Drawing a musical institution

80 years ago today, Disney’s first full-length animated musical feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs went on general release in the USA (and the Library of Congress has been tweeting about it). Animators battled with negotiating the pitfalls of uncanny valley – including using real-life models for most of the principal characters and rotscoping footage of the dancer Marge Champion for Snow White herself – the length of the animation, the detail required in sets and characters, finding appropriate voices for everyone (the story of Adriana Caselotti, who sang Snow White, is particularly interesting), and many other questions and problems besides. It is estimated to be one of the highest grossing films of all time, adjusting for inflation, and was on the favourites list of Piet Mondrian, Sergei Eisenstein and, believe it or not, Adolf Hitler. The rest, for Walt Disney, is history: years of brilliant, imaginative feature-length animated films, with songs and dances to entrance generations of film lovers.

Somewhere around 30 years ago today, little me first came across such things. I’m not sure what counts as my official first Disney film, but certainly the first we had on video was Pinocchio, released a couple of years after Snow White, a film considerably less bizarre than the original Collodi story, but still pretty terrifying for small people – particularly in the nightmarish consequences of bunking off to ‘Pleasure Island’. The rest of my childhood was filled with video collecting, trips to family showings at the local cinema of old classics like The Jungle Book, and exciting new releases like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. Tokens were collected to get cereal-box T-shirts of characters from Oliver and Company. Serious discussions were had amongst peer when Hercules came out, with its weird new stylised drawing style. Eyebrows were raised when almost none of the characters in Tarzan were revealed to actually be doing the singing, because that was now Phil Collins’s job. I doubt if it would have been very eloquent or much fun to read, but we could have produced several TLS-sized issues on each and every new release.

Meanwhile, I was also getting to know musicals, playing Brahms, studying various sorts of music for GCSEs and A-levels. By the time I got to university, I found myself feeling that liking musicals, as a music BA student, was not really allowed any more. We were supposed to be more enlightened and intellectual than that. And Disney films, in particular, were not up for public discussion aside from exceptional circumstances, when nobody thought you were being very serious about it.

Donald Duck model in a spotlight

But it would be a big mistake – and I’m only talking about the hand-drawn animated films here, before we even get to live-action or Pixar films – to exclude these films from either the history of music (and its social impact) since the late 1930s, or indeed from the history of my own musical tastes, ideas and influences. I still adore Disney musicals (and am now too old and too unconcerned with being cool not to say such things out loud), and they are in many cases extremely brilliant, sophisticated and creative works of art. The research that’s gone into them, the wit and brilliance of the visual, textual and musical allusions, the quality of the scores… if you want a Gesamtkunstwerk of the twentieth century, well, there it is. And it’s frequently just as mythical and fairy-tale-ish as Wagner, to boot, even if it does tend to avoid incest and intensely miserable endings.

(A completely silly aside: when I first read the synopsis of the Ring, it explained that Brunnhilde eventually ‘threw herself, and her horse, into the flames’. I immediately imagined her, helmet and all, holding her stallion over her head like some sort of cartoon Amazonian, and chucking it onto the funeral pyre. It’s possible that my brain was a little bit too full of Disney at that particular point in time.)

It is easy to dismiss Disney films – especially the older ones, with their oh-so-white heroes and heroines living happily ever after, the muscly Prince and the teeny-waisted Princess together in their shining castle – as being ludicrously naive and childish. Of course, the point is that they are usually simplified fairy tales, or other stories poured into the fairy tale mould. However, that doesn’t mean that they are without significant value as artistic creations, nor that the stories aren’t without redeeming features and useful lessons. They work because we love the characters, enjoy the simplicity and strong messages of the stories, adore the music and thus remember all the words to the songs. I’m not saying that a Disney musical and an opera are the same thing – patently that’s not the case, and they’re also not trying to be the same thing – however, they have many things in common, from the catchy tunes to the spectacle of the show. Operatic heroines confide in their maids, Disney heroines in their animal sidekicks. Both use certain character types for comic effect, and both pit ensemble groups against each other for the ‘big’ story that sets the scene for the focus on individual clusters of characters. From time to time, both fail to provide names for characters you might think are deserving of one (like the Christian magician in Handel’s Rinaldo and, would you believe it, the Prince in Snow White).

I’d like to think that there are plenty of people who have acquired, or had enhanced, a love of story-telling, music, singing and creativity from engaging with Disney films. I think I did. The idea that someone should suddenly start singing about how they feel, whether they’re a Cinderella or a disillusioned satyr, was entirely familiar from Disney long before I heard an opera. And the more I discover about Disney – because unlike musicological study of opera, there are rather fewer books on getting seriously behind the scenes in these films, though they are now, pleasingly, increasing in number – the more impressed I become. Am I a big old sap when it comes to such things? Probably. But just listen to this, and tell me you’re not listening to a beautifully sung, memorable melody, redolent with all sort of interesting musical, and probably personal associations. Jiminy Cricket. What a song.

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