Disney has hit notes both high and low over almost 90 years of animation and music

If the images of Walt Disney are everywhere in our culture, so too is the music produced by the legendary film and animation company.

From Jiminy Cricket singing When You Wish Upon A Star in Pinocchio to Let It Go in Frozen, the Disney soundtrack has become the soundtrack of our lives in North America.

It’s even invading the halls of the National Arts Centre starting Thursday with a Pops performance called Disney in Concert: A Dream Is A Wish. The three concerts will feature songs from films such as The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and Cinderella.

But Disney’s influence is more than a couple of concerts. Not surprisingly it is a record of innovation, says Genevieve Bazinet, an adjunct professor at uOttawa’s School of Music who teaches a course on music and film. She’s also an expert on 16th century music but that’s a matter for another time.

Disney music takes a major step forward with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves which was released in 1934 in the midst of the Great Depression, Bazinet says.

Snow White was groundbreaking in that it was a full-length animated feature but it also involved the first release of a film soundtrack. Bazinet says that Snow White featured a “new way of using music in an animated film where it’s not just a performance number and it’s not just a dream sequence. In this case the music was part of the narrative framework of the film.

“It was not just singing a performance number but also singing in a ‘non-self aware’ situation. The characters are singing as a form of advancing the story, as a form of communication.”

The formula developed in the 1930s and it carried on in films such as Pinocchio and into today. in films such as The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast with the musical baton passing from composers such as written by Frank Churchill and Leigh Harline ans the score was composed by Paul J. Smith and Leigh Harline to Alan Menken and his lyricists such as  Howard AshmanTim RiceGlenn SlaterStephen Schwartz and David Zippel. Menken’s run with Disney was amazingly successful. He has won eight Oscars.

The Lion King represented another change for Disney, Bazinet says in that the company turned away from composers and lyricists and hired a popular recording artist Elton John who worked with Rice. They also hired, she noted, a non-animated feature film composer Hans Zimmer to do the orchestral writing.

Walt Disney from a 1937 trailer with small figurines of the Seven Dwarves.

The Lion King also rocketed the music to the top of the Billboard charts on the strength of John’s songs. In so doing, Bazinet says, Disney was treating it more like a feature film that happens to be animated. It also found a formula to mass appeal.

As a company, Disney has been innovative, Bazinet says.

“I think certainly by bringing in composers such as Hans Zimmer who is well known and respected for his Dark Knight trilogy along with all the work he has done with Christopher Nolan. This has elevated the Disney music component and the films.

“Older films were certainly competitive and appropriate for their era. For example, Bambi had a wonderful underscore that was in keeping with feature film orchestration and sound,” she said.

Other films such as The Jungle Book brought in a jazz feel that is credited to composer George Bruns.  Who can forget Louis Prima’s I Wanna Be Like You or Phil Harris singing The Bare Necessities.

“My personal opinion is that the popularity of the Disney films is very much tied to the popularity of their music. The music is powerful and its message is far-reaching.”

That is a double-edged sword, she says. There is music that is racist for example in the film Dumbo the most obvious example is the Song of the Roustabouts.

“From a gender and racial perspective there is a lot to be cautious about,” Bazinet says, especially in the older films.

Mary Poppins, too, was a breakthrough film which combined a live feature with animation to form an award winning combination.

“I think it belongs in the great film musical tradition. It’s style was not classical but it wasn’t too trendy. It had an  idyllic quality. For our western ears these songs are familiar. It capitalizes on classical music tradition. Linked to that familiar sound.”

She also believes it reflects, and may have helped accelerate, a general trend in society toward popular music rather than classical music, as perhaps reflected by Pops concerts.

But it’s not all bad new for classical fans and players, she says.

“There is a great quote by Zimmer that says that film music composers are one of the few groups who commission classical orchestral players on a regular basis.”

Walt Disney also delivered Fantasia a ground-breaking animated film that flows out of the music it presents from Beethoven to Stravinsky, all conducted by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra in 1940. In fact Disney supplied a click track so the animators could more properly time the movements of their characters to the music.

Bazinet says that when she saw it as a child in the 1990s, “it was fantastic and overwhelming.”

Hakuna Matata Disney fans.

Disney in Concert: A Dream Is A Wish
NAC Orchestra
Where: Southam Hall
When: dec. 14-16 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information: nac-cna.ca

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.