Why Doesn’t Pixar Make Musicals?

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
March 16 2012 1:04 PM

Robert Sherman and the End of Cartoon Musicals 

poppins
A still of Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins

There is no doubt that Pixar has transformed and modernized Disney, elevating the animated feature to new artistic heights while also plumbing surprising emotional depths. With its commitment to original storytelling and nuanced character development, the company may be the best-reviewed and well-loved movie studio in the world—not to mention the most financially successful. I’m a Pixar cheerleader as much as the next guy. I just wish their characters would sing more. Let me explain.

With the death of Robert Sherman last week at the age of 86, the world lost one if its most memorable tunesmiths. Though few knew the composers by name, Robert and Richard Sherman wrote some of the most memorable songs of the 20th century. Anyone responsible for the recursive loop known as “It’s A Small World (After All)” understood how to worm a melody into the popular imagination and lodge it there until the end of time.

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The pair provided the musical backbone for Walt Disney Studios at the height of Uncle Walt’s mid-century domination of popular culture. They brought a more refined and contemporary musical element to Disney by employing a style modeled on the logic and structure of the then-dominant form of popular music: the Broadway musical. Their approach to songwriting and storytelling reached its apotheosis with 1964’s live-action classic Mary Poppins. Listening to the lyrics of Mr. Banks’ ode to Edwardian British life at the height of Empire, it’s hard not to marvel at the nuance and wit of the Sherman’s concise, comic portrait of character and place. One is hard pressed not to start craving Coleman’s Mustard.

Mary Poppins’ songs—along with numerous other Sherman Brothers classics—became part of the musical vocabulary for generations of children all around the small world they celebrated; their catalog continues to charm and delight to this day. And their passing highlights how little Disney has focused on music in its recent blockbuster endeavors.  

Even before the Shermans, music had always played a central role in Disney productions. From the faux-operetta of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to brilliantly reapportioned Tchaikovsky in Sleeping Beauty to Walt’s high-art aspirations with Fantasia, music was as much a part of the Disney brand as superb animation. Even Steamboat Willie featured a pronounced rendition of “Turkey in The Straw.”

After Disney died, the success of the studio’s pictures rose and fell with the quality and prominence of their music. Remember The Fox and the Hound or The Rescuers Down Under? Neither do I. In fact, it was in large part the Oscar-winning music by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman that initiated Disney’s animation renaissance just over two decades ago with the release of The Little Mermaid. A string of mega-hits with great scores followed. Two of them, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, would go on to become hit Broadway musicals.

Now, with Pixar’s rise to box-office dominance, the tradition of narrative musical storytelling in the Broadway idiom—with characters who sing and lyrics that further the plot—has waned. Original songs have become something of an afterthought in the vast Disney entertainment complex and—though executives in Burbank have 6 billion dollars to argue otherwise—I think it’s a loss.

Disney’s recent attempts to rekindle the musical spark have traversed the scale from middling to perfunctory. The Princess and The Frog featured a score of strictly utilitarian songs by Randy Newman. Tangled, Disney’s computer-animated riff on Rapunzel, featuring songs by the previously superlative Alan Menken no less, was surprising only for its mediocrity. Menken was on sturdier footing with the (mostly) live-action charmer Enchanted, but, by that point, musical numbers had become were draped in the ironic guise of parody, the last refuge of a dying art.

Pixar’s style, which draws primarily upon the aesthetic vocabulary of Hollywood rather than Broadway, leaves minimal room for such an old-fashioned method of storytelling. This is unfortunate. For all their success, Pixar films make almost no musical impression, save an occasional Oscar-bait Randy Newman track played over the action. Infectious music and intelligent lyrics impress on a fertile imagination like little else; without a Sherman Brothers of their own, Pixar may be missing a golden opportunity.

Perhaps the resurgence of interest in Broadway music on television—on shows like Glee and Smash—will encourage the Pixar team to try their hand at this classic American style. Otherwise, for their musical sustenance, children may have to settle for the classics from years past. Of course, with talents like Rob Sherman to rediscover, there’s plenty of amazing material to absorb. I guess that’s my spoonful of sugar to help this medicine go down.

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