Category Archives: Systematic of Songs

By the Book: The Great Mouse Detective

Sometimes I wonder if this movie just hit the theatres at the wrong time. After all, Sherlock Holmes is currently more popular than ever. And while this trend has reached a peak with the success of the movies series and BBC’s modern version “Sherlock”, it came in the wake of countless TV-Shows based on Sherlock-Concept, the most notables being House and Monk. One of the longest running Anime out there, Detective Conan (in the US also known as Case Closed) is practically a love letter to Sherlock Holmes. Technically I should compare The Great Mouse Detective to the book series Basil of Baker Street. But as far as I can tell, the movie mostly takes the idea and the name of the characters from there, but the plot itself is original. And are we really supposed to believe that the animators weren’t influenced by the original Sherlock Holmes and the countless adaptations out there? Therefore I’ll take a much broader look this time around.

1. The SettingBaker Street London

Sherlock Holmes as a mouse. Well, why not. What I said about Treasure Island is double true for Sherlock Holmes: If you do a movie (or TV-Show on that matter) on such an overdone material, you better do it from a new angle. And doing it with anthropomorphic mice allows a more light-hearted take on the character. If a human Holmes would do fake science the way Basil does, the audience would cry fool play. When a mouse does it, it’s funny. It also allows Disney to insert some stuff which you would never find in a children’s movie otherwise. Like strip dancers. A villain who causally murders his henchman.

What is kind of remarkable, though, is how London in general is portrayed.  The whole story plays by night, it is dark, gritty, and rainy. Not a nice place to be, at least not until you enter Baker Street. This place is bright and inviting, not just in the part of the house in which Basil lives, but in the human half, too. Even the last shot of the movie shows a London which nearly vanishes in thick fog. But the Window of Baker Street is a sole light in the darkness of the world which surround it.

2. The Animation

The Great Mouse Detective is quite notable for the use of computer animation for the Clock Tower scene. Which still holds up really, really well and is definitely the high point of the movie. Otherwise though, the animation is mostly okay (for Disney…it is still above what most other animation companies created around the same time). The backgrounds are just detailed enough that they give a realistic feel, and Basil’s home is appropriately cluttered. All in all, though, it is the kind of animation which is exactly one step above mediocre. Rattigan

Where the movie shines, though, is in the character designs. Whenever there is an emotional moment, the facial animation of the characters is spot on. You don’t need the tone to understand what they go through. Remarkable is also the way Basil’s fast movements contrast with Dr. Dawson’s slower ones. Similar notable are the exaggerated poses of Rattigan which is practically a copy of what his voice actor, Vincent Price, did in the recording studio. And Rattigans “turn” at the end of the movie. When he runs through the clock tower the thin lawyer of fine clothes are ripped away and he is revealed as the rat he always denied to be. All this is transported without words, only through the animation.

3. The Characters

Sherlock the gentleman, Sherlock the rude genius, Sherlock the drug-addict, there are countless versions of this character, and most of them are valid in one way or another. It just depends on which part of the descriptions in canon you intend to emphasis. What has to be there is Sherlock’s ability to deduct more than a normal human (or mouse) would be capable of. And Disney delivers, Basil does one leap after another during this movie, most of them fairly outlandish. But you never really have the time to question such a self-assured personality. And looking at his erratic behaviour, the way he leaps over his furniture and has difficult to grasp emotions – I’m starting to wonder how many makers of recent adaptions know this movie.

Because back when it was made, most adaptations were heavily inspired by the Basil Rathbone one, in which Holmes acts more like an automaton, a think machine, and rarely loses his cool demeanour. Disney’s take, which emphasises the various quirks Sherlock Holmes had, is nowadays the more common one, but back then this was a refreshing new (it is true that the Granada TV-Show, which is nowadays widely considered as the most faithful adaptation, also moved away from this interpretation and technically it started to air two years earlier, but if the animators were aware of this adaptation, the movie would have been way in the making by then, so I hesitate to claim any cross-influence in either direction).

The design of Dr. Dawson on the other hand is heavily influenced by the Basil Rathbone adaptations, though thankfully more in looks than in actual behaviour. While he does act like a bumbling fool sometimes, it’s mostly because he is entirely out of his element for most of the movie, and not because he is an idiot, like the comic-relief which was Nigel Bruce. (BTW, in the short scene when Basil and Dr. Dawson enter the “human” part of 221B Baker Street, we can hear the voices of those two actors discussing music. Those are old recordings of them). Either way, while Dr. Dawson has some scenes in which he slips into the role of the funny sidekick, most of the time he actually has more the role of the narrator, the watcher and sometimes the one who prods Basil into the right direction. I have to admit though (and one could see it as failure of the movie) that the relationship between Basil and him is not particular interesting. Most of the time it feels like Dr. Dawson is mostly there because you need a Watson for Holmes. But then: I never found Watson particularly interesting in any adaptation until the BBC version came around and actually came up with a convincing reason why John should put up with Sherlock. This in mind, the Disney version of the character is a decent one. Though I guess the main reason I’m mostly distracted from the relationship between those two men is Olivia.

Cute. Wide-eyed. Cute. In grave danger. Did I mention cute? This is one of the few cases in which an overly cute character actually works. It helps that Olivia, cute or not, still very much acts like a child, and not like an adorable puppet. Oh, she can do adorable well enough, but she also tends to snoop around and explores where she shouldn’t – like a normal child would. Though the main reason why she works so well is that she is the perfect foil for Basil. Not even he can keep up a façade of not caring when confronted with a helpless half-orphan whose whole appearance just screams “protect me”. At the same time, it’s obvious that he doesn’t really know how to deal with her. The funniest moments of the movie are based on this dynamic (and I think it’s very telling that it’s easier to find pictures of Basil and Olivia in the net than pictures of Dr. Dawson).

Though the most important character beside Basil is naturally Professor Rattigan. Physically perhaps the smallest villain Disney ever created, but nevertheless one of the most threatening. Moriarty is actually an easy figure to adapt, simply because there isn’t much to him. He is mostly so notorious because he turns up in a case and immediately kills Sherlock. (Later on ACD allowed Sherlock to rise from the death and he wrote one additional story describing one of Moriarty’s earlier deeds, but even in this one Moriarty only schemes in the background). Since there isn’t really much in canon about him, the only important thing in any adaptation is that he works as Holmes, or in this case Basil’s, nemesis. I think a guy who drowns orphans and widows, makes sure that one of his henchmen is eaten alive and is one step ahead for most of the movie qualifies. Of the interpretations I know, the Disney one is certainly the most flamboyant and erratic one – well, at least it was until the Moriarty form BBC Sherlock came around (which makes me wonder….). But this is the perfect fit for Basil. The way those two deal with their triumphs and disappointments is actually quite similar (well, minus the tendency to murder someone when being in a bad mood). They are like two sides of the same coin – in short, exactly what Sherlock and Moriarty should be, even if they are called Basil and Rattigan.

There are also a lot of minor figures like Mr. Haversham, Mrs. Jugson, Toby, a parody of Queen Victoria, Fidget, various henchmen and so on. They all work fine, but they mostly just provide the background for the main characters, so I won’t go into detail about them. Nothing wrong about them, but none of them are particular memorable either – unless they start to strip, naturally.

4. The Plot

You might have guessed it: This is not really much of a detective story. If you expect to get clues in order to solve the case yourself, you’ll be disappointed. Not that this is a requirement for a Sherlock Holmes story, most of them aren’t about finding the murder but about Sherlock Holmes methods to catch him.

This movie though is more a character study of Basil and Rattigan, and as such it works very well. It’s just fun to watch those two characters trying to outwit each other, even though some of their actions are very much over the top. Rattigan’s evil scheme in a more realistic movie would never work, neither would Basil’s crazy math-skills be believable, but in the setting Disney picked, it’s just too enjoyable to nit-pick about plausibility. Parallels to the original stories are few and far between. There are the backgrounds of the main characters, the way Basil deducts Dr. Dawson during the first meeting and the ending, which could be seen as a version of the Reichenbach fall. It’s a little bit funny that Disney for once had every right to make sure the Basil survives, considering the A.C. Doyle created a version of the Disney death long before the animation studios even existed.Basil hurt

Speaking of which, the final fight between Basil and Rattigan is positively vicious. There are few scenes in Disney movies which come even close to be as brutal. Just look at Basil. He is beaten up and at one point out of options. Only the lucky timing is rescuing his life in the end.

One of the most common complains I have about Disney-movies is the pacing or the lack of focus. This movie knows exactly what kind of story it wants to tell, and it builds up the suspense perfectly. Not one filler scenes in this one, every story-line is tightly wrapped up towards the end, and when it comes to the climax, it delivers full scale. The Great Mouse Detective is also a rarity in the Disney Canon in that there isn’t any kind of love-story in it. The only other Disney movies without one I can come up from the top of my mind are Pinocchio, Alice in Wonderland, the Winnie the Pooh movies and, more recently, Big Hero 6.

5. The Soundtrack

I pointed this out already when I talked about the villain song, but “The World’s most Criminal Mind” is the first full-fledged villain song in the Disney canon. Oddly, though, it is the only song of this kind in the whole movie. The other two songs are both justified. “Let me be good to you” is sung by a performer during the bar scene and “Goodbye So Soon”, which doubles as Conclusion song, is originally picked by Rattigan as ironic commentary on Basil’s approaching demise. To a certain degree Rattigan’s song is justified, too, because the singing is more treated as part of Ratigan’s flamboyant personality. In any case, it is a masterpiece of built-up:

“From the brain that brought you the Big Ben Caper
The head that made headlines in every newspaper
And wondrous things like the Tower Bridge Job
That cunning display that made London a sob”

Note that the audience has no idea what crimes is he exactly talking about, but the inclusion of “Big Ben” and “Tower Bridge” suggests that they were big and impressive.

Now comes the real tour de force
Tricky and wicked, of course
My earlier crimes were fine for their times
But now that I’m at it again
An even grimmer plot has been simmering
In my great criminal brain

Here happens the first built up. The song starts with something which sounds impressive and then establishes that what we will see in the movie is even bigger than anything Rattigan did beforehand.

Even meaner? You mean it?
Worse than the widows and orphans you drowned?
You’re the best of the worst around
Oh, Ratigan
Oh, Ratigan
The rest fall behind
To Ratigan
To Ratigan
The world’s greatest criminal mind

Hold a minute…this guy is drowning widows and orphans? That’s worse than saying that he is routinely killing cute little puppies.

Thank you, Thank you. But it hasn’t all been
champagne and caviar. I’ve had my share of
adversity, thanks to that miserable second-rate
detective, Basil of Baker Street. For years, that
insufferable pipsqueak has interfered with my
I haven’t had a moment’s peace of mind. But, all
that’s in the past! This time, nothing, not even
Basil, can stand in my way! All will bow before

Note how the tune of the song changes here. The text is now spoken and doesn’t rhyme any longer, and Rattigan is playing the harp to great dramatic effect. The excitement is dimmed for a moment, just to come back even more effective.

Oh, Ratigan
Oh, Ratigan
You’re tops and that’s that
To Ratigan
To Ratigan
To Ratigan, the world’s greatest rat

What now follows is the demise of poor Bartholomew. Which is not directly part of the song, but underlines the point even further. We have heart how dangerous Rattigan is up to this point. But seeing how he kills one of his henchmen brings the point across even better. But what makes the whole matter truly terrifying is that in the aftermath, his other goons are singing even more with very forced smiles on their faces.

Even louder
We’ll shout it!
No one can doubt what we know you can do
You’re more evil than even you
Oh, Ratigan
Oh, Ratigan
You’re one of a kind
To Ratigan
To Ratigan
The world’s greatest criminal mind

While this is the main villain song of the movie, in a way there is a second one. “Goodbye so soon” is played twice, once when Basil is trapped as a “last greeting” from Rattigan and once at the very end, as last greeting of the movie to the audience. The only difference is the tone in which the two versions are sung. Rattigan’s tone is mocking, while the chorus in the end is neutral.

Goodbye so soon
And isn’t this a crime?
We know by now that time knows how to fly
So here’s goodbye so soon
You’ll find your separate way
With time so short I’ll say so long
And go
So soon

If you read this text out of context it sounds totally harmless. But in context there actually is a crime (a murder!) happening, and the time is not flying, it is running out for Basil and Dr. Dawson.

You followed me, I followed you
We were like each other’s shadows for a while
Now as you see, this game is through
So although it hurts, I’ll try to smile
As I say

What the text is describing is a circle of events which repeated itself again and again. The song itself is constructed in the same way, it can be sung in a loop at least until the vinyl is through. And the double meaning doesn’t stop there. In this case, it will certainly hurt, if Rattigan’s plan works. Thankfully someone else smiles in the end.

Yes, I know, I skipped “Let me be good to you”, but I felt that Rattigan’s songs belong together. Now, the last one left is a pure filler song. It serves no purpose whatsoever aside from creating some atmosphere and background noise for the scene. And it is an opportunity to get a lot of crap past the radar.

Dearest friends, dear gentlemen
Listen to my song
Life down here’s been hard for you
Life has made you strong
Let me lift the mood
With my attitude

So far, this is pretty harmless. Just a pretty girl singing a song, expressing understanding for the hardship of life. Until she takes of her first layer of clothing. Then the tune changes pretty quickly.

Hey fellas
The time is right
Get ready
Tonight’s the night
Boys, what you’re hopin’ for will come true
Let me be good to you

Mmmm….what exactly might a bunch of boys hoping for when they see a half naked female dancing on a stage? That’s right, Disney just put a promise for sex in one of their movies.

You tough guys
You’re feelin’ all alone
You rough guys
The best o’ you sailors and bums
All o’ my chums

Note how the text is addressing the crowd again. In-universe this is a very clever move, because it feels more intimate this way.

So dream on
And drink your beer
Get cosy
Your baby’s here
You won’t be misunderstood
Let me be good to you

And even more intimate, especially through the inclusion of the words “your baby”, which creates a connection between the singer and the crowd. While parents just hope that their children won’t get the connection between “let me be good to you” and sex.

Hey fellas
I’ll take off all my blues
Hey fellas
There’s nothin’ I won’t do
Just for you

Kitty wears nothing but blue. So we all know what will happen when she takes it all off. She even promises that she has no limits, suggesting whatever someone dreams of, she will do it.

So dream on
And drink your beer
Get cosy
Your baby’s here
Hey boys, I’m talkin’ to you
Your baby’y gonna come through
Let me be good to you

Note the addition of “Hey boys, I’m talkin’ to you” in the text, which addresses everyone in the audience on a personal level. In-universe and in the theatres.

I have to admit, I am really amused by the audacity of the song. And even more amused that despite the fact that some people are obsessed with discovering subliminal messages in Disney movies, this song often gets overlooked. Someone really had fun with this one.

And “fun” is really the best word to summon up the songs in this movie. They are designed to be over the top delightful. And every single one of them fulfils the brief perfectly. It was a good choice, though, to leave the singing mostly  to Rattigan. I don’t think that musical numbers for every character would have fit the tone of the movie or Basil’s character.

6. The Conclusion

Sandwiched between box-office failure The Black Cauldron (I don’t care that the movie has some sort of a cult following by now, it will always be remembered as the one which lost against the Care-Bears) and the soulless merchandise machine which was Oliver and Company (I’ll go into detail about this one in a later review), also overshadowed by the more successful Don Bluth movie An American Tail, The Great Mouse Detective is often overlooked. But it shouldn’t be. It might not be as visually stunning as some of the later (and a few earlier) movies, but it’s nevertheless very pleasing to look at. It might not be the movie which started the Disney Renaissance, but it is the one which marked the end of the dark age of animation. Without the modest success of this one, The Little Mermaid wouldn’t even exist today. But its importance aside, this is simply a genuinely good movie. My lists of Sherlock Holmes adaptations I consider “well done” is very short, though the one I consider “Must watch” is, as you can see, a little bit longer, but The Great Mouse Detective will always have a spot on both of them.


The basic methods to add Music in Movies

Now that I have finished to talk about the kind of songs which we usually find in a movie, let’s talk about the different layers of music in any given movie. There are different possibilities to add music to a movie. In every given moment, you can add music either from the off or in-scene. And if you pick in-scene, you can decide between justified or not-justified.

Whenever music is played from the off, it is like there is someone commenting the movie for you, either through music or song, manipulating the emotions of the audience and the way a scene is perceived. This is the most common choice in any given movie, because the right music can elevate a scene considerably. Just imagine the shower scene from Psycho without tone. Would it be as iconic as it is nowadays?

Justified basically means that the music happens in the scene itself for a realistic reason. The radio is playing in the background, someone is on the stage and sings, whatever the reason is, the audience knows where the music is coming from and perceives it as part of the scene.

Having not-justified music in scene, which often results in putting music at the very forefront. Usually music is used to underline a certain mood, but in some cases, the audience is supposed to pay attention to the music first and foremost, which is often achieved by combining singing in-scene to a melody from the off (though it naturally also works the other way around). That is the kind of music you’ll find mostly in musicals, when the characters are starting to sing in scene to a melody which is played from the off, requiring a certain level of suspense of disbelief from the audience. Naturally they are exceptions to the rule. For example a lot of songs in “Chorus Line” are technically justified since the musical is about a Broadway production.

But weather in-scene of from the off, there are three possible choices of music: An underscore,  a song or silence. Silence is actually the choice which is most often picked, because the moment you decide to have music on one level, it is very likely that your choice for the other levels will be silence. As example, let’s take a look at Disney’s “Bella Notte” scene:

The scene starts out with an underscore from the off, while the choice for in-scene is silence. Then, a 0:20, suddenly the accordion interrupts the underscore, switching from music from the off to music which is played in-scene. Now the off is silent. At 0:23 the singing starts – but the music is still fully justified. Until 1:35, when the scenery changes. Now in-scene is silence, and we are back to music from the off, but this time around it is not an underscore, but a song.

It might sound strange to call silence a choice, but consider how loud silence can be. For example the scene when Bambi’s mother dies. The sudden shift from happiness to danger, the flight through the woods, all this is underlined with an underscore which amplifies the shift in the mood. When Bambi calls out for his mother, a chorus is singing from the off, already suggesting her fate. But the moment his father turns up and tells him that she wont be back, there is suddenly total silence. No score, no singing, just this deep voice telling Bambi that he will never see his mother again.

There are naturally other choices one can make concerning music: Original or pre-existing music, the different style, a song with one singer or a chorus, just to mention a few. But from the off or in-scene, justified or not, underscore, song or silence, those are the most basic ones.

The Filler Song

A Filler Song is exactly what it sounds like: A song which has no purpose whatsoever than to fill a little bit time. Now, usually I feel that every song (and scene) in a movie should have a purpose. But for animated movies, sometimes it is nice just to lean back and enjoy some beautiful imagery with the fitting sound. Fantasia is all about that. But you can find those moments in the regular movies, too. There is even a name for the particular weird ones: Disney Acid Sequences. Though weirdness is not always necessary. There is, for example the “Sing, Sing Nightingale” scene from Cinderella.  It starts out as a realistic scene and ends in a sequence in which Cinderella is reflected in soap bubbles, singing with multiple voices. It is very settled, but still surreal in a beautiful way.

The mother of all acid sequences is naturally the “Elephant on Parade” segment. Which, imho, only exists to push Dumbo to a proper running time for a movie. It’s nevertheless in an awesome way weird and very memorable – in a lot of ways the high point of the movie.

Look out! Look out!
Pink elephants on parade
Here they come!
Hippety hoppety
They’re here and there
Pink elephants ev’rywhere
Look out! Look out!
They’re walking around the bed
On their head
Clippety cloppety
Arrayed in braid
Pink elephants on parade
What’ll I do? What’ll I do?
What an unusual view!
I could stand the sight of worms
And look at microscopic germs
But technicolor pachyderms
Is really much for me
I am not the type to faint
When things are odd or things
are quaint
But seeing things you know that ain’t
Can certainly give you an awful fright!
What a sight!
Chase ’em away!
Chase ’em away!
I’m afraid need your aid
Pink elephants on parade!
Pink elephants!
Pink elephants!

The lyrics of this song basically boil down to “This is creepy!”. Now, I was never creeped out by the sequence, I was too fascinated by the animation, but I can see why other people are. And to me this is the best use of a filler song, to add to a visually compelling scene.

And that concludes (finally) the basic systematic of songs. Which means I can now start with analysing movies! You are free to make requests (I don’t promise anything, but I’ll seriously consider all of them).

The Sidekick Song

Let’s talk about the usual cast of a Disney movie: There is a hero and/or a heroine. Note that there isn’t always a love story in the focus. It’s the relationship Disney (well, more or less every movie company out there) defaults to, but it can just as well be about mentor and mentee, owner and pet, friends, children and parents or a combination of any of them. Then there is the villain or antagonist. And finally, there is the supporting cast. In this group the most notable characters are the so-called “sidekicks”.

It’s a little bit ironic, because the word “sidekick” sounds like it is referring to someone unimportant. But in fact the sidekicks tend to be the most important helpers of the heroes or heroines. Not always, though. In Snow White the audience gets the whole spectrum so to speak, from the cutesy animals which mostly provide some laughs, over the slightly more useful dwarves to Grumpy who even has his own character arc. A sidekick with an own song though is nearly always important (that doesn’t mean that there aren’t important sidekicks which don’t sing, though).

I waited so long to write about this kind of song because it is really hard to pin down. Like the “I want” song and the villain song, the Sidekick song belongs to what I like to call “character songs”. Those are songs which are designed to either introduce a character or allow him to voice his thoughts.  But unlike the “I want” or the villain song, which tend to fulfil a very specific function in a movie, the Sidekick song can be more or less about everything. “A friend like me” for example has the clear purpose to introduce the Genie to the audience. “Be Our Guest” is not so much about introducing the characters (which we already met), but revealing their feelings. A song like “Under the sea” on the other hand is not directly about Sebastian  himself but instead showcases his opinion concerning Ariel’s wish to life on land.

What Disney’s sidekick song have in common is that they usually come with an upbeat tune and a clever text. They tend to loosen the tension, allowing some unusual tunes and are usually a lot of fun. Note though that not every song which is sung by a sidekick is automatically a sidekick song, and it is sometimes hard to draw a line. Sometimes it is easy, for example if the Sidekick takes the place of the narrator in a movie (see Big Mama in Fox and Hound or Alan-A-Dale in Robin Hood), but sometimes it is a little bit more complicated. Does count Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother as a sidekick? She is only for one scene in the movie. Is “When you wish upon a star” one? It is sung by Jiminy, but he just happens to be the character who sings this song. I consider “Give a little whistle” his true sidekick song.

When you get in trouble and you don’t know right from wrong,
give a little whistle!
Give a little whistle!
When you meet temptation and the urge is very strong,
give a little whistle!
Give a little whistle!
Not just a little squeak,
pucker up and blow.
And if your whistle’s weak, yell “Jiminy Cricket!”

Take the straight and narrow path
and if you start to slide,
give a little whistle!
Give a little whistle!
And always let your conscience be your guide.

Unlike “When you wish upon a star” this one only works in the context of the movie, and is about Jiminy and his promise to be there and guide Pinocchio. Though there is not one scene in the movie in which whistling or yelling actually helps. Whenever Pinocchio does that, Jiminy is too far away to hear him, and whenever he meets temptation, he doesn’t listen to Jiminy at all. Still, the song establishes how their relationship is supposed to work. “When you wish upon a star” on the other hand has no direct connection to Jiminy, it is more the theme of the movie itself. And therefore I wouldn’t consider it a Sidekick song, even though it is sung by one.

The Magic Song

Why reciting spells if you just can sing them? Disney certainly prefers to make a dashing song out of every enchantment. I suspect that especially the Sherman brothers had a lot of fun connecting nonsense words to memorable lyrics. I admit though that I personally gravitate more to the simpler tunes, along the line of Rapunzel’s “Healing Incarnation”. In addition, some of the best scores in Disney movies are connected to magical scenes – like “Transformation” from Beauty and the Beast.

But the most succesful magic song was also the very first one. “Bibbidi-bobbidi-bo” established the concept of creating new words in songs long before the Sherman Brothers made it a habit.  And it set the guidelines for those kind of songs: Everything is allowed, but keep it brief.

Salagadoola mechicka boola bibbidi-bobbidi-boo
Put ’em together and what have you got
Salagadoola mechicka boola bibbidi-bobbidi-boo
It’ll do magic believe it or not
Salagadoola means mechicka booleroo
But the thingmabob that does the job is
Salagadoola menchicka boola bibbidi-bobbidi-boo
Put ’em together and what have you got
bibbidi-bobbidi bibbidi-bobbidi bibbidi-bobbidi-boo

If you look really hard at the lyrics, they don’t make any sense whatsoever. The most I can discern from it is “those are the words we need to do the spell”. But the play with language nevertheless makes it work. No wonder it got the academy award nomination over “A dream is a wish your heart makes”.

The “Keep Hoping” Song

In my article about the Disney composers, I mentioned “When you wish upon a star”. Which is, in a lot of ways, the conclusion song of Pinocchio, but it is so much more than that.

This type of songs is a speciality of Disney – lyrics which centre around the concept that if you hold on your faith, something good will eventually happen to you. The concept creeps in a lot of songs – most obviously in the “I want” Song “A Dream is a Wish your Heart makes”:

“No matter how your heart is grieving, if you keep on believing, the dream that you wish will come true.”

But there are also songs which are written for the sole purpose of conveying Disney’s message of optimism. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves has “With a Smile and a Song”,  The Rescuers “Someone’s waiting for you”, aso. They are rarer than one might think, but I think there are enough to deserve an own category. Especially since this is the very core of most Disney movies, as voiced in Disney’s anathema:

When you wish upon a star
Makes no difference who you are
Anything your heart desires
Will come to you.

I really love the line “makes no difference who you are”. Disney’s message of hope is for everyone, no exceptions.

If your heart is in your dream
No request is too extreme
When you wish upon a star
As dreamers do.

I think the part a lot of people overlook is “if your heart is in your dream”. Just wishing isn’t enough. This has to be something your heart is set on. And if your heart is set on something, it is more than just the star which will help you out. The star will give you the hope you might need, but you still have to keep trying.

Fate is kind
She brings to those who love
The sweet fulfillment of
Their secret longing

And yet another condition on getting your wish fulfilled: You have to be a loving person. You give to the world and the world will give back to you eventually.

Like a bolt out of the blue
Fate steps in and sees you through.
When you wish upon a star
Your dreams come true.

It might sound like a bolt promise, but isn’t it true? That sometimes life just gives you a break? Some say the song is foolish for promising that wishing upon stars is solving all of your problems. Disney even felt the need to clarify in “The Princess and the Frog” that just wishing isn’t enough, you need to work towards you dreams, too. But I never felt that the song claimed that life is that easy. To me it was always an anathema of hope. And while it is by far not my favourite tune, it is nevertheless a song I can fully get behind. We all need a little bit of hope in our lifes.

The “Let me tell you something” Song

Bear with me, it’s the best name I came up with. This is the last one in the group of “narrative songs”.

There are different variants of it, but most of the tome basics, someone explains something directly to the audience, or he explains something to another character (though the message is naturally still for the audience). Alan A Dale (Robin Hood) is a perfect example for the first variant. Merlin’s songs (Sword in the Stone) tend to fall into the latter category. In some rare cases “Let me tell you something” songs are even sung from the off, though they are hard to recognize as such, because songs which are song from the off tend to fall in multiple categories.

The Rescuers for example is a movie, in which every song safe for the Anathema of the Rescue Aid Society and “For Penny’s a Jolly Good Fellow” is sung from the off, and none of them are directly character related. That doesn’t mean that they are even clear cut exposition songs. One can make a case for “The Journey” being an Introduction (It’s played at the start of the movie) with shades of an “I want” Song (since it expresses Penny’s desire to get rescued…in fact, if she were the main character and not Bernard and Bianca I might put it in this category), and “Tomorrow is Another Day” being a Montage Song – even though there isn’t much of a montage, it’s main function is to cover the time Bernard and Bianca need for the travel.

The best example for a clear cut “Let me tell you something” song from the off is “No way out” from Brother Bear, though in this case what is sung from the off is not the same as what is said in the scene to Koda, it is more the attempt (emphasis on attempt) to add an additional layer to the story the audience already knows by explaining the feelings behind it. Generally speaking those songs have to balance a very fine line between adding to the story and being too much on the nose. Some of them come off as downright preachy (“Colours of the Wind” from Pocahontas springs into mind)

Disney especially likes to use the “I’ll tell you something” song in their shorts. Their adaptation of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow for example alters between narration, spoken lyrics and singing, creating a very distinctive rhythm.

[Speech in rhyme] Brom: Just gather ’round
and I’ll elucidate
what goes on outside when it gets late.
Long past midnight,
ghosts, and banshees
get together for their nightly jamborees.
There’s things with horns and saucer eyes
some with fangs about this size.

[Speech] Woman #1: Some are shorth & fat.
Woman #2: And some are tall &thin.
Creepy Man: And some don’t even bother to wear their skin.

[Speech in rhyme] Brom: I’m telling you, brother,
it’s a frightful sight,
see what goes on Halloween night.

The rhymes and rhythm are already setting the mood at this point, which is a strange mix between cheerful and threatening.

When spooks have a midnight jamboree,
they break it up with fiendish glee.
Now, ghosts are bad,
but the one that’s cursed
is the Headless Horseman,
he’s the worst.

Chorus: That’s right,
he’s a fright on Halloween night.

Brom: When he goes a-joggin’
cross the land,
holdin’ his noggin’,
in his hand,
demons take one look, and groan,
and hit the road for parts unknown.

Chorus: Beware, take care, he rides alone.

Brom: Now, there’s no spook like the spook who’s spurned.

Chorus: They don’t like him, and he’s really burned.

Brom: He swears to the longest day he’s dead,

All: he’ll show them that he can get ahead

Brom: Now, they say he’s tired of his flamin’ top,
and he’s got a yen to make a swap.
And so he rides one night each year,
to find a head in Hollow here.

Women: Now, he likes them little, he likes them big.

Men: Part in the middle, or a wig.

Chorus: Black or white, or even red.

Brom: The Headless Horseman needs a head.

All: With a hip-hip and a clippety clop,
he’s out looking for a top to chop.

Brom: So don’t stop to figure out a plan,

All: you can’t reason with a headless man.

The song, which contains the actual Legend of Sleepy Hollow, is one big built-up to the climax. Before the headless horseman is even on the scene the audience knows that he wants a head, and it learns what the one way to escape is:

[Speech in rhyme] Brom: Now, if you doubt this tale is so,
I met that spook just a year ago.
Now, I didn’t stop for a second look,
but headed for the bridge that spans the brook.
For, once you cross that bridge, my friend.

Chorus: The ghost is through, his power ends.

Brom: So, when you’re riding home tonight,
make for the bridge with all your might.
He’ll be down in the Hollow there.
He needs your head.
Look out! Beware!

Women: With a hip-hip and a clippety clop,

Men: He’s out looking for a head to swap.

All: So, don’t try to figure out a plan,
you can’t reason with a HEADLESS MAN!!!!!!

The whole scene has only one purpose, to set the stage for what is to come. The audience now knows the rules, and it knows that most likely something will happen. And what will happen is, like the song, a juxtaposition between two different moods, mixing comedy with horror. It is, in more way then one, the perfect use of a song like that.

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 Introduction Song

To put it blunt, an Introduction song is used to set the mood for the movie and, if necessary, to give the audience important background information. It is often (but not always) the first piece of music we hear in a movie.

Like the “Villain Song”, this is a concept which developed over time, mostly because movies used to be structured differently than they nowadays. In the past a lot of movies had opening credits, since it was not common to list all the cast members and whoever else was involved in the production. This changed around the 1970s (more or less…fun fact: Disney’s Fantasia (1940) was the first sound film which started without any opening credits), when it became more common to acknowledge the staff. Soon movies had extensive end credits and only mentioned the most important persons during the opening…if at all.

When opening credits were still common, title melodies or songs were too. And they were often used as mood setter, already, so the movie maker had to find a balance. Often this was done by starting the movie with a narrator. For example Cinderella’s title song is beautiful, but not particularly informative, so the narrator takes care of providing the background information needed. Peter Pan on the other hand has a title song which immediately informs the audience about Neverland, so the narrator only has to introduce the Darlings. In “Sword in the Stone” on the other hand the title melody bridges to an introduction song, telling the story of the death king and then a narrator takes over – kind of overkill, if you think about it.

Getting rid of the opening credits “freed” the introduction song. There was no longer the need to balance it out with opening credits, instead the animators could go all out – and they did very impressively with movies like “Lion King”, which has one of the best known opening in movie history. But I think the song which shows the best what a good introduction song can do, is “Belles of Notre Dame”.

Morning in Paris,
the city awakes
to the bells of Notre Dame
The fisherman fishes
The bakerman bakes
to the bells of Notre Dame

To the big bells as loud as the thunder
To the little bells soft as a psalm
And some say the soul of
the city’s the toll the bells
the bells of Notre Dame

This part of the song is a mood setter. We get a feeling for Paris, and for the giant clock tower (which is btw not THAT big in real life…the animators went a little bit overboard with the scales, but then, that was kind of the point, I guess) with it’s bells. It follows a sequence of kind of narration which leads to the next part of the song (I cut out the text from the scenes so that we can concentrate on the part which is sung).

Dark was the night when our tale was begun
On the docks near Notre Dame

Four frightened gypsies slid silently under
the docks near Notre Dame

But a trap had been laid for the gypsies
And they gazed up in fear and alarm
At a figure who’s clutches
Were iron as much as the bells….
The bells of Notre Dame

Kyrie Eleison (translation: Lord Have Mercy)

Judge Claude Frollo longed to purge the world
Of vice and sin
And he saw corruption every where
Except within

We know get a lot of background story, and our first glimpse of the villain of the movie – who is immediately sketched out in four lines. We know what he wants and we know around which trait (hypocrisy) his character is built.  In the following sequence the change between showing what happened in the past and the song is so fluid that they nearly become one. This is underlined by the fact that not only the actual narrator is singing, the Arch Deacon does too. Past and present melt into each other for a moment.

She ran.

Dies irae, dies illa (Day of wrath, that day)
Solvet saeclum in favilla (Shall consume the world in ashes)
Teste David cum sibylla (As prophesied by David and the sibyl)
Quantus tremor est futurus (What trembling is to be)
Quando Judex est venturus (When the Judge is come)

Gypsie Mother:
Please give us sanctuary!

A baby…
A monster!

Arch Deacon:

Cried the Arch Deacon.

This is an unholy demon
I’m sending it back to hell
Where it belongs

Arch Deacon:
See there the innocent blood you have spilt
On the steps of Notre Dame

I am guiltless
She ran,
I pursued

Arch Deacon:
Now you would add this child’s blood to your guilt
On the steps of Notre Dame

My concience is clear!

Arch Deacon:
You can lie to yourself and your minions
You can claim that you haven’t a qualm
But you never can run from nor hide what you’ve done
From the eyes
The very eyes of Notre Dame

Kyrie Eleison

And for one time in his life
Of power and control

Kyrie Eleison

Frollo felt a twinge of fear
For his immortal soul

What must do?

Arch Deacon:
Care for the child
And raise it as your own

I am to be saddled with this misshapen…
Very well,
But let him live with you in your church

Arch Deacon:
Live here?
But Where?


Just so he’s kept locked away where no one else can see

The bell tower perhaps
And who knows?
Our Lord works in mysterious ways

Even this foul creature may yet prove one day to be
Of use to me

And Frollo gave the child a cruel name
A name that means “half-formed”

At this point, the audience is pulled back in the present.

“Now here is a riddle to guess if you can,”
Sing the bells of Notre Dame
“Who is the monster and who is the man?”
Sing the bells, bells, bells, bells
Bells, bells, bells, bells
Bells of Notre Dame

To round up a perfect introduction song,  the audience even learns the core question of the movie – though it is a rhetorical one. At this point, it is  already primed to like Quasimodo, no matter how he looks.

The Belles of Notre Dame is a great song with it’s cacophony of bells, and the way the music swells, nearly pressing you in the seat if you watch the movie in a well equipped theatre with a good sound system. But it is also great because it does everything an introduction song can do: Setting the mood, providing important information and pointing out the core theme of the movie.

The Montage Song

So far, I have talked mostly about the kind of songs, which are character related. But there are also songs which mostly work as a narrating device. They are often (but not always) sung from the off and can roughly fulfil three different functions: World building, emotional insight and  compressing time. Today, I want to write about the last variant: The montage song.

A montage is a very handy device whenever a movie wants to show development over a longer time-span in a short time. Usually a montage is paired with music and/or narration, but there is also the option to take it on the next level and use a song. This has the advantage that the song (unlike the narration) doesn’t have to describe directly what happens on screen or voice the opinion of the narrator. Instead it can serve as some sort of comment.

The most well-known montage song in Disney canon has to be “I’ll Make a Man Out of You”. But to understand this song on all levels, one has to see it in connection with the other songs from the movie, so let’s talk toady about one, which often gets overlooked: Treasure Planet’s “I’m still here”. It is the only song of the movie, and played during one of it’s stand-out moments. The montage in this case has three purposes: Giving the audience the sense of a long travel, showing how the relationship of Silver and Jim develops and giving a glimpse in Jim’s soul by showing his traumatic memories of the days his father left him. The song mostly connects to the last aspect, expressing Jim’s inner turmoil.

I am a question to the world
Not an answer to be heard
Or a moment that’s held in your arms

And what do you think you’d ever say
I won’t listen anyway
You don’t know me
And I’ll never be what you want
Me to be

All of Jim’s defiance is in those lines. He doesn’t want to listen because he feels that the people judge him without really knowing him.  He wants to be his own person instead of trying to fit in.

And what
Do you think you’d understand
I’m boy, no, I’m a man
You can’t take me
And throw me away

And how
Can you learn what’s never shown
Yeah, you stand here on your own
They don’t know me
‘Cause I’m not here

In those lines are all the sense of abandonment. Jim, now in the difficult age between boy and man, has been left behind too often. He is feeling alone, but he is also not ready to trust anyone at this point. And why should he, more or less everyone is basically telling him that he is a looser.

And I want a moment to be real
Want to touch things I don’t feel
Wanna hold on and feel I belong

And how can the world want me to change
They’re the ones that stay the same
They don’t know me
‘Cause I’m not here

Fittingly, the montage shows at this point Jim watching the crew in a gathering, while he is sequestered away in a corner. He is still an outside, but the wish to belong is growing in him. But he is not reaching out because he is well aware of his status as an outsider.

And you see the things they never see
All you wanted – I could be
Now you know me
And I’m not afraid

And I want to tell you who I am
Can you help me be a man
They can’t break me
As long as I know who I am

This is the sequence which shows how Silver slowly develops a true interest in Jim, and Jim slowly starting to trust him. The lyric expresses Jim growing self-confidence. At this point, it doesn’t matter if others think that he is a looser, because he knows that he isn’t one. And as long as he has this knowledge, he won’t be one.

They can’t tell me who to be
‘Cause I’m not what they see
Yeah, the world is still sleepin’ while I keep on dreaming for me
And their words are just whispers and lies that I’ll never believe

Jim’s father leaving is here shown as the reason for his deep-seated distrust in other people.

And I want a moment to be real
Want to touch things I don’t feel
Wanna hold on and feel I belong

And how can you say I’ll never change
They’re the ones that stay the same
I’m the one now
‘Cause I’m still here

I’m the one
‘Cause I’m still here
I’m still here
I’m still here
I’m still here

Even the lyrics express the change in Jim’s psyche during the travel. At the beginning, it was “They don’t know me,  ‘Cause I’m not here”, now it is “I’m the one, ‘Cause I’m still here”. Jim has grown up, developed a sense for himself, and he is ready to take on the world, no matter what people are thinking about him.

All in all, this is one of the most complex constructs for a montage song I know, and it works on every level. The visuals go perfectly with the lyrics, and together they allow a deep understanding for Jim and his relationship to Silver, and that without having to spell it out for the audience. Even if you don’t like the movie as a whole, this sequence is certainly worth to pay attention to.