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I love Disney music. Not only is it the stuff of my childhood, but it's fun to sing and listen to. My greatest beef with the world is that Disney karaoke isn't a wide-spread institution, established in every bar and pub.
Music has been an integral part to Disney animated films from the very beginning. Snow White, Disney's folly that turned to gold, boasted seven new songs. "When You Wish Upon a Star" from Disney's next film, Pinocchio, won an Academy Award, and became the studio's theme song, an iconic tune that opens almost every movie.
After Walt Disney died, the studio which bore his name lost its spark. Known for animated films, it shifted gears and heavily focused on live action movies, a direction Walt Disney had already started. Some of these movies contained songs, even good ones—"Candle on the Water" from Pete's Dragon comes to mind—but most were standard, family-friendly adventures where no one sang or danced. The few animated movies the studio produced were equally lackluster, although "Oo-De-Lally" from Robin Hood does tend to get stuck in my head whenever I hear it.
Then something happened in the late 1980s. Disney found its voice with The Little Mermaid. The movie was unlike anything the studio had created before. Yes, it was animated, yes, there was a princess, and yes, there was music. But the music wasn't just a part of the movie—it was the movie.
The Little Mermaid was Disney's first animated Broadway show. The songs were not just something the character sang to pass the time, they weren't just background pieces sung by a choir; these were big musical numbers that were integral to the plot, explaining motivations, acting as exposition, and urging the characters to take action. The Disney Renaissance had begun: The Little Mermaid was followed by Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. Each had music and songs that were inseparable from the plot and the movie.
And that's where the problem lies.
I love to sing. It's not uncommon to find me singing, humming, or even whistling while I work. Disney songs top my greatest hits chart. But, let me tell you, modern Disney songs take effort. There's so much emotion, technical skill, and context to them that it's hard to just start singing them randomly to yourself.
I can listen to Sebastian belt out "Under the Sea" ad nauseam, singing along every time. But turn off the soundtrack, take away the back-up singers and instrumentals, and I can get through the song by myself maybe once. It's too draining, too complex and, frankly, too boring to do any more on my own.
You can't sing modern Disney songs quietly to yourself. They require you to put on a one-man show, even just for yourself, with all the oomph and charisma that the songs deserve. That's a lot of effort for something meant to occupy your mind while washing dishes.
And, let's be honest, you need a good set of pipes to make "Let It Go" sound believable.
"Part of Your World" is a beautiful song, but unless you don't know what feet, legs and fire are, the words only make sense if you're a mermaid under the sea. Belle is charming, but it fits best within a poor, provincial French village. Just Around the Riverbend is stirring, but when you start debating about whether to marry Kocoumor not, it ceases to be a universal song about making choices and is specifically about Pocahontas. I'm not saying you can't sing them, but they certainly don't fit into general use.
Contrast that to old Disney songs. These simple, sweet melodies are fit for any occasion. They're easy to remember, they don't require immense skill, and their simple messages are timeless (excluding the train wrecks like "What Makes the Red Man Red"). I can mindlessly hum or sing "A Dream Is a Wish" to myself non-stop as I sew, or clean. "One Song, Baby Mine," and "Love Is a Song" are my go-to's when I'm endlessly rocking my daughter to sleep. I can't even imagine using one of the show-stopping modern hits for my baby's lullabies.
I can sing these to myself without missing the instrumentals, without wishing I had a partner. I don't feel the need to try my best in order to do them justice. I mean, if nothing else, I can't sound any more annoying than Snow White while singing "With a Smile and a Song."
The best part of old Disney songs is that they don't require any context. They can be completely separate from the movie. People didn't need to know "Bibbity-Bobbity-Boo" was from Cinderella to enjoy Bing Crosby singing it on the radio. "Too Good To Be True" was just another Dinah Shore melody. "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" was a smash hit, despite the terrible movie it was attached to. You can sing almost any old Disney song without bringing the movie to mind. Heck, how many people have even seen Song of the South? But I bet you know the song when you hear it.
There's no doubt that Disney will keep producing musical hits with future movies. Good. It's what sets Disney apart from the crowd and makes otherwise simple stories memorable. But as the music gets more showy, more plot-driven, more complex, they'll lose something. They'll lose the sweet simplicity, the easy manner, the repeatability and the timelessness of old Disney songs. "Let It Go" may still be popular five years on, but it'll never be as iconic as "Wish Upon a Star."
If you aren't familiar with early Disney songs, check them out. You don't have to agree with me that they're better than the new, but I think you'll find that they're anything but old.