In the last few years, the music of Walt Disney studios has recaptured the public imagination. The Lion King brought Disney its first No. 1 soundtrack since 1964’s Mary Poppins, while a spate of tribute albums granted the studio’s songs a measure of hip credibility. These ranged from spotty (Stay Awake) to wretched (Just Mad About the Mouse), and failed to do much besides start people like me hunting for their tattered, scratchy copies of the Dumbo soundtrack. After all, who would you rather hear sing “Stay Awake” and “Whistle While You Work,” Suzanne Vega and NRBQ, respectively, or Mary Poppins and the Seven Dwarfs? Perhaps anticipating the answer to this question, the studio has released Classic Disney, a two-disc collection of 50 songs from 26 short and feature films—as well as from theme parks and television projects.
Considering the historic role of music in the studio’s films, the strangest thing about Classic Disney is that there are no liner notes. The notion of setting cartoons to music is considered the single most significant factor in Disney’s success, from Mickey’s debut as an improvisational musician (he plays, among other things, a cow and some piglets) in 1928’s Steamboat Willie onward. Soon thereafter, Walt Disney and musical director Carl Stallings, later of Warner Bros. cartoon fame, inaugurated the “Silly Symphony” series. The cartoons were a concession to Stallings, who argued that the animators should begin with a piece of music, tailoring the action to the sounds; Disney believed the opposite, that the score should be written to complement a finished cartoon.
They were a great success. In 1933, one of the Silly Symphony shorts, Three Little Pigs, became the first Disney cartoon to spawn a hit song, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” Four years later, planning his first feature-length animated film, Snow White, Disney hoped to replicate the Three Little Pigs phenomenon. He was notorious for hating the kind of production in which characters suddenly burst into song for no apparent reason and insisted that the songs in Snow White elucidate or advance the narrative. Accordingly, Snow White and the features that followed adopted the conventions of musical theater, a characteristic that continues to distinguish Disney’s best films. (Witness the recent Broadway success of the stage version of Beauty and the Beast.)
Classic Disney should not be mistaken for an overview of the studio’s songcraft. Though it’s subtitled 60 Years of Musical Magic, almost half of the set’s 50 tracks are from just five movies—The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, and Mary Poppins. Presumably targeted to young audiences, the set includes a preponderance of music from the Disney blockbusters of the last seven years. While not optimal, this is tolerable—except in the case of The Lion King selections composed by Elton John and Tim Rice (Andrew Lloyd Webber’s collaborator on Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita). These songs, notably the smarmy “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?,” exemplify the studio’s increasing tendency to eschew the show-tune model for the adult-contemporary-radio model. This trend was anticipated in Beauty and the Beast, which included two versions of the same song on its soundtrack, one by ACR crooners Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson and another croaked by Angela Lansbury (the former was a Top 40 hit).
The predominance of tunes from a small number of films wouldn’t be an issue had not so much deserving material been excluded. Why, for instance, include six songs from Mary Poppins and none at all from The Aristocats, which boasts one of the strongest soundtracks in the Disney canon? Numerous popular favorites are missing (101 Dalmatians’ “Cruella De Vil,” Dumbo’s “Baby Mine,” Snow White’s “Whistle While You Work”), while an exasperating number of nonentities are included (“The Spectrum Song” from Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, the title track from The Monkey’s Uncle, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’s “A Whale of a Tale”). Many of the collection’s dubious tracks were presumably chosen because they are performed by well-known artists: Annette Funicello and the Beach Boys perform “The Monkey’s Uncle,” Burl Ives sings “On the Front Porch,” Kirk Douglas contributes “A Whale of a Tale,” Pearl Bailey appears on “Best of Friends,” and Helen Reddy croons “Candle on the Water.” And some selections are just plain incomprehensible, like Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Reed Flutes,” which can hardly be claimed as a Disney tune, and “Main Street Electrical Parade,” a cloying synthesizer medley that sounds like the default selection on a cheap Casio.
On both Vol. I and Vol. II, the songs appear in more or less reverse chronological order. The most recent compositions comprise each disc’s opening tracks, while pairs of songs from the ’30s close both volumes. This gambit destroys any sense the set might offer of historical progression, but if you have as much free time on your hands as I do, you can program your CD player to play the songs in the proper order. This done, you may sit back and speculate on why some period pieces are charming (1946’s “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah,” from Song of the South) and others (1955’s “Mickey Mouse Club March,” from the television show) are insufferable.
The songs of the Sherman brothers are a case in point. Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman churned out more than 200 songs during their tenure at Disney in the ’60s, and a whopping 15 of the pair’s compositions appear on the discs. These include many of Classic Disney’s best numbers (“Chim Chim Cher-ee” and the rest of the Mary Poppins bunch) as well as many of its most regrettable (“It’s a Small World (After All)”). The second-best-represented team on the collection is Alan Menken and Howard Ashman (creators of Little Shop of Horrors), the duo credited with bringing about the late-’80s Disney music renaissance. Two of the Menken/Ashman tracks, “Under the Sea” and “Be Our Guest,” are the discs’ most infectious and lyrically inventive. Also distinctive is the work of the Tin Pan Alley team of Jerry Livingston, Mack David, and Al Hoffman, who were commissioned to do the music for Cinderella after Walt Disney became enamored of “Chi-Baba Chi-Baba,” a novelty tune they penned for Perry Como.
There’s nothing wrong with this collection that a little reformatting wouldn’t cure. Ideally, Classic Disney would be available as one disc featuring an equal number of tunes from each era, or three or more discs presenting the material decade by decade (thus satisfying 8-year-olds who just want to hear songs from The Lion King, purists who prefer titles from the golden age of the ’30s and ’40s, and connoisseurs fascinated by oddities like “Minnie’s Yoo Hoo!,” the only song for which Disney himself ever took a writing credit). At the very least, Vols. I & II could be condensed. Considering the length of the combined discs, it’s probably worthwhile to consider the bright side of the inclusion/exclusion sweepstakes: There’s no “Old Yeller” to contend with, and “The Ballad of Davy Crockett,” which features 20 six-line stanzas, each more inane than the last, is nowhere to be found.CP