange for being with her when the king orders to ignore the sanctuary of Notre Dame. Oh, and he tries to rape her, and lets her take the fall for the murder of Phoebus.

Disney Esmeralda: A gypsy and free spirit, who openly challenges the authority of Frollo. She is able to see through Quasimodo’s misshapen face, seeing the beauty of his soul. But she is not in love with him, instead she falls for the heroic Phoebus. Original Esmeralda: As a child she was kidnapped by the gypsies who left her mother Quasimodo in her place. Her beauty causes more or less every man she meets to fall for her. She once gives Quasimodo water and rescues his life when he is punished for the kidnapping attempt of her. But this is only an act of pity, she is repulsed by him the same way as everyone else until she spends some time with him in the cathedral. Later she marries a poet (who is originally interested in her, but later more obsessed about her goat – and no, I’m not making that up) in order to rescue his life after he discovers the court of miracles. She never lays with him, though, because she is convinced that staying chaste is important in order to find her real mother (which she does, shortly before her death). The only man who nearly manages to convince her of laying with him his Phoebus. She is impressed by him due to his beauty and because he rescued her when Quasimodo first tried to kidnap her. But their “night of passion” is interrupted by Frollo who stabs Phoebus in the back. Esmeralda is accused of his murder (and of being a witch) and killed.

Disney Phoebus: The hero. And that’s more or less all you need to know about him. Oh, and that he is in love with Esmeralda, who rescues him from drowning after he rescued some people from getting burned by Frollo, getting hit by an arrow in his back in the process. Original Phoebus: An egocentric womanizer whose main interest is to bed Esmeralda, despite the fact that he is already betrothed. He actually survives Frollo’s attack on him, but nevertheless doesn’t step forward to defend Esmeralda. Instead he lives unhappy ever after in the cage of marriage.

Disney Clopin: Some sort of king of the gypsies, who is sometimes the narrator of the movie. He once intends to kill Quasimodo and Phoebus for finding the court of miracles. But he also speaks up on Quasimodo’s behalf…eh…this character really doesn’t make much sense, he switches from bad to good and back in seconds. Original Clopin: First introduced as a beggar he is later revealed to be the king of the gypsies. He has never much contact with either Quasimodo or Phoebus, the episode in the Court of Miracles involves the Poet Gringoire instead. Towards the end of the book he is killed by molten lead when he leads an attack on Notre Dame in order to rescue Esmeralda.

4. The Plot

After the rundown it should be pretty clear that the story of the movie is only vaguely related to the original. The animators mostly took elements they liked and created a new story out of it. Therefore, I won’t bother to discuss if this is a faithful adaptation of the book. It naturally isn’t. The real question is if the newly created plot works and if the movie at least manages to address some aspects of the book.

Disney followed the misleading English title and tried to make Quasimodo the main character. Therefore there are storylines which got rewritten for the movie in order to include him, most notable the scene in the Court of Miracles. But what Disney didn’t manage to do is to make him an interesting character. The original Quasimodo is in appearance as close to a monster as a human can be, and not just because of his looks, but also because he has trouble to communicate. Frollo is more or less his only human contact until he meets Esmeralda. He is also a character who means well, but rarely acts well – which is a contrast to most of the other characters in the book, who often are able to sell even the most selfish acts as good to the other characters.

Disney’s version of Quasimodo is, to be frank, quite bland, mostly because they changed his relationship to Frollo and society in general. This Quasimodo doesn’t feel shunned by society, but mostly removed from it. Everything Quasimodo does is about finding a way to connect to the word outside, but since he lacks any experience with it prior to the movie, his isolation seems to be more Frollo’s doing than based on how society tends to react to people who look different. And if you take Quasimodo’s desire away, what is actually left of the character? Quasimodo is basically the ugly duckling, which never becomes a swan. And we tend to feel for the ugly duckling. But if Quasimodo weren’t such a suffering character, would he actually be likable? Being all naïve and wide-eyed? I’m not sure.

Quasimodo’s view on the world is very convoluted. Does he love the cathedral, hate it or a little bit of both? Does he want to leave it for good, does he want to see the world outside or does he mostly want human companionship? Well, he has the companionship of his gargoyles. Yeah, the gargoyles. I didn’t mention them beforehand because they are more or less solely Disney’s creation. A lot of people have stated the opinion that they ruin the mood of the movie and shouldn’t be there in the first place. I agree and disagree.

34 hunchback-gargoyles-webI agree that their kind of humour (mostly modern jokes) doesn’t fit into the movie. But I don’t think that the gargoyles alone are the problem, they are just the worst offenders. This is the movie which put the goofy yell on a scene in which someone falls into an inferno of flames. A freaking goofy yell. I can’t imagine anything more unfitting. It’s like the makers were worried that the movie might become too dark so they threw in as many unfunny jokes as possible to make up for it.

I also agree that the gargoyles as comic relief don’t work. But I also think that the basic idea for them wasn’t bad. Quasimodo spends a lot of time alone, so having the gargoyles as sounding board is a very good solution. An even better solution would have been, if they were presentations of Quasimodo’s psyche. A couple of times during the movie it is suggested that the Gargoyles are not real. This goes out of the window in the final scene, when the Gargoyles intervene in the battle. But if they had stick to the idea and had made the Gargoyles representations of different aspects of Quasimodo’s mind (for example Victor stands for the rational site which keeps saying that nobody will like him, while Hugo (a less silly one) stands for his emotions and his wish to try nevertheless), arguing with each other instead of with him, this could have turned him into a more rounded and interesting character.

Esmeralda and Phoebus are not that interesting either. Oh, Esmeralda is an improvement from the book in being fiercer, and she got some of the best scenes in the movie. Especially the “God help the outcast” scene. Seeing Esmeralda, someone who doesn’t own much and isn’t even a Christ asks for the less lucky ones, while in the background the “true believers” voice their egoistical and shallow wishes, creates a contrast which prompts the audience to think about religion and morals, without being judgmental or preachy. And personally, I think the movie would have been much more interesting if they had made Esmeralda a secondary lead and had taken the time to flesh her out a little bit more.

The main problem with Esmeralda is that she is mostly reduced to her love story, which is very generic. Though the fault lays more with Phoebus than with her, since he is very badly explained in his motivations. One minute he is the obedient soldier who will follow everything Frollo says, next he turns around and does whatever he wants. Which could be an interesting story-line if he were either a soldier who believes in obedience but is eventually swayed by Esmeralda and the level of cruelty Frollo displays, or if he were from the get go someone who doesn’t think highly of authority and only wants a cushy assignment to get away from the war. Any motivation which would require some character development on his part would be more interesting than him just doing what the plot requires of him to do.

But let’s talk about the best character in this movie: Frollo. One of the greatest Disney villain, mostly because he has one of the most interesting motivations and perhaps the best villain song to go with it. Hellfire can’t be praised enough for putting his decent into madness into memorable lyrics and stunning visuals. There is a tiny problem with it though, since Frollo isn’t the archdeacon but a judge, there is actually no reason why he shouldn’t be interested in a woman, he isn’t bound by a vow of chastity after all. But I guess that can be explained away with him thinking of himself as above such feelings, especially when they are related to a gypsy of all people.

But, in a strange twist, everything which makes this character so good works to the disadvantage of the movie as a whole. Because Frollo is a bastard from the start, his feelings for Esmeralda are not really the downfall of his soul, they only lead to revealing a new level of darkness. And because he is the one who hides Quasimodo (in a way a symbol for him hiding his “sins” from the world), he basically stands between him and society. But the idea that society is shunning Quasimodo doesn’t have much a merit when it mostly happens because of Frollo’s actions, and not because society is the way it is.

Which brings us to the real problem of the plot: society. Nothing the “people of Paris” do makes any sense. They have the feast of fools (even though Gypsies are prosecuted they apparently allowed to come out of hiding for this one – weird…..), and they act with fear when they realize that Quasimodo left his tower. Fair enough. Who knows what horrifying stories are told about him (though it would be great to learn what they think about him at one point, the only story which we do see told about him paints him as a victim, after all). But following Clopin’s lead they start to celebrate him. Still understandable, the first shock is over and apparently Quasimodo is no danger. And then they suddenly turn on him…why? He has done nothing, why should they throw anything at him? And later on, where exactly are all those people when Frollo starts to burn down Paris? But when he starts to attack Notre Dame, they are suddenly all for helping Phoebus because a cathedral is naturally more important than their own homes?

This movie should be,about the relation between the Hunchback and society, and that’s what the animators are intended to do. But because the actual story focusses so much on Frollo and the other main characters, the relation between Quasimodo and society becomes an afterthought most of the time.

5. The Music

It should be obvious at this point that I adore the soundtrack of Hunchback of Notre Dame…well, most of it. I really can do without “A guy like you”. But overall he soundtrack is the main reason for me to watch the movie. I especially love how the sound of the bells are integrated in music, most notable in “The Bells of Notre Dame”. But my favourite songs are “Hellfire” (English version) and “God save the outcasts” (German version). Those are songs about deep emotions which manage to transport a lot of feeling.

6. The Conclusion

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a very flawed movie, which has a lot of very good aspects which sadly don’t go together very well and are overshadowed by silliness. Some consider it Disney darkest entry. I disagree. It might seem that way because in recent year Disney has become fairly sugary. But if you look back to the classics, you’ll find that Disney can do dark. In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, it’s just not done very well. Mostly because the animators couldn’t decide on one tone for the movie. You can either do Pinocchio or Aladdin, but you can’t do both at once, you have to pick one style and stick to it. It seems like the animators were worried that making it too dark would make it too adult. I don’t think that one necessarily causes the other. You could have told this story in a serious way without it being utterly unsuitable for children as long as you made sure that you put the story in terms they understand.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is one of those Disney Movies which don’t have much to offer in terms of storytelling, but excel in animation and music. The big scenes  are really gigantic and always worth a watch. Though I admit, I tend to watch it this way: I rewind the “Bells of Notre Dame” three or four times, because it’s so good, then I press the fast forward button, with a few interruption for a couple Frollo bastardy and Esmeralda dancing scenes, until I reach “God help the outcast”. I switch to German for this song (because there it’s more sung like a prayer), go back to English and again fast forward to the hellfire scene. Then I skip (no, not fast forward, I skip so that I don’t have to see any part of “A guy like you”) to the Court of Miracles and from this point onward I watch the rest of the movie.

And that sums up the movie pretty well: A lot of good but with too much bad mixed in to work out as a whole. But, to be honest, considering the source text and how unsuitable it is for a Disney movie, this can be considered an okay effort.


By the Book: Tarzan

So, in order to give my readers here a little bit more content, I have decided to continue with uploading my old “By the Book” series…with one little change. One of the reasons I have been holding off on this for so long is that I have already covered most book-based movies which have no or only a handful of songs. If I would continue with the current format for this, the section for the song-discussion would become incredible long. For example, I have been writing on and off about the Beauty and the Beast soundtrack (yes, I haven’t forgotten, I am working on it), and even though I am not even half through, it is already a beast of an article (pun not intended). So for the sake of keeping it brief, I have decided to keep the soundtrack discussion more general instead of going into deep analysis.

In the case of Tarzan this makes double sense. I just had the opportunity to watch the musical adaptation and it was very interesting to see how much of the story was changed for the stage, and how the new songs fit in. In case you are wondering: I liked the stage play. I often feel that it is somewhat pointless to watch them because they rarely have something to offer which you don’t get in the movie, too, but in this case, the stage play has managed to step out of the shadow of the movie just far enough to be worth discussing – in another article.

Let’s focus on the movie for now, and on the books it was based on. Which means I have to briefly address the Jungle Book, too, since it is fairly obvious were the inspiration for the Tarzan book series came from. And to be honest: Between those two stories about a child which grew up in the jungle, Mowgli is definitely the better pick. If you ask me, the idea behind Tarzan is better than the stories themselves. An old idea in a crowd pleasing format, which is mostly notable due to its revolutionary marketing strategy. Tarzan is not just a book, it is a trademark (copyright is limited, trademark rights aren’t), and Burroughs did his very best to make as many money out of his idea as possible. He was warned that the public would get tired of his character if he created too much around him. Ignoring all those warnings he wrote book after book and gave the audience as much Tarzan as possible – and the audience couldn’t get enough of “their hero”.

1. The Setting

Burrough never visited Africa. And that’s all you really need to know. His idea of the jungle is some sort of exotic place, a fairy tale land in which he can add dangers however he likes. He also didn’t really bother to do his research. For example Sabor was originally a tiger, until someone informed him that there are no tigers in Africa (which is the reason the “piranhas live in South-America” discussion in the Disney movie cracks me up every time). Therefore he changed it to a female lion (female because there already was a name for a male lion mentioned in the stories), but that doesn’t really work either because lions live in the veldt, not in the jungle.

Disney’s take is more realistic. The audience nowadays is more aware which animals actually live where. It’s also much more sensitive about racial issues, the movie therefore painstakingly avoids to show any “native tribes” living in the jungle. The movie also takes much more care to portray the fauna correctly. Consequently Tarzan grows up with Gorillas instead of a non-existing kind of humanlike apes, Sabor is a Leopard and the Jungle in general feels more like an existing place than some sort of phantasy land.

2. The Animation

Tarzan is a gorgeous movie. Not quite as gorgeous as The Lion King, but it does take full advantage of the setting, especially when Tarzan shows Jane his world. But where the movie really shines is the character animation. The movements are fluid, and there are a number of scenes in which a lot of said through gestures rather than words. I think the most memorable scene of the whole movie is when Tarzan compares his hand to Jane’s. There is so much meaning in this one moment when Tarzan realizes that he might not be the only one of his kind after all, while Jane is finally able to calm down and truly take a look at this weird wild creature which just rescued her, seeing the humanity in his eyes. It’s not just the hands and the call-back to the earlier scene with Kala which makes this moment work, it is also the facial expression of the two characters.

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In addition, this is one of those stories practically made for animation. There is only so much a real human can do, but an animated Tarzan is able to swing through the trees like an ape (and sometimes like a surfer). I guess it might be possible to find an acrobat who is able to do some of this stuff, but finding one who is also looking the part and is also a good actor is a nearly impossible task. Consequently this Tarzan is vastly superior compared to all the other versions out there. 37 tarzan6

3. The Characters

Burrough’s  Tarzan is the most perfect human being ever. Not only is he physically stronger than any human being and fights lions with his bare hands, he also teaches himself to read and write, learns later dozens of languages with no trouble at all, is a good shot even though he doesn’t believe in guns, in short, there is nothing Tarzan can’t do. While in most adaptation Tarzan needs some time to truly adjust to humans, in the books he has no trouble at all to act like a “normal” human being. He even lives some time in England. But he doesn’t feel comfortable with the rules of human society (mainly with the ranks, which don’t make sense for him) and prefers to go back to his jungle ways whenever he can. Oh, and on top of this, it turns out that he is rich, an earl and a natural leader.

Disney’s Tarzan is more realistic, and heavily influenced by the Movies and TV series made about him, mainly the Weißmüller movie series. This is where the sound of Tarzan’s yell was established and this is the source of the “I Tarzan, you Jane” dialogue (even though it never happens this way in the English version). The learning curve of Disney’s Tarzan is a more realistic one, and the only notable talent aside from his powerful physic is the ability to imitate every sound he hears, and both are explained with his upbringing.

The original Jane Porter can be summoned up with three words: Damsel in Distress. In the first novels she doesn’t have much of a character aside from being “the one” for Tarzan, and getting rescued by him all the time. Though, to her credit, she is a woman of integrity. Later (waaaaaay later) on she gets a few abilities of her own. But make no mistake: This is not an equal relationship. Burroughs view on the natural order in the relationship between males and females shines through in all novels and basically comes down to the female being happy to serve the strongest protector.

37 janeheadDisney’s Jane Porter is kind of a damsel in distress, too, but not in a bad way. Following the lead of many other adaptations, she is British instead of American (I guess because the more stiff British society provides a better contrast to the Jungle than the American one). But above all: she is smart, she is just as much of a scientist as her father is. Disney offers the audience a full-fledged female character. When she is in distress, it makes sense, because she is in an environment which is unfamiliar to her. But she does learn, at the end of the movie she might not be as good as Tarzan in jumping from tree to tree, but competent enough to hold on her own, which is a far cry from the usual “Jane sitting in a treehouse” scenarios of earlier adaptations. And she has just as much to teach to Tarzan as he can teach her, which includes way more than just the human language. I also like the detail that it’s not Tarzan’s physic which captures her interest the most, but his eyes.37 jporter22

Jane’s father is mostly just that. In the book he seems to exist mostly because a woman back then would normally stay with her family until marriage. And she certainly wouldn’t travel alone, so to get Jane to Africa, the father has to be there. The Disney version underlines the father aspect more, though. When it comes to father figures in animated movies, Professor Porter is certainly one of the better ones. While not exactly an authority figure, he isn’t stupid either, and is neither overly controlling nor neglectful towards his daughter. He is supportive and has a keen eye for her feelings and needs.

When it comes to the animal characters, they are in the books exactly that. They don’t have (nor need) a lot of personality, they simply act like the author thinks animals would act. It naturally wouldn’t be a Disney movie if the animals didn’t talk, so they get some distinctive character traits: Terk is being a tomboy, Tantor is portrayed as fussy germaphobe. They aren’t exactly layered characters, but they have just enough personality to be somewhat memorable.  It’s notable though that Tarzan can talk to them, but Jane can’t, at least not until she imitates Tarzan.

And then there is the villain – Imho opinion the greatest weakness of the movie. Clayton in the book is somewhat pathetic, but he is much more interesting. He is actually Tarzan’s cousin, who unwittingly usurped his inheritance, and his rival for Jane’s affection. Most of the time he serves as some sort of foil for Tarzan, though, and it’s heavily suggested that his physical weakness compared to him is a mirror of his weak character. While he wants to act honourable, he often takes the cowardly way out. Still, the book version of Clayton has a lot of potential and some pathos.

37 clayton33Movie Clayton on the other hand is a fairly boring villain. While it is a good thing that he isn’t interested in Jane (this would be too much like Beauty and the Beast), greed is really the most overused motivation to pick, especially in a movie about white people entering a native or untouched world. I think this would work much better if Clayton were another scientist and his motivation were more along the lines of taking gorillas (and Tarzan) with him to study them. It would have been a nice contrast to Jane’s and Professor Porters less intrusive approach. Plus, historically speaking, so called explorer have done at least as much damage in their thirst for knowledge than people who were just interested in financial gain. Either way, that’s not the approach Disney picked, and I should judge Clayton based on what he is and not based on what I want him to be. What makes him ultimately a failure as a Disney Villain is that he is too obvious.

Yes, I know, Disney Villains tend to be the epitome of evilness. But in this movie we have a character who is, in a way, part of the close circle around the heroes. This means he has to act in a way which at least makes it believable that the characters wouldn’t suspect him of any ill-will. We need at least a clever manipulator like Mother Gothel or Scar, but even better would be a character, whose betrayal even surprises the audience. Clayton is so obviously evil, I keep wondering why Professor Porter hired him in the first place.

4. The Plot

You could summon up the plot of the novel like this: boy grows up in jungle, kills many enemies, boy becomes king of the jungle, boy meets white girl, boy confronts civilization, boy gives up on girl (though naturally not forever). It’s basically the kind of story I expect from a dime novel (well, Tarzan is pulp fiction, so this is not surprising), a clever mix of adventure and romance which speaks to a broad audience, but, honestly, not particularly well written. The characters are mostly stereotypes and the dialogues are full of unnecessary melodrama.

In the Disney version, the focus is not on the love story or on Tarzan confronting civilization, though both aspects are still there. No, the focus is where it should be, on Tarzan trying to figure out where he belongs. To achieve this, Disney took a lot of elements from the novel and remixed it in a clever way. I normally don’t summarize the plot of the movies I review because I expect that my readers already know the basic plot, but in this case I’ll make an exception. For one because it seems to me that this is the best way to point out how Disney twisted the novel around and two, there are some concerns I have concerning the plot which are easier to discuss in context.

So, the movie starts with a couple fleeing in a boat from a burning ship (in the novel Tarzan’s parents get marooned, but really, same difference). We get a nice montage showing how the couple creates a home for themselves in the Jungle. This part is actually way more detailed in the novel, but really, in the great scheme of things it’s not really that important, so it’s a good thing that Disney puts the whole origin of Tarzan into one song.  Tarzan’s real parents are really well done, and there is some outstanding animation which shows how worried his father is about the situation, and how much courage they both show in their fight for survival. We then get a really well done scene in which Kala loses her child to Sabor and then discovers Tarzan, whose parents were killed by Sabor, too. She convinces her mate Kerchak to give her permission to raise Tarzan.

Now, this is a big change from the book, because there Kerchak is the one who killed Tarzan’s father (the mother already died, most likely from child birth), and Kala isn’t his mate, she is just part of the troop. When Tarzan becomes stronger and stronger, killing some powerful enemies, Kerchak sees him more and more as a treat and finally attacks. Tarzan kills him and takes over his position as a leader. But I like the Disney approach better, because it introduces a more compelling conflict. As sad as it is to watch Tarzan having to deal with constant rejection, it is understandable where Kerchak is coming from. It also leads to some of the best scenes in the movie when Kala tries to comfort Tarzan. 37 Disney_Tarzan_by_zaratus

Though I have to say that overall, the scenes from his childhood are a little bit dissatisfying. I love everything related to Kala, and how the movie explains the iconic yell, I also like Tarzan’s resourcefulness. But the scenes between him, Terk and Tantor, they don’t really work, I guess mostly because they both are reduced to “the tomboy” and “the phobic”. A little bit more exploration of their unlikely friendship (even pointing out that elephants usually don’t hang around with gorillas) would have been nice.

You can divide the Disney movie into two parts. The first part is about Tarzan growing up and ends with him killing Sabor, which, I guess, kind of mirror’s Tarzan killing Kerchak in the original novel, since in both cases the kill changes his status in the troop. But I think, Disney missed an opportunity there. While Tarzan is kind of accepted after this deed, the scene between Kerchak and Tarzan is interrupted to early. This would have been the perfect moment not necessarily to accept Tarzan as son but at least to accept him as part of the troop. Tarzan just rescued him and killed the enemy who was a danger for the whole troop for years, the enemy which killed Kerchak’s child. Plus, if Tarzan already had this kind of acceptance, everything which happens in the second part of the movie would have more of an impact.

Now, Tarzan in the novel is well aware of what he is. There is a tribe in vicinity, though relations are – strained, to put it politely, considering that one of the hunters killed Kala. Jane is not special because she is the first woman he met, but the first white woman he comes across (yes, I know, but when I start to rage about every piece of racist and misogynistic BS in this novel, this review will be endless). And the story focusses mostly on the heritage which is rightfully Tarzan’s.

37 kerchackIn the Disney movie on the other hand, it’s Tarzan’s heritage as a human which matters, not title or money. He grew up in the belief that there is no one like him. And now he suddenly discovers that he is not alone, that there are other people exactly like him. People who show him more acceptance than he gets from Kerchak. And that’s the first reason why an early understanding between those two would have caused a better dynamic in the movie (aside from making Kerchak’s desire to protect his people more relatable for the audience). It would have resulted into Tarzan being more torn about approaching the humans.

Either way, from this point onward all similarities with the novel end (thankfully), since the novel describes Tarzan leaving the jungle. The movie is more about Tarzan deciding if he should leave or not. I give it a lot of credit for making Tarzan’s learning curve believable. I give it even more credit for making the learning process a two way street. It puts the science of Jane’s world in contrast with the beautiful nature of Tarzan’s world, without being judgmental about it. Both worlds have their advantages, and both worlds have the dangers, and Jane is as fascinated by Tarzan’s world as Tarzan is by hers. This part is very well done, though, again, a scene between Kerchak and Kala talking about Tarzan’s activities would have been nice, with him warning her that Tarzan will slip away, perhaps even telling her that this is where Tarzan really belongs.

37 kalaIn the end the ship arrives, Clayton tricks Tarzan into believing that Jane will stay if she sees Gorilla’s and we end up with the most idiotic scene in the movie. Sorry, but this part was really not thought through by the animators. One, the way Terk and Tantor lure Kerchak away is just stupid and the idea that he would fell for it idiotic. Two, I get why Tarzan would bring Jane, but why Clayton with his riffle? At this point he should know how dangerous this weapon is, why would he allow it close to his family? Three, after Kerchak discovers what Tarzan has done, why doesn’t he move the troop elsewhere? Up to this point he was a very careful leader, and now he just stays at a place which has just become unsafe?

Anyway, this is reason two why an earlier understanding between Kerchak and Tarzan would have worked so much better. If Tarzan’s task to protect the family had been more like the final hurdle on the way to acceptance, an opportunity to proof himself once and for all, his decision to throw this away would have been a more tragic one. And could have led to a conversation more along the line of “you are drawn to them, your heritage is stronger than your loyalty”, instead of putting the focus on the “you ignored my orders” part. It’s weird because Tarzan is so clearly wrong, but the movie seems to encourage the audience to root for him, I guess mostly because there isn’t enough time spend on Kerchak’s concerns, and because Tarzan has been rejected so often already.

Well, eventually we get the climax, with a lot of fighting, a little bit fun in-between and finally Kerchak’s dead. And again: how much better would this scene be, if Kerchak were killed protecting just Tarzan and not Tarzan and Kala. That he would protect her is kind of a given. Giving everything for Tarzan’s protection, and his protection alone, would be the kind of finale gesture which would me actually care about his dead. As it is the scene puzzles me, especially since (and this is reason number three why an earlier acceptance would be the right way to go) it doesn’t make much sense to me that he would suddenly accept Tarzan after the mess he caused. Yes, he came back. But the whole act of protection wouldn’t be necessary if he had followed Kerchak’s advice earlier, Kerchak is dying because of his mistake, the biggest mistake Tarzan ever made, and now he suddenly accepts him as his son? If Disney were really gutsy he would die without Tarzan ever getting the acceptance he craved, but deciding to take over the responsibility for troop nevertheless, because that’s the only thing he can do for Kerchak, protect the family which is so important for both of them. I think it would have been a really good lesson to put across that sometimes you can’t correct the consequences of your actions; that you should be careful not to squander away the chances you get. But if you really go for a somewhat happy ending with Kerchak calling Tarzan his son, this would have made much more sense if there were prior indications that he felt this way beforehand and was just unable to admit it.

Thankfully the ending puts the movie back on track. The villain is defeated in one of the more memorable villain deaths, Jane decides to stay in the jungle with Tarzan and the audience gets a really great end sequence, showing Tarzan and Jane surfing through the jungle side-by-side, ending the movie on a high note. 37 tarzanjane

5. The Soundtrack

This movie often gets a lot of flak for its soundtrack. Yes, it’s Phil Collins. So what? To me it looks like the complaining about the music is mostly based on Phil Collins being particularly popular with woman. So it’s apparently unmanly to like the music. Well, suck it up, the songs in this movie are really, really good.

Some people are also complaining because they are sung from the off and not by the characters, with the exception of Kala starting “You’ll be in my heart” as some kind of lullaby. But really, can you imagine Tarzan starting to sing? Yeah, I don’t think so. Now you could argue that the songs are not really needed. But with the notable exception of “Destroying the Camp” (which has no text at all), they all have the purpose of providing some narration when the movie skips forward in time. I also like that the songs, while commenting what is going on, don’t spell it out too directly. They offer more an additional layer to what the audience sees on screen.

6. Conclusion

Yeah, I don’t really like the books. I think they are a classic example of someone writing a mediocre story based on a really good idea, and I hate the stereotypes and the sexism in them. I’m normally fast with excusing old fashioned views in older media, because I think it’s stupid to expect them to be conform to modern ideals. But even I have my limits and I still need something compelling in the book, movie or whatever, something which makes it worthwhile to sit through this kind of drivel, and I can’t find anything of this kind in those books.

But that doesn’t mean that I’m not a Tarzan fan. There was a phase in my childhood during which I watched every Movie and TV-Show about Tarzan I could get my hands on. Until I realized that most of them work the same way (there are intruders in the Jungle, at one point either Tarzan or Jane (or both) end up in dire danger, Tarzan yells, the elephants turn up to destroy everything in sight, Tarzan defeats the intruders, the end). I actually don’t know why I was so obsessed with those movies. Tarzan being less talented than in the books certainly helped to make him a more sympathetic hero, and in some of the adaptations Jane is pretty resourceful, but that doesn’t change the fact that the stories are pretty simple. Though, this might be exactly why they worked so well. It was more about the notion of living in an interesting and colourful world, in which Tarzan is able to make up his own rules, than about the actual plot.

Disney’s take on the source material has all the usual elements, but also adds thoughtful moments and gives the character some new layers. This is a story which was practically made for an animated movie, with its exotic location and the options to design a human who moves at least partly like an animal. All this makes Disney’s take on Tarzan certainly worth a watch. It might not be perfect, but I consider it the best and most thoughtful adaptation of the source material so far. Except maybe the musical, which avoids a lot of the story problems I listed above. But that is a discussion for another day.

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The Little Mermaid: When Disney went Broadway

This will work a little bit different from my “By the Book series”. I won’t cover the story and the main characters because I usually do this whenever I pick a Fairy Tale for my Fairy Tale month over at Honoring the Heroine. And I won’t cover the animation because I feel that the animation of those movies tends to be the best Disney has to offer and deserves more than just being one chapter in a longer article. Instead I will concentrate on the music only. This will easily fill the article, especially when it comes to this particular movie.

The Little Mermaid is in more than just a good movie, it is a milestone in the history of Disney Animation, the movie which started the Disney Renaissance and lead Disney into a new era of success. An era of success which was mostly based on the use of music, following a concept by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman.

Disney movies always had a close relationship with music. But the conceptual approch to it used to be very different. If you compare the movies which were created past 1989 with the ones which were created before, you might notice that the structures of the soundtrack is very different. Or, to be precise, the relationship between music and plot is different.

If you look at the early movies like Snow White, Dumbo aso, there is the unescapable truth that there are a lot of song sequences in there which are strictly speaking unnecessary. You can remove them from the story with no one being any wiser. In the Disney Romantic the use of the songs was a little bit more purposeful, but it often seems as if someone stood in front of the storyboard and said “here, here and here we need a song to elevate the scene”. And in the Impressionist Era, there are a lot of movies which have barely any songs at all. This changed when Alan Menken and Howard Ashman came on board.

If you happen to own the Platinum Edition of The Little Mermaid (it is worth every cent I paid for it, even though I mostly bought it because it had the German dubbing of the movie release in addition to the second dubbing which Disney did later on. I wish they would release multiple-dub versions of all their movies, I would buy every single one of them), you know that Howard Ashman did a lot of lunch lectures during his time at Disney. This Blu-ray has all the video material Disney owns from those lectures, and let me tell you, they are really, really interesting. This is what I learned by watching them:

  1. Howard Ashman and Alan Menken were convinced that combining their ideas with an animated movie was a way to revive the musical as a genre (spoiler alert: They were right).
  2. Howard Ashman firmly believed that every song in a musical should add something to the story as a whole.

There is naturally more, but this is the main reason why Disney movies suddenly became so successful in the early 1990s and why most of those movies got stage adaptations later on. It makes sense to put them on stage because every Disney movie Menken was working on from The Little Mermaid onwards is basically an animated musical.

Let’s take a look at the various songs, starting with Fathoms below.

I’ll tell you a tale of the bottomless blue
And it’s hey to the starboard, heave ho
Look out, lad, a mermaid be waiting for you
In mysterious fathoms below

This is a pure Introduction Song and does exactly what such a song is supposed to do, setting the mood for the movie. The shanty-style melody immediately establishes a sense of the open sea, something which is underlined further in the dialogue. Interestingly this song is actually justified to a certain degree, though I guess usually the crew of a ship would leave the singing to their downtimes instead of wasting their energy during work. The song is also very economic. In just four lines it hints that the story will play under der sea and that a mermaid will star in it. And then it proceeds to mention Triton and the merpeople in general.

From whence wayward Westerlies blow
Where Triton is king and his merpeople sing
In mysterious fathoms below

Heave ho
Heave ho

Heave ho
Heave ho
Heave ho
In mysterious fathoms below

Originally this song was longer, but it got cut to avoid pacing issues. A good call, imho, especially since it suggested more knowledge about the merpeople than even sailors should have. As it is, this is one of the best starting sequence Disney has ever created. It starts with the ship which suddenly breaks out of the fog, lingers just long enough on the ship to introduce the main players in the story – meaning “the mermaid”, King Triton and Prince Eric – and then follows a fish down to the previously mentioned fathoms below, where the audience lands direction in a concert, and is treated to the second justified song of the movie, Daughters of Triton:

Ah, we are the daughters of Triton
Great father who loves us and named us well
Aquata, Andrina, Arista, Atina, Adella, Allana
And then there is the youngest in her musical debut
Our seventh little sister, we’re presenting her to you
To sing a song Sebastian wrote, her voice is like a bell
She’s our sister, Ariel

Let’s be honest here the text to this song is awful! It sounds like the kind of text someone would inflict to you during a birthday celebration or similar. But every bit of it’s awfulness is deliberate. Because that’s exactly what it is, a piece of self-celebration for Triton and Sebastian. It also serves as introduction to Ariel. The song is interrupted before her sisters can mention her name. Triton is the one who does it in anger, before the movie cuts to Ariel herself. At this point we have already gotten a pretty good idea of the world she lives in, we have met her family and we also already know that she is very unreliable. Next we learn that she also has no sense for danger. In short, she is a typical teenager. And we learn even more about her when she sings her “I want”-Song.

Look at this stuff
Isn’t it neat?
Wouldn’t you think my collection’s complete?
Wouldn’t you think I’m the girl
The girl who has everything?
Look at this trove
Treasures untold
How many wonders can one cavern hold?
Looking around here you’d think
Sure, she’s got everything
I’ve got gadgets and gizmos a-plenty
I’ve got whozits and whatzits galore
You want thingamabobs?
I’ve got twenty!
But who cares?
No big deal

Ariel-Same-Song-2 Ariel-Same-Song-3

Nowadays the “I want more”-line has become a tired cliché, but let’s not forget that this was the first time it was used. And it immediately set Ariel apart from the princesses, which came before her. They were satisfied with the options society was offering them. But not Ariel. She wants to pick her own path.

I wanna be where the people are
I wanna see, wanna see them dancin’
Walking around on those – what do you call ’em?
Oh – feet!

Flippin’ your fins, you don’t get too far
Legs are required for jumping, dancing
Strolling along down the – what’s that word again?
Street

Up where they walk, up where they run
Up where they stay all day in the sun
Wanderin’ free – wish I could be
Part of that world

The song has been building up to this one point, Ariel’s biggest wish put in one simple sentences. She wants to be part of that word, she doesn’t know yet. The true cleverness of the song is hidden in the next part, though.

What would I give if I could live out of these waters?
What would I pay to spend a day warm on the sand?
Bet’cha on land they understand
Bet they don’t reprimand their daughters
Bright young women, sick of swimmin’
Ready to stand

Did you catch that? There are three important details in this part. For one, Ariel is already suggesting that she is ready to sacrifice something to fulfil her dream. Second, it is revealed that her wish is motivated by more than just a fascination of this foreign world, she also wants to escape from the rules her father sets for her. And third, in a clever use of the double meaning of worlds, she expresses her wish to stand (on her own feet). Ariel feels that she is ready to be an adult. The song does hint that she is at least partly wrong – after all, her ideas of what it means to be on land have a lot to do with her wishes and little with reality. She has truly no idea what awaits her up there (in translation, what it means to be an adult). But right there is the theme of the whole movie, which is the conflict between a young teenager lead by the misguided belief of invincibility and a father who, instead of leading his daughter to adulthood, wants to protect her by essentially keeping her as a child. A lot of this is subtext, but if you see “Standing on my feet” as “becoming an independent adult” and “Being on land” as “not being under my fathers rule anymore”, the movie suddenly becomes a commentary on the relationship between parents and teenagers.

And ready to know what the people know
Ask ’em my questions and get some answers
What’s a fire and why does it – what’s the word?
Burn?

Here the song underlines one last time how ill-prepared Ariel truly is to leave the sea. The likelihood that she will get burned is pretty high.

When’s it my turn?
Wouldn’t I love,
love to explore that shore up above?
Out of the sea
Wish I could be
Part of that world

Notably at this point of the movie, Ariel wants to be part of “that world”. It is only after she encounters Eric that her tune changes. In the reprise, she wants to be part of “your world”.

What would I give
To live where you are?
What would I pay
To stay here beside you?
What would I do to see you
Smiling at me?

Ariel’s dream has suddenly become bigger. She went from having one day at the beach to staying with Eric permanently.

Where would we walk?
Where would we run?
If we could stay all day in the sun?
Just you and me
And I could be
Part of your world

This is echoing the words she sung before, but she went from “they”, which puts a distance between her and the world up there to “we”. In a way, Ariel has already made the first step, and not just because she swam to the beach and touched the sand there.

I don’t know when
I don’t know how
But I know something’s starting right now
Watch and you’ll see
Some day I’ll be
Part of your world

This part concludes the first act of the movie, and is underlined by one of the most iconic images in it. And it is a promise to the audience that they are about to see something special and exciting.

111907_ariel

I’ll now skip ahead to the end of there movie, since the song is picked up one last time. This time it serves as a Conclusion Song.

Chorus:
Now we can walk!
Now we can run!
Now we can stay all day in the sun!

Just you and me!
And I can be,
Part of Your World!

The text itself is simple, but the placement of the song serves as a perfect bookmark. As much as the reprise told the audience that something great is coming, this one is announcing the “Happily ever after” without outright saying it. “Part of Your World” tells Ariel’s full story, from her dream, to deciding to follow her dreams to fulfilling her dreams. But Ariel is only one side of the coin. Her counterpart is Ursula, who gets her own set of songs as counterpoint.

URSULA
My dear, sweet child. That’s what I do. It’s what I live for.
To help unfortunate merfolk like yourself.
Poor souls with no one else to turn to.

I admit that in the past I’ve been a nasty
They weren’t kidding when they called me, well, a witch
But you’ll find that nowadays
I’ve mended all my ways
Repented, seen the light, and made a switch
WRONG: To this
RIGHT: True? Yes.
And I fortunately know a little magic
It’s a talent that I always have possessed
And dear lady, please don’t laugh
I use it on behalf
Of the miserable, the lonely, and depressed (pathetic)

If there has ever been any doubt that Ursula is lying through her teeth, the “pathetic” underlines that every word which comes out of her mouth is a lie. Or, to be precise, a half-truth.

Poor unfortunate souls
In pain, in need
This one longing to be thinner
That one wants to get the girl
And do I help them?
Yes, indeed
Those poor unfortunate souls
So sad, so true
They come flocking to my cauldron
Crying, “Spells, Ursula, please!”
And I help them!
Yes I do

Note how the visuals offset what Ursula is saying. She says that she helped two people by making them beautiful. But did she? The woman who wanted to be thinner didn’t love herself, but she already was loved by the guy longing for her. If he had just talked to her, they could be happy without any spells. And without the consequences.

Now it’s happened once or twice
Someone couldn’t pay the price
And I’m afraid I had to rake ’em ‘cross the coals
Yes I’ve had the odd complaint
But on the whole I’ve been a saint
To those poor unfortunate souls

The most notable aspect of “Poor Unfortunate Souls” is that it doesn’t really work as stand alone song. Instead it is interlaced with dialogue – or, depending on the perspective, the dialogue is interlaced with singing to make the information dumb more palatable. There is a clear pattern though. The basics of the deal are spoken. The singing starts whenever Ursula tries to convince Ariel to agree to it.

ARIEL
But without my voice, how can I-

URSULA
You’ll have your looks, your pretty face.
And don’t underestimate the importance of body language, ha!

The men up there don’t like a lot of blabber
They think a girl who gossips is a bore!
Yet on land it’s much prefered for ladies not to say a word
And after all dear, what is idle babble for?
Come on, they’re not all that impressed with conversation
True gentlemen avoid it when they can
But they dote and swoon and fawn
On a lady who’s withdrawn
It’s she who holds her tongue who get’s a man

Ever noticed how much Ursula is echoing sentiments which were actually taught to girls not so long ago (and are still taught in a lot of cultures)? In fact, that was from the get go the main idea behind the scene. Before “Poor Unfortunate Souls”, Ashman and Menken had written a song with the title “Silence is golden”. Needless to say that I agree with their decision to improve it. “Poor Unfortunate Soul” is catchy and way more witty. But the basic concept is the same, that that villain tells the heroine that she is better off, when she keeps her mouth shut. And since the villain of a movie should never be trusted, the actual message of the movie is to speak up and be yourself.

Another aspect which  works better in “Poor Unfortunate Soul” is that Ariel has barely an opportunity to really think about what the whole deal entails. The moment Ursula has laid down the terms she demands a decision.

Come on you poor unfortunate soul
Go ahead!
Make your choice!
I’m a very busy woman and I haven’t got all day
It won’t cost much
Just your voice!

Now Ursula is talking like a salesman who wants to sell a particular bad deal. It is an echo of all the “this is the chance of your lifetime” promises which are floating around out there.

You poor unfortunate soul
It’s sad but true
If you want to cross the bridge, my sweet
You’ve got the pay the toll
Take a gulp and take a breath
And go ahead and sign the scroll
Flotsam, Jetsam, now I’ve got her, boys
The boss is on a roll
This poor unfortunate soul

This is the high point of the song. What follows was already part of “Silence is golden”, but here it works even better, because the contrast is more pronounced.

Beluga sevruga
Come winds of the Caspian Sea
Larengix glaucitis
Et max laryngitis
La voce to me

Now, sing!

ARIEL
Aah…

Keep singing!

And the whole song ends eventually with another iconic scene from the movie, when Ariel reaches the surface.   Ariel-Hairflip-walt-disney-characters-19989170-2317-1714Like Ariel, Ursula gets an opportunity to reprise her song, in her case shortly before she reaches her goal. It’s a really short sequence and mostly serves as an information dump, but not for the audience, but for Scuttle.

What a lovely little bride I’ll make,
My dear, I’ll look divine!
Things are working out according to my ultimate design!
Soon I’ll have that little mermaid,
and the ocean will be mine!

This covers the heroine and the villainess. But there is a third party of not in this story: Sebastian. Now, Sebastian is the first of a new breed of sidekicks. Up until this movie, sidekicks were only present as comic relief, and their main motivation was always to help the heroine. Sebastian is the first who has a goal of his own: He is actually more interested in his own fame than in Ariel, and the only reason why he even gets involved in her story is because Triton ordered him to watch Ariel. He also has his own character development. In the beginning he agrees with Triton that Ariel has to be controlled. In the end, he encourages him to give her the freedom to make her own choices – and mistakes. But he also serves the counter argument to Ariel’s dreams. “Under the sea” is an unusual side-kick song, mostly because it is not really about Sebastian, it is about his perspective on Ariel’s plan.

The seaweed is always greener
In somebody else’s lake
You dream about going up ‘dere,
But ‘dat is a big mistake
Just look at ‘de world around you
Right here on the ocean floor
Such wonderful things surround you
What more is you lookin’ for?

Fun fact: The main reason why Sebastian is a Jamaican crab is because Ashman felt that it would make the transition to the reggae-style of the song more smooth. I actually disagree with him about the necessity. The song is not that different, I never thought that it felt grating. Either way, to summon this up, Sebastian says that Ariel already has a great live (which is true).

Under the sea
Under the sea
Darling it’s better
Down where it’s wetter,
Take it from me!

Up on the shore they work all day,
Out in the sun they slave away
While we devotin’
Full-time to floatin,’
Under the sea!

I think it is time for a reminder that “Part of your world” pretty much paralleled Ariel going to land with becoming an adult and standing on her own feet. If we keep that in mind, Sebastian’s song is less about the virtue of not leaving home, but about childhood vs adulthood. What he is basically saying “don’t hurry to grow up, enjoy your childhood. Adulthood comes with responsibilities and worries.” Though naturally Menken and Ashman use the opportunity to go all out with the horror scenarios Sebastian is talking about.

Down here all the fish is happy
As off through the waves they roll
The fish on the land ain’t happy
They sad ’cause they in their bowl

But fish in the bowl is lucky
They in for a worser fate
One day when the boss get hungry…
Guess who’s gon’ be on the plate?

Uh-oh!
Under the sea
Under the sea
Nobody beat us
Fry us and eat us
In fricassee

We what ‘de land folks loves to cook
Under the sea we off the hook
We got no troubles,
Life is the bubbles!

Again, did you notice this? “Under the sea we off the hook”. In short, under the sea (in childhood) there are no responsibilities. You are in a bubble which protects you to a certain degree.

Under the sea
(Under the sea)
Under the sea
(Under the sea)
Since life is sweet here,
We got the beat here
Naturally
Naturally-y-y-y

Even the sturgeon an’ the ray
They get the urge ‘n’ start to play
We got the spirit
You got to hear it
Under the sea!

The newt play the flute
The carp play the harp
The plaice play the bass
And they soundin’ sharp
The bass play the brass
The chub play the tub
The fluke is the duke of soul (Yeah)

The ray he can play
The lings on the strings
The trout rockin’ out
The blackfish she sings
The smelt and the sprat
They know where it’s at
An’ oh that blowfish blow!

(Instrumental bridge)

Yeah!
Under the sea
(Under the sea)
Under the sea
(Under the sea)
When the sardine
Begin the beguine,
It’s music to me
(Music is to me)

This is Howard Ashman really milking the opportunity for some quick rhymes. The important part of the song out of the way, he indulges a little bit in playing with words.

What do they got? A lot of sand
We got a hot crustacean band
Each little clam here
Know how to jam here
Under the sea!

Each little slug here
Cuttin’ a rug here
Under the sea!

Each little snail here
Know how to wail here
That’s why it’s hotter
Under the water!
Ya we in luck here
Down in the muck here
Under the sea!

Wait! “In the muck”? That actually doesn’t sound that inviting. Good thing that Ariel is already gone at this point. The audience actually sees her leaving, but between all the distracting singing and dancing this fact doesn’t really sink in before Sebastian notices her absence.

Sebastian’s second song is the Love Song of the movie. Which is kind of an odd choice, usually this kind of song is reserved for the lovers themselves. But considering that Ariel is mute and Eric is still hung up on the girl from the beach, Sebastian is the next best choice.

There you see her
Sitting there across the way
She don’t got a lot to say
But there’s something about her
And you don’t know why
But you’re dying to try
You wanna kiss the girl

I have to admit, I have some issues with the song. Because for a love song it is kind of unromantic. Sebastian is basically pushing Eric into Ariel’s arms which is understandable in the context of the movie, but the result is kind of creepy. Especially this part:

Yes, you want her
Look at her, you know you do
Possible she wants you too
There is one way to ask her
It don’t take a word
Not a single word
Go on and kiss the girl

In the context of the movie it works. But out of context…well, the rhythm is great, very unusual for a love song, but the text drags it down a little bit imho.

Sha la la la la la
My oh my
Look like the boy too shy
Ain’t gonna kiss the girl
Sha la la la la la
Ain’t that sad?
Ain’t it a shame?
Too bad, he gonna miss the girl

Is Eric really shy? Or is he unsure? He is still hung up on the girl from the beach after all. And in a way the pressure Sebastian puts on Eric is very similar to the “now or never” claim Ursula used to convince Ariel to sign the contract. Honestly, the more I pay attention to the text of the song, the happier am I that Eric didn’t kiss Ariel in this scene but made the decision later on his own accord.

Now’s your moment
Floating in a blue lagoon
Boy you better do it soon
No time will be better
She don’t say a word
And she won’t say a word
Until you kiss the girl

And here Ashman made on outright mistake. Ariel’s voice was payment. At no point Ursula said that she would get her voice back if she wins over the prince. And in fact the only reason Ariel does get her voice back is because the sea shell breaks during the fight. Her voice  would have been lost forever otherwise.

Sha la la la la la
Don’t be scared
You got the mood prepared
Go on and kiss the girl
Sha la la la la la
Don’t stop now
Don’t try to hide it how
You want to kiss the girl
Sha la la la la la
Float along
And listen to the song
The song say kiss the girl
Sha la la la la
The music play
Do what the music say
You got to kiss the girl
You’ve got to kiss the girl
You wanna kiss the girl
You’ve gotta kiss the girl
Go on and kiss the girl

There is nothing in this part of the song which isn’t visible on screen. The only information the audience kind of gets is that the cook is a French stereotype. In a way, though, I can’t really blame the song writers here. It is not just the song which is filler, the whole scene is a detour from the actual main plot. You could remove it and nobody would notice.

Les poissons, les poissons
Hee hee hee, haw haw haw
With a cleaver I hack them in two
I pull out what’s inside
And I serve it up fried
God, I love little fishes, don’t you?

In a way, it is fun though. At least if you don’t think too hard about the fact that Sebastian basically reacts the way we would react if someone did this to a human.

Here’s something for tempting the palette
Prepared in the classic technique
First you pound the fish flat with a malette
Then you slash off their skin
Give their belly a slice
Then you rub some salt in
‘Cause it makes it taste nice

This is actually the only part of the song which isn’t pointless. Not because the content is that interesting, but because at this point we don’t see what is described in the text. Instead we get to see Sebastian’s reaction to it. Which is then taken one horrifying step further.

Zut alors, I have missed one!

Sacre bleu, what is this?
How on earth could I miss
Such a sweet little succulent crab
Quel dommage, what a loss
Here we go, in the sauce
Now some flour I think just a dab
Now I stuff you with bread
Don’t worry, ’cause you’re dead!
And you’re certainly lucky you are
‘Cause it’s gonna be hot in my big silver pot!
Toodle loo mon poisson
Au revoir

And for me it is also time to say goodbye. But beforehand, some last words: “The Little Mermaid” created the template for the Disney renaissance. But I think it was about more than just adding songs in a way that they would serve the story in a meaningful way. It was about more than just about text, it was also about subtext. It is this subtext which makes the movie about more than just a romance, which took the old fairy tale and turned it into a parable about growing up, but also about the danger of listening to false promises. It is a concept Ashman and Menken took even further in the next project. But that is the topic for another article.

Ariel-2-with-Border

 And speaking of articles, I am still working on my articles for the Swanpride Award. You still have the opportunity to nominate movies. The first article will be posted on the first of December, as promised. And if you follow my other blog, Honouring the Heroine, you might have guessed already from my anniversary post that I will discuss The Little Mermaid for this years fairy tale month. Expect me to write a lengthy defence of Ariel for it.


The Conclusion Song

Remember what I wrote about the Introduction song? How its role changed because the position of the credits changed? Well, the same is truth in reverse.

Disney movies usually have some sort of conclusion sequence…it is nearly never an isolated piece of music, but the reprise of a formerly played song. It is a way to underline the main theme of a movie one last time and is often used this way. Since end credits became part of the movies, this is usually followed by even more music played on the end credits. A kind of infamous variant which was popular in the 1990s is the pop version of one of the main songs. Currently, though, there is more a tendency to use songs which were either cut from the movie or from the get go only written for the end credits, which is then sold as single.

Another variant to end a movie is that the last song blends over into the end credits. “Mulan” is the most egregious example for this, when the movie, which was one second ago concluded Mulan’s story in a very thoughtful scene, still has to wrap up Mushu’s story and then then dives into a party with modern music, which then blends over to the end credits.

To be honest, most of the time end credits songs are just there. They don’t serve another purpose than to provide some sound while the end credits roll. A notable exception is Pocahontas, at least in the theatrical version. It might surprise some who only know the extended version but: Originally, Pocahontas and John didn’t sing in the scene when he is prisoner and she says goodbye to him. Instead there was only an instrumental, and I think it worked much better, because it was more settled and allowed to focus on the dialogue. The song which belongs to said instrumental was still part of the movie though – at the start of the end credits. And there it fit perfectly.

 If I never knew you
If I never felt this love
I would have no inkling of
How precious life can be

And if I never held you
I would never have a clue
How at last I’d find in you
The missing part of me.

In this world so full of fear
Full of rage and lies
I can see the truth so clear
In your eyes
So dry your eyes

And I’m so grateful to you
I’d have lived my whole life through
Lost forever
If I never knew you

If I never knew you
I’d be safe but half as real
Never knowing I could feel
A love so strong and true

I’m so grateful to you
I’d have lived my whole life through
Lost forever
If I never knew you

I thought our love would be so beautiful
Somehow we’d make the whole world bright
I never knew that fear and hate could be so strong
all they’d leave us were these wispers in the night
But still my heart is saying we were right

Oh if I never knew you
There’s no moment I regret
If I never felt this love
Since the moment that we met
I would have no inkling of
If our time has gone too fast
How precious life can be…
I’ve lived at last…

I thought our love would be so beautiful
Somehow we’d make the whole world bright
I thought our love wuold be so beautiful
We’d turn the darkness into light
And still my heart is saying we were right
we were right

And if I never knew you
If I never knew you
I’d have lived my whole life through
Empty as the sky
Never knowing why
Lost forever
If I never knew you

The song, while being here song in the overly dramatic pop version, fits way better at this place. It is basically about love having meaning, even if it doesn’t end in a relationship, about it being better to suffer though a love with an unhappy ending than never having loved at all. It is a notion which fits the prisoner scenes too, but there it destroys the mood of the scene and feels very fast like filler. But picking up the instrumental in a song at the very end of the movie, reminding of this scene and voicing the lines which are uttered by John Smith again, is a reminder that this is actually the happier ending. They will never see each other again, but they are both alive, and the love they felt for each other will always be part of them. It is the perfect use of an end credits song – even though I suspect that its original placement was more accidentally than intentionally.

 


The History of Disney Movie Animation

Last time I discussed the history of western animated movies, now let’s take a look how Disney figures in all this. I have decided to follow the examples of some of my fellow bloggers here and forgo most of the usual naming of the eras and instead came up with my own classifications. Note that while I mostly sought inspiration from the usual eras of art and literature, my reasons for picking the names are not always connected to their original meaning.


 

1937- 1942 The Disney Expressionism

It is usually called the “Golden Age”, but if you really think about it, this was the golden age for animation in general and not for Disney specifically. Plus, when it comes to movies, the age was not that “golden” for Disney at all. Yes, they made a ton of money with “Snow White and Seven Dwarves”, but the only other movie which really was a financial success during this time was “Dumbo” – which was originally a short extended to a movie in order to recoup the losses from “Fantasia”. This in mind, it is kind of misleading to talk about a “Golden Age”.

It is the age though, in which most of the Disney staples were established. “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” was the beginning of the fairy tale based movies which are nowadays marketed in the Disney Princess Franchise. “Pinocchio” started the concept of taking well-known literature classics and making them their own. “Bambi” explored the possibilities of telling stories from the perspective of animals. “Fantasia” – well, that is pretty much a category on its own. And “Dumbo” is the prototype of the more child than family oriented movies Disney sometimes produces. The sidekicks, the use of music, the type of villains, the Disney acid sequence, all this was first done back then and has prevailed in Disney movies to this day.

Therefore I did consider “Disney Classic” as name for this era, but it doesn’t really fit the style of the movies, which it has nothing to do with Greek or Roman antique. Unshavedmouse calls it the “Tar and Sugar Era” due to the tendency of the movies to alternate between really, really sweet and really, really dark. Those are the movies which made children literally piss their pants (“Snow White and the Seven Dwarves”), which created villains which actually got away with their every deeds (“Pinocchio”) and which traumatised the audience with the dead of Bambi’s mother. “Fantasia” is to this day the only Disney movie which openly displays breasts – in a close-up nonetheless. It is something we tend to forget nowadays, but those movies were pushing the envelope at every turn.

All the movies of this era are kind of dark – and I mean this literally. The “sweet” moments are colourful and wholesome, but those moments are surrounded by darkness. Especially in “Pinocchio” Gepetto is practically a carrier of light…scenes with him are considerably brighter than the scenes without him. Even the colourful circus world of “Dumbo” is often swallowed by long shadows and darkness.

Expressionism is at its core about causing a reaction, it is not about what is real, but about causing emotional reactions. That can be the colourful world of Franz Marc or the disturbing one of Edvard Munch. In filmmaking, especially the German Expressionism is notable for the use of shadows and the deliberate use of unrealistic settings, and this was a movement which influenced the filmmakers of Hollywood considerably in the 1920s and 1930s.

Now take a good look at this:

snow-white-disneyscreencaps_com-1000

 

And this:

pinocchio-disneyscreencaps_com-6875

And this:

bambi-disneyscreencaps_com-6252

 

It has become some sort of running gag to joke about the transition in “Bambi” from the grief over Bambi’s mother to happily chirping birds, claiming that this is the feeble try to soften the blow. I don’t think so, quite the opposite actually, because that’s exactly what Disney during this time is about. It deliberately creates a roller-coaster of feelings, jumps from the Snow White’s fear in the woods to an inviting meadow with next to no transition, from Dumbo visiting his mother to joking clowns and pink elephants. One moment Bambi is playing in the snow, in the next he is nearly dying of hunger, one moment he is quite literally in the seventh heaven, and the next he has to overcome a rival.

Disney is still good in playing with the emotions of the audience. But the sudden shift from one extreme mood to another, that is typical for this era. As are truly disturbing sequences which tap deep into the emotions of the audience.

In retrospect it makes sense that Disney might have been influenced by the styles which were prevalent in filmmaking during this time, after all, he had to take something as a base for his first animated movies. Movies, no matter if animated or not, are always the product a certain “Zeitgeist”. Most Disney movies are created to be timeless, but they never can totally hide when they were made. Ariel’s bangs and puffy sleeves are just as typical 1980s, as Snow White’s round eyes, long eyelashes and short hair scream 1930s. But I think in no era of animated movies is the connection to the style of live-action movies which were made around the same time as obvious as in the early beginnings.

 


 

Theoretical the next era of Disney is the Package Era….but to be honest, I refuse to consider this really an era of Disney movies. To me it is an era in which Disney was prevented from making movies due to the war and instead threw together mostly unrelated shorts to fill some time, bolstered up with a half-assed frame device. If I sit down and spend an afternoon watching Disney shorts, I still didn’t watch a movie, even if the running time has the proper length. Fantasia is a movie because it has a consistent tone, a consistent theme and a working concept. The only movie from the package era which comes at least tries to have something like this is “Saludos Amigos”, and the running time of this one doesn’t even come close to proper theatre length. It is even shorter than “Dumbo” and in case of “Dumbo” Disney had to fight to classify it as a movie. No, the next real era of movie making starts in 1950.


1950 – 1959 The Disney Romantic

A popular term for this era is the “Silver age”. The “Restoration Age” is also common, especially among people who don’t like the implication that this era was somehow lesser than the “Golden Age”. But I didn’t really like this term either, because while the studio was in a process of financial “Restoration”, the movies actually picked off where they left. Those are projects which were in planning before the war changed everything – consequently “Cinderella” is the logical next step for the fairy tale movies, and “Alice in Wonderland” as well as “Peter Pan” are literally fulfilling a promise “Pinocchio” already made by showing the respective books in a scene.

What is notable different though is the style of animation. I decided to go for “Disney Romantic” because, well

This:

cinderella-disneyscreencaps_com-5552

And this:

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And especially this:

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Soft colours, lush animation, and the overall feel to enter a different, magical world is predominant in the movies from this era. Hell, even an alley full of clothes hanging out to dry is looking like the most romantic place on earth in “Lady and the Tramp”. There is also the influence of Mary Blair, not just in the movies she actually did work on (“Cinderella”, “Alice in Wonderland” and “Peter Pan”), but also in the ones she wasn’t directly involved in (“Lady and the Tramp”, “Sleeping Beauty”). Prevalent for this era is the constant play with perspectives. The big scales of “Cinderella”,

cinderella-disneyscreencaps_com-5733 the unusual angles of “Alice in Wonderland” and, to a lesser degree, “Peter Pan”,

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the constant dog perspective of “Lady and the Tramp” and the especially the painting-like design of “Sleeping Beauty” make every singly movie of this era something special.

Compared to the Disney Expressionism the level of “darkness” is notable toned down, but not gone. If beforehand the world was a dark place with a few bright spots in it, now the world is bright place with some dark spots in it. “Lady and the Tramp” for example has for most of the movie a greeting card vibe, in both tone and drawing style, but especially the scene in the dog pound plunges as deep into darkness as a movie from the Expressionist Era.

Personally I think that neither Disney nor any other studio ever reached the level of artistry which we got during this sadly way too short era. Ironically, none of this movies got the acknowledgement they deserved during their initial release. “Lady and the Tramp” was beloved by the audience, but not by the critics, who actually had the audacity to complain about the quality of the animation. “Sleeping Beauty” got slammed for being too similar to “Cinderella” and especially “Snow White”. Which shows that critics can err, too.

 


 

1960 – 1988   The Disney Impressionism

The Disney Odyssey went for “Modern Era”, and it certainly is a good fit, for multiple reasons. One is the technical aspect, and the keyword is xerography. Up to this point, the movies were hand-inked, which is a slow and expensive process. As a result even successful movies ended up underperforming in the box office in relation to the production costs. Disney had to make a decision to either shut down the studios or to cut down costs by using xerography. He didn’t like it, but he went for the latter option.

The process allowed the animators to print their drawings directly on the cells. But it has its limits. Initially only black lines were possible, which heavily influenced the style of the movies. The Unshavedmouse calls those first years the “Scratchy Era”, based on the harsh looking dark lines in the animation.

Despite all the arguments for “Modern Era”, I feel that “Disney Impressionism” is an even better fit. For one, Impressionism is in a way a countermovement to the Romantic (one can also see it as a culmination of it, but the original thought was to break away from this era). And that is exactly what Disney did during this time, a thematically and stylistic break compared to the movies which came beforehand. Instead of fairy tales and classic stories, most of the movies from this era are based on current books. The settings are less “once upon a time” and more “now”. That is especially evident in the music used. Forget the chorus and the operatic voices, now we have cool beats to offer.

Impressionist paintings are most notable for the artist not trying to hide the brush strokes. And again, that is exactly what Disney did, too. Since they first had to use the black lines, they mostly didn’t even try to hide them but made them part of the style. And if you look at the backgrounds, they are way less detailed than what Disney did beforehand and seeing the way they tend to get blurry in the outside settings, they have quite an Impressionistic feel to it. This is especially evident in “The Aristocats”, due to the movie being set in Paris.

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The scale of the movies are also less “grand” than in the prior eras. This is Disney at its most modest, and it has nothing to do with the chosen themes, but with the approach to them. In “Pinocchio” Disney told an elaborate story about a protagonist learning important live lessons with no less than four villains, but in “The Sword and the Stone” the wizard duel is the sole high point of the movie. If one compares “The Aristocats” with “Lady and the Tramp”, the former seems to be downright pedestrian.

It is hard to consider any of the movies made during this time as one of the “big” Disney movies. It is just too evident that Disney was cutting corners, “Robin Hood” being the worst offender. The sketchy design and the reuse of animation not only from other Disney movies, but also from the movie itself is just too obvious, and it speaks for the skill of the animators that they were able to cobble together a really good movie on their tight budget. But it could have been a great one.

There is one exception, though, and no, it is not the “Jungle Book”. Despite being a big success and a popular movie, I think the crown for the best movie of this era goes to “The Adventures of Winnie the Pooh”. In a way it is captures the spirit of the era perfectly. Impressionism has always a little introverted feel to it, and you can get more introverted than entering the fantasy world of a little boy and reflecting about childhood. It is certainly not a flashy movie, but it is one of the most thoughtful movies Disney ever made.

Otherwise though the usual result during this era is something between “okay” and “good, but it could have been great”. Artistically speaking things were looking up in the 1980s, when xerography was no longer limited to black lines, but at this point the studio was struggling in other regards. First Walt Disney died, and even though he hadn’t really been that involved in the studios during that time with the exception of some pet projects like “The Jungle Book”, the studio had suddenly lost its face and in a way its voice. A big cooperation doesn’t necessarily care for the artistic merit of a movie, but about the money it makes. They don’t tend to be open for experiments. But that was exactly what Walt Disney was about. Projects like “Fantasia”, “Bambi” or “Sleeping Beauty” were not about the bottom line, they were about challenging the audience and offering something new.

In general there was a change of generation going on in the Disney Studios during that time – and a fight between old and young. “Fox and Hound” is somewhat infamous, not just for being the last movie in which the “nine old man” had a hand it, but also for the discussions surrounding it. That Don Bluth “stole away” some of the most talented young animators in the studio during production (thankfully a lot of them decided to come back just in time to create “Beauty and the Beast”), left the studios which animators who created what was at this time Disney’s most embarrassing failure. “The Black Cauldron” has nowadays a fan following and is popular in Asia, but it is still the movie which lost to the Care Bears in the box office, and it is not hard to see why. I counted the 1980s to the Disney Impressionism, but it is more an era of transition, and it is mostly “Oliver and Company” with its sketchy background which made me decide to not do an extra cut for four movies.

 

The next era of greatness didn’t come out of the thin air, it built up for a couple of years, and I think “The Great Mouse Detective” as well as all the talent Disney poached during the production of “Who framed Roger Rabbit” was laying the groundwork for the following era. And when it came, it brought Disney to new highs.

 


 

1989 – 1999 The Disney Renaissance

Every animation fan knows this term, and who am I to argue. It is the fitting word for this era, and not just because Disney went back to its roots. Deciding when it actually started was the harder task. Normally “The Little Mermaid” is considered the first movie of this era, but from a technical point of view, it should be either “The Great Mouse Detective” or “Rescuers Down Under”. The former because this was the first movie which used extensive computer animation, the latter because it was the first movie which used the CAP System (while “The little Mermaid” is in a way the crowning achievement of xerography).

I nevertheless went for “The Little Mermaid”, too, because of thematic reasons. Disney Impressionism was all about telling stories from the perspective of animals. “The Black Cauldron” is the one sole exception, considering that even “The Sword and the Stone” has long passages in which the human characters are turned into animals. “The Little Mermaid” started a string of movies with human characters, “Rescuers Down Under” being the (often forgotten) exception.

“The Little Mermaid” was also the first time Disney went back to their fairy tale movies in twenty years. And it was the first movie which used the Broadway formula. Now there have been movies with Broadway-like music beforehand. But Howard Ashman and Alan Menken perfected this structure to a degree that you can turn most movies made during this era into actual musicals with next to no trouble (which Disney eventually recognized too and did). “The Little Mermaid” was also the first fully animated Disney movie since “Dumbo” which won an Academy Award instead of just getting a nomination, and not just one, but two, in the usual categories “Best Original Score” and “Best Original Song”.

The movie which embodies the spirit of the era the best to me is “Beauty and the Beast”, and not just because it might be the critically most acclaimed movie in the Disney line-up. To be the first animated movie ever nominated for an Academy Award for the Best Picture is already an impressive feat which won’t be topped until an animated movie actually wins. To this day “Beauty and the Beast” is the only animated movie which did it before the number or possible nominations was raised from five to ten and the only traditional animated movie at all which managed this (all the others are Pixar-movies). “Aladdin” and “The Lion King” were unbelievable box-office successes, too.

“Beauty and the Beast” set the standards for this era more than even “The Little Mermaid”, since it not only has Menken and Ashman on the top of their game (not only did they win yet another two Academy Awards, no less than three songs were nominated for “Best Original Song”), it also took full advantage of the CAP system with its bold camera movements. As little bonus, the design of the Beast’s castle is based on the Château de Chambord, meaning on Renaissance architecture.

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The Broadway formula became a blessing and a curse for Disney. A blessing because the studio reached greater highs than ever. A curse because Disney did nothing else as a consequence. Repeating the same structures resulted in a backlash and by the time Pocahontas hit the theatres more or less everyone was joking about Disney doing the same again and again. It didn’t help that Pocahontas, while top notch regarding animation and music, had a mediocre story at best.

Disney reacted by trying to mix the formula up a little bit “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” tried to do what the Classic Disney movies did by pushing the envelope a little bit, but was too inconsistent in tone in the end. “Hercules” tried to repeat the success of “Aladdin”, but ended up being kind of a mess. “Mulan” was a really good movie but not different enough on the surface to distinguish itself. Tarzan was the last attempt to connect to former successes, and the first movie since “Rescuers Down Under” in which the main character doesn’t sing (most of the songs are sung from the off instead). Also the last movie which got an Academy Award (Best Original Song) for a long, long time and that despite the fact that only two years later a new category for “Best Animated Feature” was introduced.

While Disney struggled, Pixar managed to offer the audience something new in both animation style and storytelling, and won one Award after the other. Disney needed a new approach – and nearly ten years to find it.

 


 

2000 – 2009 The Disney Pluralism

It is really hard to find a common theme with Disney movies during this time – or a common style. Some of them look like they could just as well be made during the Disney Renaissance, others are so different, you could easily sell them to be the product of another company.

Most animation companies which are active today were either founded in the late 1990s/early 2000s, or they were around earlier but decided to try their hand in movie making around this time. On top of this, it was the time of the block buster serials. “Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter” draw the audience into the theatres, while movies like “Treasure Planet” were overlooked. Disney even made itself concurrence with the Narnia franchise.

“Fantasia 2000” was a pet project of Roy Disney, trying to continue the legacy of “Fantasia”. “Dinosaurs” was the first try in CGI animation, relying heavily on displaying technical achievements in this area instead of creative story-telling. “The Emporer’s New Groove” was a little bit like a marriage between Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks, being a buddy movie (typical Pixar) with a lot of self-referential jokes (that was DeamWorks fad to joke about Disney) build around a redemption story. “Atlantis” and “Treasure Planet” are both non-musical movies with more than a hint of steampunk thrown in. “Lilo and Stitch” falls pretty much in its own category and might be the best attempt to redefine the studio, with his readiness to acknowledge real-life problems and discussing them in a Disney-typical setting. It also is a clear departure from the usual Disney style, which feels somehow more genuine despite being highly stylized.

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“Brother Bear” kind of tried to go in the same direction just grander, but the movie lacks the unpredictability which is so much fun in “Lilo and Stitch”. Plus, at this point the company had already decided to close down the department for traditional animation, with “Home on the Range” concluding an era in a disappointing fashion. I guess, Disney kind of tried to end this era forcefully and starting a new one with CGI movie.

It didn’t really quite work out that way. Changing to CGI did nothing to allow Disney to find its voice again – at least no initially. The studio made one last attempt to relive the “good old times” with “The Princess and the Frog” before finally finding a new approach which worked. And imho it didn’t work because it was CGI, it worked because Disney found its own voice again.

 


 

2010 – current The Disney Rococo

History sometimes repeats itself. It repeats itself so much, I seriously considered calling this era “Neorenaissance”. Again Disney figured out the direction it wanted to take next, but this time it was not about human vs animal characters but about traditional animation vs CGI. Again there were movies which lead up to this new era, again there is a string of successful movies with one forgotten movie (“Winnie the Pooh”) in-between and again Disney is breaking all box office record. If “Hero 6” surpasses “Frozen” the same way “The Lion King” surpassed “Aladdin”, the pattern is complete.

But this isn’t the Disney Renaissance. It is not about repeating the same formula again and again. Oh, they do it with their Disney Princess franchise, but not with their other films. No, what Disney is really doing is building up on the properties they own and redoing old concepts but with a modern twist.

I think the defining movie of this era is “Tangled”, because of the mind-set behind it. CGI movies tend to be to a certain degree not about what you want to do, but about what you can do. But for “Tangled” the animators did their very best to bend CGI in the shape they needed to create a blend of traditional and CGI animation. The movement, the shadowing, the hair – it didn’t matter how much effort it was to write and rewrite software as long as the result looked how the animators wanted it.

Rococo is a very playful and detailed style which is very evident in “Tangled” – not exactly a surprise since the inspiration for the movie was the Rococo painting “The Swing”. But this detailed and playful style carried over to the movies after it, too. One can watch them again and again, and there are still new details to discover.

Just look at this and pay attention to all the details put in the textures:

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The different kinds of fabric structure used for different kinds of clothes paired with flourish ornamentations, little embellishments and hidden jokes in the backgrounds and an overall sense of fun, all this are typical for the current Disney movies. As are one-adjective-titles and DreamWorks-Style trailers.

With Frozen Disney finally managed to produce a critical highly acclaimed movie and to get and Academy Award for “Best Animated Feature”. It took Disney only 13 years (though I personally think they deserved it for “Wreck-it-Ralph” already).

And that concludes my little overview…for now. I will certainly add to it when new movies hit the theatres. But for now it looks like Disney managed to struggle to the top again. I certainly look forward to their next movies.


The Love Song

I originally planned to jump equally around between articles dealing with the specific kinds of songs and those about the use of the songs in one movie. But then I realized that it would be better to first establish a systematic of the songs which can be usually found in a Disney movie. So expect me to tackle this first and discuss complete movies later on.

The love song, though, is different from all the other songs in that it isn’t required to move the plot forward. A love song is in its nature more introperspective, designed to convey first and foremost feelings rather than information. As such, it tends to slow down the movie. That is not necessarily a bad thing, sometimes it is good to put a little breather in an action-packed plot. The best love songs, though, manage to stay relevant nevertheless.

There are basically two kinds of love songs: Those about love in general, and those about the feelings of the specific characters on screen. More general songs have the advantage that they work beautifully even if they are removed from the movie in question. More specific ones do a better job in adding to the plot. The best ones manage a balance.

Bella Notte for example is a very unspecific song:

Oh this is the night
it’s a beautiful night
and we call it bella notte
look at the skies
they have stars in their eyes
on this lovely bella notte
side by side with your loved one
you will find the enchantment here
the night will weave its magic spell
when the one you love is near, oh
this is the night
and the heavens all rise
on this lovely bella note

This is simply the description of a beautiful night which becomes magical because you spend it with someone you love. It does fit what we see on screen, but it doesn’t really add to Lady or Tramps feelings. It works perfectly to capture the mood, but the actual plot development is not what we her, but what we see (the famous spaghetti meal). The song works in the movie because the animation does the heavy lifting while the music serves to establish the mood and tap into feelings the audience might have experienced before. Most of the Disney Love songs work that way, though there are also some more specific. For example “I won’t say I’m in love”.

“If there’s a prize for rotten judgement,
I guess I’ve already won that
No man is worth the agrivation
That’s ancient history,
Been there
Done that”

The whole song illustrates important character development, Megara’s to be precise- While the muses keep telling her that she is in love and should admit it to herself, Megara keeps mentioning the reasons why she shouldn’t be – which boils down to her not wanting to get hurt again.

I thought my heart had learned its lesson
It feels so good when ya start out
My head is screaming “get a grip, girl!”
“Unless you’re dying to cry your heart out!”

But nevertheless, towards the end Megara admits that even though she is not ready to act on her feelings, they are there.

At least out loud
I won’t say I’m in….love

The beauty in all this is while this is very specific about Megara’s feelings, it is not specific about Megara’s situation. It is simply about the feelings of a woman who has loved, got hurt and now has to decide if she wants to risk another heart-break. It’s a situation a lot of woman (and men for that matter) have experienced at one point. In terms of story-telling, this makes “I won’t say I’m in…love” one of the best love songs in the Disney canon.


The “I want”-Song

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.

“[Belle]
There must be more than this provincial life!

[Gaston]
Just watch, I’m going to make Belle my wife!

[Townsfolk]
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
That Belle!”

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.