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Animated musicals

January 15, 2015

The songs, oh the painful, painful songs of the age! They make their way everywhere, and even into children’s animated films. If it isn’t bad enough we have to stare at these bland white automatons and put up with endless people trumpeting how wonderful, original and character-filled the bland white automatons are, with their perfectly smooth and symmetrical CGI looks. It’s a wonder film-makers ever go through the arduous task of trying to find real people beautiful enough for the model’s medium of film. The bland white automatons will live on for thousands of generations into the future, when all the people drawing them are finally no longer white themselves, but rather sort of medium brown. Or bright blue.

What happened to songs in animated films? Lately, DreamWorks has managed to pull a couple of entertaining numbers out the bag, with the old Shrek 2 Fairy Godmother matchmaker song and the like. Generally though, animated films long ago started focusing on pop-musical singing ability rather than those old kinds of silly, fun songs that drive your dad mad on lengthily summer car drives to Cornwall. Why does every singing woman in an animated film sound like Taylor Swift, and every man like Michael Bublé? It’s an epidemic of blonde-blue-eyed beige, slowly eating away at our critical, musical brains to leave us with nothing but a craving for songs with less pitch variation than a Dalek’s voicebox.

I’ll admit, I don’t much like musicals. They always seemed to me a jack-of-all-trades kind of entertainment, with notable exceptions. If you wanted awe inspiring vocal talent, you’d take freeview televised opera, subtitles and all, over a musical. If you desire proficiency in acting, you’d take a musical only in preference to professional wrestling, porn and EastEnders.

I have no patience for contemporary pop, either. It all seems to me a load of forced mid-pitch warbling, an indecent attempt to copy the rather more accomplished Soul and classic R&B singers from better days, who could also inject emotion into those prolonged notes, rather than the vague stench of painful earnestness coupled with a kind of apathetic desperation. Oh, but teenagers like it and teenagers rule the world. Without the need for taste or experience. It’s no good if it doesn’t sound like it could have been on High School Musical or whatever other similar, hideous thing has taken its place.

Disney films were at their best in the ’90s, both in story telling and music. Even Pocahontas and Anastasia, which weren’t strong as movies, had some interesting music. If you’ve a moment and you can’t remember them well, look up Savages and In the Dark of the Night on YouTube. Then follow with Gaston from Beauty and the Beast, Be Prepared from The Lion King, Prince Ali from Aladdin, Hellfire from The Hunchback of Notre Dame and I’ll Make a Man Out of You from Mulan. There are other famous examples I won’t bother to mention, as you probably still remember them word-for-word and because it takes a surprisingly long time to put sections of sentences in italics.

I don’t remember Jeremy Irons making any attempt in Be Prepared to sound anything other than nefarious and Robin Williams was no breathtaking baritone. What the songs lacked in clean-cut vocal melody they made up for in sheer character: imaginative lyrics, humour, energy and a sense that the performers had fun recording. The songs also expressed the character’s personality, explained important plot points and back-stories, to the extent that without the songs, you wouldn’t fully understand the movies. For this purpose, the lyrics were plain and explanatory, concise and precise, not the bland “I’m-feeling-emotional-about-stuff-right-now” crap we put up with these days. The old songs achieved all this, I might add, while retaining a catchy rhythm and some pretty good rhymes, to boot.

You might notice that there are no songs on my list with a female lead vocalist. I did try to find an example I liked, but there’s no getting around the fact that, unfortunately, female characters are largely doomed to sing those dreaded songs of innocence and a chasteness that would make Doris Day herself stick her middle finger up and jeer. That said, the female lead songs were still quite good in those days, not extraordinary but heaps better than we’ve got now. I think of the famous Colors of the Wind from Pocahontas, and Reflection (Mulan), both of which were covered, in exactly the generic warbly style I earlier dissed, by Vanessa Williams and Christina Aguilera respectively.

In the case of Colors of the Wind, it made sense to cover it for a pop market because it contained an obvious ecological (possibly even *shock* vegan) message and a bitter critique of cultural arrogance, both of which are rather unpopular and can be brushed over nice and cleanly with a bit of pan-demographic inoffensive warbling. And in the case of Reflection, its lyrics were changed to fit a more Aguilera kind of style, because frankly, I feel that the original Reflection ought to have become a transgender anthem by now. Albeit not a very uplifting one. As it is, the cover is seemingly about that most unique of topics: being very very misunderstood.

I suspect that in order to get at the feelins of a wider audience, the scope of possible meaning has widened for popular songs, so, far from telling a story specific to the film it was written for, these songs can be taken out of context; they can be put in the charts, used as a new Rickroll, dubbed over any movie from Frozen to Battlestar Galactica and used as an aid to opening pickle jars for elderly widows. Such is the Power of Feelins.

It’s a mistake to think broadening lyrics gives them greater resonance or poetry. Listeners can tell when someone wrote a show tune and when someone thought carefully about the specific context and character who will be appear to be singing these words. Widening scope pushes fiction further out of the reach of everyone. I predict these songs won’t be remembered decades from now, and subsequently the movies themselves will lose their resonance.

Roll on the return of actors who “sing” their own character lyrics, lyricists who take themselves not at all seriously and the sense of fun that typified a Disney animated musical in their heyday. Save pop for the charts.

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