When The Critical Reel was a blog on Tumblr not too long ago, I introduced a List feature, which ranked my favourite titles, characters, movie weapons, etc, in order from 10 to 1. I can’t remember why I stopped, but after listening to some Disney soundtracks on the car ride home a couple of days ago, I decided to get the feature up and running again. I never did Disney songs, and the car ride reminded me of how many intricate and honest compositions Disney has produced over the years.
The following list contains ten of the best — to me. What most people like to do with lists is argue how Number 1 shouldn’t be Number 1, and why Number 8 should be Number 2 instead. This is my list, based on my preferences. I apologise in advance if it fails to meet expectations. Please read, enjoy, comment. And stay alert for future lists. They will come (don’t be afraid to make requests either).
“Pink Elephants On Parade”, Dumbo (1941)
“Pink Elephants On Parade” is a curious song because it arrived before the Beat Movement, before psychedelic drugs and hippies distorted the world. It arrived before the end of World War II, so it had yet to accommodate the terror of the Nazi fiasco. And yet, it is a dark and scary concoction slipped into a Disney movie that couldn’t have been more child-friendly. Dumbo is an elephant with floppy ears large enough to double as wings; his mother is ridiculed for producing such an abomination. This isn’t a story for animals. It’s a story for every kid who sat alone in the sand pit while the cool ones screamed on the merry-go-round. There is a hiccup though: Dumbo and his pal, Timothy Q. Mouse, get drunk one night and hallucinate “Pink Elephants On Parade”, a wonky track that doubles in intensity with its accompanying sequence, a mish-mash of colours and freaky imagery (at one point an elephant is made up of nothing but decapitated elephant heads). It’s beautiful for us adults, but it must have been murder for the children, whose pachyderm hero had morphed into the thing they had feared the most.
“A Whole New World”, Aladdin (1992)
“A Whole New World” is memorable because it has been engraved into the forehead of pop culture. There’s even a video on YouTube of a guy who sings the entire song himself — that’s right, both male and female parts. The worrying thing is, he pulls it off. It is no doubt a lovely song, etched with wonder and adventure as two star-crossed lovers ride a magical flying carpet over trees, rivers, houses and people. Aladdin, a lowly beggar masquerading as a prince, and Jasmine, a real princess, share a moment together, both in song and in the air, and it becomes clear, even if for that brief period, that they love each other. However, there is another song from Aladdin that I think is better.
“In Summer”, Frozen (2013)
When Olaf, the anthropomorphic snowman, made his first appearance in Frozen, he had the credentials to be an obnoxious twit in the vein of Jar Jar Binks. What the Jennifer Lee-penned screenplay did, however, was convert him into sympathetic comedic relief that isn’t in on the joke. Everyone around him knows that he is a snowman; he looks around and believes he is like everyone else. This gimmick is compounded by Olaf’s desire to experience summer, not aware — or pretending to not be aware — of snow’s limitations when it comes into contact with heat. His power solo, “In Summer”, is smartly written to make it clear that he never went to snowman school and therefore never learnt the physical properties of matter. “I want to do whatever snow does in summer!”, he proclaims, confident that he will have a good time. The song is so honest and charismatic that for that brief interlude we too want to forget that snow melts and let Olaf have his day in the sun.
“Under The Sea”, The Little Mermaid (1989)
Disney is known for its grand musical numbers where all the characters come together in a menagerie of colours and sounds and patterns to usher in the climax. Lumière, from Beauty And The Beast, orchestrated the pots, plates and utensils in “Be Our Guest”. Simba was carried aloft a tower of African animals during “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King”. The cave in Aladdin, at first barren, was filled with all sorts of characters as the Genie’s “Friend Like Me” came to a close. In The Little Mermaid, Sebastian’s opus “Under The Sea” unites all the creatures of the deep in an absorbing crescendo that would no doubt confuse any passing submarine’s sonar equipment. It is perhaps the only grand Disney song to match its visual splendour.
“Beauty And The Beast”, Beauty And The Beast (1991)
The scene in which “Beauty And The Beast” is performed by Angela Lansbury is known mostly for its innovative use of computer graphics. The ballroom exists in a virtual space and the characters — Belle and The Beast — waltz around it as if the room opens up to accommodate their next step. But the song itself is flexible and elegant. It is perhaps the most refined of all the Disney songs, and the most controlled. It knows its purpose within the context of the story and narrates the past, present and future of Belle and The Beast, a couple predestined by the screenplay to fall in love before the last petal of a bewitched rose falls.
“I Wan’na Be Like You”, The Jungle Book (1967)
“I Wan’na Be Like You” is a Disney song that fuses jungle rhythm and funk to produce a track that’s memorable enough for Robbie Williams to cover in his latest swing album. The scene establishes King Louie — a fire-hungry orang-utan who wants to be human (God knows why) — as a powerful leader of a jungle ape tribe. He ensnares Mowgli the boy and tries to make him a deal: Teach him how to make fire and he will set him free. The catch, which Louie doesn’t seem to know, is that Mowgli doesn’t know the secret. The song, therefore, is a canvas on which Louie, Mowgli and Baloo the bear do battle with music and words; at one point Louie and Baloo face off in a scat showdown. The result is surprisingly off kilter, yet it reforms itself to give us one of the most entertaining Disney songs to come out of the ’60s.
“Can You Feel The Love Tonight?”, The Lion King (1994)
The Lion King has the strongest of all the Disney soundtracks. It is laced with complex and catchy tunes that not only provide music, but also shift the way their scenes are absorbed. Consider “Be Prepared”, the ominous proclamation of self-righteousness and demonic success by the villain Scar. As he creeps down the steep face of the cliff and miraculously summons volcanic fire around him, the entire geography seems to rotate and morph along with him. His hyena gang creates shadow puppets on the rocks and then marches on in front of him like soldiers at a Nazi parade. The song is no longer a song. It’s a statement, a shapeshifting ideology that persuades us to actively observe what’s happening. The same goes for “Can You Feel The Love Tonight?”, which is backed by an African choir and sung as a lullaby. It is essentially a conversation between the hero, Simba, and his childhood friend, Nala, as they meet each other for the first time in years, but the atmosphere it generates elevates it to something of a masterpiece. This song would still be here if the singing was muted and the choir took centre stage.
“Friend Like Me”, Aladdin (1992)
“Friend Like Me” would not be the same song if it had been sung by someone without Robin Williams’ manic energy. I suspect it must not be easy being Robin Williams. Someone should write a book about it. His is a rare case where his body is able to match the speed of his thoughts, which is already working at twice the speed of yours or mine. If his mouth expelled words any slower, he’d be classified autistic. It’s a miracle for the animators down at Disney, then, that they’re able to match the Genie’s movements and mouth to match Williams’. This I want to know: In the case of “Friend Like Me”, did they animate first and then squeeze Williams in? Or did they let Williams run amok with the fantasy of it all and then struggle to keep up with the drawings?
“Let It Go”, Frozen (2013)
“Let It Go”, like the Number 1 spot on this list, has the distinction of not only being a Disney song, but a song that works on its own, out of context. It is a monumental triumph of self-realisation and determination, a sort of anthem for anyone who doesn’t feel strongly about himself/herself. The visuals that accompany the song are spectacular, yes, but they are not important. The scene features Princess Elsa — burdened with an icy curse that proves fatal to humans — stripping off her old clothes in favour of a brand new dress, made, presumably, out of snow or ice. Or “snice”. She extrapolates an ice castle from the ground and decides to lock herself in — “The cold never bothered me anyway”. What is the “cold” here? It stands to reason the popularity of this song undermining its potential, but listen to it quietly, alone, with your mind opened. It is a force from Disney like no other. Except maybe for the next song.
“Circle Of Life”, The Lion King (1994)
On the internet there are many publications that hold “Best Opening Scenes” lists. Always I find The Lion King missing. This opening scene works as an introduction to the movie, but it also works as a lesson on the animal kingdom. We are shown a plethora of different species congregating around a large protruding rock that plays home to Mufasa’s lion pride. A mandrill who studies apothecary climbs up the rock and showcases Mufasa’s son, Simba, to the flatlands. Clearly this does not happen in the real world, but the message is hinted at. Why do zebras and antelope cheer for a lion, their natural predator? — I hear you ask. They are not cheering the lion; they are cheering what the lion represents: Harmony. The zebras and antelope are part of the circle of life, mesmerisingly captured in the song that plays during the celebration. From its unmistakable opening hymn-like chant to the thunderous thud of its end, “Circle Of Life” is a pillar for the world. Elton John’s pop version is good too, but that’s all it is: A pop version.