23 Nov 2023

A hundred years of Disney scores

From Three to Seven, 4:00 pm on 23 November 2023

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While the cartoons always come first, there’s no doubt music is a big factor behind the success of the Disney Corporation.

The Corporation turned 100 last month, and RNZ Concert’s Bryan Crump spoke with Malcolm Cook, a specialist in film music from the University of Southampton.

Dr Malcolm Cook, Associate Professor in Film Studies, University of Southampton

Dr Malcolm Cook, Associate Professor in Film Studies, University of Southampton Photo: Supplied

Initially the arrival of the talkies spelt disaster for musicians. 

Where once thousands were employed around the world providing the mood music and the sound effects for silent movies, now only a few were needed in the film studios themselves.

Although you’ll hear some of the techniques the live musicians employed in those early animated soundtracks – the hijacking of classical tunes and popular songs. Just think of the Looney Tunes output from Warner Brothers.

Disney was doing similar things in 1928 with Mickey and Minnie Mouse’s movie debut, Steamboat Willie, which uses the popular song 'Turkey in the Straw'.

Disney’s point of difference was the composer, arranger and director Wilfred Jackson, who realised that the new technology not only allowed him to replace live musicians with recorded ones, but enhance the cartoons themselves.

That’s why Steamboat Willie is so successful, argues Cook.

It’s not the very first sound cartoon, but it’s the first sound cartoon to really make integrate the music soundtrack into the animated action.

Jackson made sure the Mickey and Minnie moved with the music. He also made use of musical gags.

For example, the goat the eats the sheet music, and then becomes a four-legged barrel organ (thanks to Minnie turning its tail) that spits out musical notes.

And when Disney went feature length with animation in 1937 with Snow White, Cook says music was a big part of its success.

With music by Frank Churchill, Leigh Harline and Paul Smith, it was the first movie to release its soundtrack as a separate recording. Many of its songs become worldwide hits – 'Heigh-Ho', 'Someday my Prince will come', to name a couple – and like the Broadway shows, it used the songs to bring out the inner personalities of its characters.

But the film that epitomised Disney’s link to music was Fantasia.

So what drew Disney to classical music?

It was about elevating animation to the level of art, says Cook.

Disney’s love of classical music made the two art forms a natural fit.

The 1940 movie was chock full of innovation. Some, like the 'Fantasound' surround speaker system, were beyond the capability of most movie theatres. Others, like the famous scene where Mickey Mouse (the cartoon character) greets the movie’s living breathing Maestro, Leopold Stokowski, remain etched in the popular consciousness.

It was the New Zealand artist Len Lye who helped to sow the idea in Disney’s imagination that abstract animation and music could work together.

Disney had seen Lye’s 1935 work, The Colour Box which incorporates Lye’s art with the Cuban music of Don Barreto.

Disney hired the German animator Oskar Fischinger, but most of his work ended up on the cutting room floor after the American deemed it “too dinky”.

However, some of those abstract ideas did make it to the final Fantasia, in the form of the opening tableaux: the cartoon that accompanies J S Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. Although Cook says Disney was keen to point out to punters, that this was their introduction to “the soundtrack” rather than absolute animation accompanying absolute music.

Perhaps Disney should have hired Lye instead?

Igor Stravinsky was also a little bemused by the treatment in Fantasia of his 20th-century masterpiece, The Rite of Spring. Chopped and changed, and ending with the same bassoon solo with which it began, rather than the sacrificial dance which was the basis of the ballet in the first place.

Still, Stravinksy wasn’t so annoyed with the extra exposure Fantasia brought to his work that he took Disney to court.

Cook says Disney’s understanding of how far he could take the average person in the street along with him was one of the reasons for his corporation’s ongoing success. And from the 1930s to the 1960s music – and musical numbers – was a key component of winning over the audience.

There was a period after Disney’s death in 1966, Cook says, when the Disney studios “lost direction” but by the mid-1980s, the corporation was once again embracing the Broadway musical as the model for its animated feature movies, the “so-called Disney Renaissance”.

Which is why when Bryan Crump was a child, he sang along to 'When you wish upon a star' while these days, kids who are the age he was then, sing 'Let it Go' from Frozen.

And Clark’s favourite Disney tune?

It has to be the film score to Snow White. It might have dated a bit since 1937, especially in it’s portrayal of a heroine who needs a man to save her (something which Cook argues Frozen’s heroine attempts to update in 2013) there’s a “timelessness” about I, that Clark puts down to the music.

“I defy anyone not to sing along to 'Heigh-Ho' as soon as they’ve heard it."

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