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Five for Friday: Disney's Greatest Musical Soundtracks

Get ready to sing "We Know the Way." The catchy, inspirational tune – built around traditional Hawaiian phrases and boasting a songwriting credit from "Hamilton's" Lin-Manuel Miranda – is the centerpiece of Disney's new animated feature, Moana. The scene it scores, a rousing, voyage-at-sea moment, represents a stirring turning point – a set piece on par with that of Frozen's signature song, "Let It Go." Upbeat and theatrical, the work anchors this coming-of-age story from Ron Clements and John Musker, the directing team who had a hand in The Little Mermaid, Princess and the Frog, and more. Together, their work has upheld a long-standing Disney tradition: the animated musical. With the release of Moana, and the nostalgia-inducing holidays upon us, we look back at five of Disney's greatest musicals. Bonus: The soundtracks listed here are all currently available on vinyl.

The Little Mermaid
This 1989 film was credited with the Disney renaissance, arriving after a series of hit-and-miss works that marked the 80s (think "The Black Cauldron," "Oliver & Company"). The film's songs, from Broadway vets Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman (the two rose to fame with "Little Shop of Horrors"), are wildly diverse. There's the reggae and calypso influence that permeates the cheery "Under the Sea" as well as the silly, French-pop-inspired "Les Poissons." The villain song here – the grand and vampy "Poor Unfortunate Souls" – remains oceanic in size. But it's "Part of Your World" that set the stage for the modern Disney animated film. The ballad, a tale of yearning from the young mermaid Ariel, comes across as boldly defiant, a song that longs for adventure and independence rather than a prince.

The colossal success of "Let It Go" may be polarizing. The song proved inescapable throughout parts of 2013 and 2014, and became perhaps the biggest movie belter since Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On" from Titanic. Yet this animated tale of two princesses, boasting songs from husband-and-wife team Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, the latter of whom is best known for contributing to "The Book of Mormon," turns out to be surprisingly unconventional. "Let It Go," takes the form of a Broadway-style shouter that celebrates autonomy and builds aggressively, from a slow-moving flurry to a bring-down-the-chandeliers hair-raiser. "Love Is an Open Door" is a generically upbeat wedding-worthy number until the film's final act reveals its nefarious roots. But don't overlook "Do You Want to Build a Snowman," a tune that subtly shifts in tone – playful one moment, rebellious in another – and one that tensely toes the line between childhood naiveté and grown-up cynicism.

Sleeping Beauty
Cheating, perhaps, as Sleeping Beauty lifts from the Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky ballet. But composer George Burns adapted and Disney-fied what was already a rich tapestry of sounds. Stately, medieval, and romantic, Sleeping Beauty feels operatic in its use of music. Its sounds are in almost constant conversation among Princess Aurora/Briar Rose and nature and mysticism. See the flowing flute of "I Wonder," which slowly circles, bird-like, around vocalist Mary Costa. A song of longing, the number flirts with optimism and heartache, its strings flutter with excitement, and then careen into more downtrodden territory without warning. The showcase of the film, of course, is the re-appearing "Once Upon a Dream," a lovingly dreamy waltz that swells with orchestral anticipation. There's plenty of darkness and dignified choral works, too, but often forgotten is the ridiculously jolly "Skumps (Drinking Song)." Play it, and have a toast.

The Jungle Book
Disney lore has The Jungle Book undergoing numerous shifts in tone during production. Walt Disney, who died during the making of the film, wanted to stray from the darker undertones of the Rudyard Kipling book of the same name. The result is a rather pop-influenced comedic score, as The Jungle Book touches on rock and jazz styles to give it a contemporary feel. Nowhere is this more evident than the swinging "I Wan'na Be Like You (The Monkey Song)," which features the exaggerated vocal expressions of Louis Prima and a hopping horn section that has made the song a standard of jazz and big bands the world over. Most of the compositions, with the exception of the lighthearted "The Bare Necessities," were composed by Disney jingle maestros the Sherman Brothers (they wrote "It's a Small World") and range from the barbershop quartet-like "That's What Friends Are For (The Vulture Song)" to the slithering "Trust in Me (The Python's Song)." But taken as a whole, consider it an animated entry point into jazz.

Following on the success of The Little Mermaid and Beauty & the Beast, the Alan Menken-led Aladdin soundtrack may be an example where the music has aged better than the film, for which some have argued that its portrayals of the Middle East border on caricature. Yet check the zippy, skipping feel of "One Jump Ahead," a song about life on the fringes with outlandish, slapstick flourishes. It's one of the few tunes in the film written by Tim Rice, most famously known for his collaborations with Elton John. Rice also penned the lyrics for "A Whole New World," the duet that graces the film's magic carpet scene. The song has arguably become a modern-day answer to Pinocchio's "When You Wish Upon a Star" in its ubiquity. Of course, no mention of Aladdin is complete without "Friend Like Me," the stirring big band barnstormer sung by Robin Williams.

November 25, 2016

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