The animated musical was, at this point, almost completely dependent of the works of Walt Disney: there were a few important animated musical shorts, like the Wagner parody What’s Opera, Doc? or the Jazz Singer-inspired I Love to Sing-a, being made by Warner Brothers at the time, but the few surviving full-scale films made by other studios, such as Filmation’s bizarre adaptation of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, are almost unwatchable today. Disney thrived in the early Forties, creating four more all-time masterpieces in the Snow White vein.
The first of these, Pinocchio, was based on an Italian’s children novel by Carlo Collodi. The story of a living puppet who longs to become a real boy is now one of the most iconic in the world, but it would probably never have become so had Disney not made this film. The original Collodi novel is, to be perfectly blunt, not all that good. If you actually read it, it becomes obvious that Collodi was making up the plot as he went along—in particular, the first chapter seems like it belongs in a completely different book, and the core premise of most modern versions (that Pinocchio can earn his humanity through good behavior) is not introduced until halfway through the novel.
Disney also made the central character far more likable. The Disney Pinocchio is a well-meaning soul who genuinely tries to be good, and the film acknowledges that temptations are often tempting precisely because they seem like genuinely good ideas in the moment. The Pinocchio of the original novel is a near-insane troublemaker who never seems to do anything good unless he is practically forced into it. This was part of the problem with the notorious Roberto Benigni film version of the story: in addition to its casting and script problems, it hewed much closer to Collodi’s original story, and was frankly the worse for it.
However, there is one aspect of the novel’s spirit that Disney did retain. Collodi was essentially a children’s horror author, a sort of Italian proto-Roald Dahl, and Disney’s adaptation embraced that concept, resulting in a gloriously nightmarish film that is actually far more frightening than Collodi’s novel ever managed to be…the action can swing from childishly charming and quaint to terrifying in the space of an instant. Particularly memorable are the immensely intimidating puppet theater owner Stromboli who holds Pinocchio prisoner, the terrifying sequences involving Monstro the Whale (an all-devouring behemoth who more than lives up to his name), and most of all the sequence where Pinocchio and the other ‘bad boys’ are transformed into donkeys. This last scene is directed so effectively that it still probably stands as the single most frightening scene ever seen in an animated children’s film.
Interestingly, given how extremely dark the Disney Pinocchio was for a children’s film, its most famous musical number is the company’s immortal theme song, “When You Wish Upon a Star”, one of the most idealistic and uplifting songs ever heard in a musical. Both this song and the chipper “Give a Little Whistle” benefited greatly from the vocal performance of Cliff Edwards, famous in his day as a Broadway specialty performer called ‘Ukulele Ike’, but now best known as the iconic voice of Jiminy Cricket. With immense charm and one of the warmest and most comforting voices in music, Edwards provides the film with an innocent warmth that helps counterbalance its terrifying moments.
Above all else, this era of Disney’s career produced what may be the single greatest animated film ever made, Fantasia. This piece, intended to be the first of an ongoing series but ultimately turning out to be a one-of-a-kind achievement, synchronizes arthouse-quality animation with pieces of great Classical music in a kind of animated Ballet. No expense was spared with regard to the piece’s quality (which may be why, despite being an enormous box-office success by ordinary standards, it still left Disney deep in the red): The music was conducted by the legendary Leopold Stokowski, and Disney pioneered entire new technologies just to give it the perfect theatrical presentation.
For all its glories, the film isn’t empirically perfect: a few of the pieces are a bit too slowly paced, particularly the opening, a series of abstract images set to Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, and a lengthy retelling of the evolution of life on earth set to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. In addition, some of the musical pieces are restructured to serve the animation in a way that might offend purists (and certainly offended Stravinsky, who was so furious at the perceived mutilation of his music that he vowed never to work with Disney again). Still, it stands as perhaps the greatest achievement the animated film genre would ever produce, particularly in its final sequence, a combination of Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” and Schubert’s “Ave Maria” accompanied by some of the most brilliantly nightmarish animation ever conceived.
Bambi, the last film in Disney’s early run of animated classics, was clearly intended as an attempt to create another Fantasia, but with just enough pretense of conventional story and character to make it more popular with general audiences. In theory, the film is a combination nature-rhapsody and coming of age story about a young deer growing into adulthood. However, the movie, which is roughly an hour long, features perhaps fifteen total minutes of actual dialogue, and nearly all the focus is placed on the film’s gorgeous animation and lush musical accompaniment. This time, the music is original, written by Disney’s in-house composers at the time, Frank Churchill and Edward H. Plumb, but it is easily the richest and most expansive original score to be featured in a Disney film of that era. Even the film’s dramatic action sequences are primarily focused on the visual elements, bearing far more resemblance to Fantasia’s “Bald Mountain” sequence than to a traditional narrative film climax.
Dumbo was the least ambitious of the early Disney masterworks, being little more than a particularly fine short cartoon stretched out to feature length (and barely that—the film is actually less than an hour long). That said, it did produce some extremely memorable songs, particularly the exquisite lullaby “Baby Mine” (which has since been recorded by everyone from Barbara Cook to Bette Midler to Alison Krauss), and a sort of comic nightmare sequence, “Pink Elephants on Parade”, that would prove one of Disney’s most brilliant and influential marriages of animation and music.
Walt Disney also made two films during the Forties experimenting with the juxtaposition of animation and live-action film that would eventually give us films like Mary Poppins and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. These were Song of the South (an adaptation of the “Uncle Remus” folk stories) and So Dear to My Heart. Song of the South, the better of the two, has been unjustly vilified as ‘racist’, to the point where Disney has essentially disowned it. In reality, it is no more racially insensitive than every other movie featuring Black characters that came out before 1950, and actually far less so than most of them. But because the Disney corporation is hypersensitive about their image, this film will probably never see the light of day again until it enters the public domain. This is a true shame, because it is actually a beautiful piece. The pace is a bit slow by modern standards, but the animation is superb, blending the animated and live-action elements with a skill that is almost unbelievable, especially given that this was the first time anyone had ever attempted it on a large scale (Anchors Aweigh had featured one such sequence, but this was the first time the device had been sustained as a major element of a feature film). James Baskett gives a luminous performance as Uncle Remus, and the Folk- and Gospel-influenced score is absolutely lovely. The high point of this score is the all-time standard “Zippidy-Doo-Da”, which Disney has interestingly continued to make heavy use of to this day, despite its attempts to disassociate itself from the rest of the film.
So Dear to My Heart, on the other hand, was downright dull as film, essentially a kid-friendly rip-off of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling (which had been made into a massive hit film two years before), but with all the tragic elements removed (it wouldn’t be the last time Disney would rip off that particular story model, either…their 1957 non-musical film Old Yeller would also be a pretty blatant Yearling rip-off). To be fair, there would be a Broadway adaptation of The Yearling in the Sixties which would fail precisely because of its depressing story, but removing that aspect from the story doesn’t really leave much in the way of conflict or drama.
That said, the score to So Dear to My Heart, a mixture of old Folk standards and original songs like the famous “Lavender Blue, Dilly Dilly”, is enchanting, and folk legend Burl Ives, who was brought on to do virtually all of the film’s singing, is at his very best here. So at least the music itself was enjoyable, even if the spaces between the songs were mostly dead weight.
Unfortunately, Disney’s studio ran out of money well before the end of the decade and had to make a series of low-budget ‘filler’ movies in order to earn enough money to create another work in the Snow White vein. A few of these films, such as Fun and Fancy Free and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, have aged moderately well…the second sequence from Fun and Fancy Free, the amusingly bizarre Mickey and the Beanstalk, and Disney’s adaptation of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which featured narration and songs by Bing Crosby and some terrifying animation for the Headless Horseman, are still remembered fairly fondly. A few of them even feature segments originally intended for the never-finished follow-ups to Fantasia, albeit reset to Pop tunes instead of Classical music. However, the majority of these so-called ‘Meat and Potatoes’ cash cows, such as Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros, are relentlessly mediocre. Most of them are little more than Disney’s early cartoon shorts artificially stretched out to feature length, and unlike Dumbo, they do not have enough creativity or variety to survive this transformation. Still, like the low-budget direct-to-video spin-offs of its theatrical movies released in the Nineties and 2000s, and the live-action remakes of their classic animated films from the last decade, these cash-cow releases were designed to make money that Disney could then spend on its riskier and more ambitious “passion projects”, so it’s hard to get too upset about them.
Disney finally did create five more high-profile, fairly ambitious animated musical films, but all of them, while impressively animated, were aimed much more overtly at a child audience, and they tended to be inferior to his Forties classics in both story and music.
The Disney Cinderella movie had very pretty animation and a surprisingly compelling villainess, but the insipid protagonists, irritating supporting characters and generally inane songs make it something of a trial to sit through as an adult. The Disney Alice in Wonderland was somewhat better, featuring some wonderfully creative animation in places and some catchy tune fragments here and there, but the music was still seriously uneven, with the larger set pieces like “In a World of My Own” and ‘In the Golden Afternoon” generally being unbearably dull, and Lewis Carroll’s original tone was completely botched.
Worst of all was the Disney Peter Pan movie, which came out about a year before the infinitely superior Mary Martin vehicle based on the same property. Not only did Disney treat the property as just another generic fairy tale, completely ignoring the deeper implications of the story, they also made Peter and Wendy into two of the most obnoxious and insufferable characters in all of film animation. Worst of all, they did a piss-poor job of musicalizing the material. Sammy Fain wrote what is probably the weakest music of his career here (and remember, this is the same guy who composed the score for Ankles Aweigh). The theme song “Second Star to the Right” sounds like generic studio background filler, the ballad “Your Mother and Mine” is supremely dreary, and “You Can Fly” is fatally earthbound for a song that is supposed to capture the sensation of flight. On top of that, lyricist Sammy Cahn was a terrific writer of mainstream Pop tunes, but whenever he was asked to write actual situation songs, he almost invariably embarrassed himself, making him a perennially poor choice for actual Musicals. His work here is frankly idiotic, particularly on the stereotypical “comedy” number “What Makes the Red Man Red?”, a song whose incredibly dated caricature of Native American culture might be easier to defend today if it had been remotely funny even at the time.
Really, the only Disney animated films from the Fifties that are of any interest as musicals are Lady and the Tramp and Sleeping Beauty. The former, an unambitious but charming love story told from the point of view of dogs, features a score by classic Jazz-Pop singer-songwriter Peggy Lee that may be the best original score to any Disney musical until the Alan Menken era, with gems like “Bella Notte”, “He’s a Tramp”, and “The Siamese Cat Song”. The latter, in addition to its gorgeous animation based on the look of period storybooks, drew its melodies from the Tchaikovsky ballet of the same name. Now, adapting Ballet music into vocal songs can be difficult, but Tchaikovsky lends himself to the process better than most, given his penchant for singable melodies, and the finished result is surprisingly effective, giving the film a visual and musical splendor that helped compensate for its generally dull characterization.
Still, while not nearly as impressive overall as the first-generation Disney classics, these movies did keep the animated musical alive, and the cliches they propagated would at least give the Disney films of later generations something to subvert.