Since 1937 when the first full-length animated feature film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered, Walt Disney Animation Studio has created 57 animated feature films. Before 2018, all those movies have reached more than $12 billion at the global box office (boxofficemojo.com). Disney’s animated feature films won more than 20 Academy Awards, 9 of which were the best original song or music awards (oscars.org). Music always plays an important part to the world of Disney. Disney and Its Musical Style Producing outstanding songs and using musical style are a tradition which can be traced back to Disney’s founding. In 1928, Walt Disney collaborated with musician and used synchronized sound techniques for his first successful cartoon short film Steamboat Willie. For the following Silly Symphonies series, the studio produced a song called “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” which became a huge hit. In 1937, Disney created the first full-length animated feature film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as a musical movie. In 1938, the soundtrack to this movie was released. It was the first commercially issued soundtrack in history. It can be said that song and musical style was a significant factor for Walt Disney’s early success.
For Disney, using musical style were inseparable from the background of the film industry and the feature of the animation movie. First, after the sound movie appeared in the 1920s, audiences who had used to stage performances were attracted to the new-invented synchronized sound movies. The golden age of western musical films was from the 1930s to the early 1950s. A large number of musical movies continually emerged in the movie theater, but no animated musical movie. Taking into consideration audience preference in a homogeneous market, early success in music collaboration and developing sound technology, Walt Disney’s choice of producing animated musical films and releasing the soundtrack was quite reasonable. Besides, using musical style also improves the animated film. Singing and dancing is an exaggerated performance; expressing emotion is a unique ability of human being. Therefore, using songs to express feelings is a bridge links fantasy to reality. Songs with dances or dialogues provide Disney’s animated characters human personality and emotion but also keep them fantastic. Also, source music and underscore music are necessary for a movie, but they are always ignored by audiences.
However, audiences can’t miss any scene of singing, because it is so attractive and distinct from reality. As a result, musicals style is welcomed by Disney’s creators and audiences. This half-real and half-unreal approach created “real” imaginary friends to kids and let them memory the songs for years. Pop Music in The 1990s and Disney Song’s Style Walt Disney Animation Studio changed the musical style in some movies during the 1960-1970s, but the studio was back to this genre in 1989, and it was regarded as the year of “Disney Renaissance” (Pallant 89). In the early 1990s, Disney seized the opportunity of the global music market to produce and promote their songs and movies. In the 1990s, pop music was spread globally, and people in the different continent were interested in the music from Hollywood through the international radio program and the MTV channel. Meanwhile, many Western record labels were expanding to the Asian market. In this context, Disney had extensive distribution channels and resources to localize its movie songs.
Generally, Disney always invited local famous lyricists and singers to cover their movie song in the local language which made those songs closer to the local audiences, and localized songs are more often appeared on the radio, at record shops and on tv shows. The fact was that many of Disney’s animated movie songs not only attracted audience go to the theater but also won great selling number and awards. The good performances proved that Disney’s animated movie song could be independent of the movie. The following factors might contribute to its success. First, Disney’s animation songs are elaborately pre-scored by famous musicians which means they are great music pieces solely without animation. After song’s demos are recorded, a storyboard sketch will be carefully developed and adjusted several times until perfectly matching to the song (Thomas 297). Second, most of Disney songs are musical theatre style which combines song with dance, dialog and acting, but audiences have never gotten tired of them because Disney has never stopped adding and mixing new genres or cultural elements into their songs. This type of songs are usually introductions, transmissions, and montages in the movie.
For example, “Under the Sea,” a song from The Little Mermaid, features instruments like marimba and steel drum. This typical Calypso music takes audiences into the Caribbean islands; when audiences listen to the “Down in New Orleans,” a song from The Princess and the Frog. They will be in New Orleans because it is a New Orleans style jazz song with “a trumpet or cornet providing a melodic lead, harmonies from the trombone, countermelodies by the clarinet, and a steady rhythm stated by the rhythm section” (New Orleans, Allmusic.com). Such distinctive songs aim to create a specific environment, reveal the story background and refresh audiences. Besides, Disney always keeps a theme song or a protagonist song as popular as possible. Songwriters may add a pinch of “flavor” to such songs to echo the context, but most of the time, they keep the theme or protagonist song contemporary, catchy and popular.
For example, most of the music in The Little Mermaid is Calypso style, but the theme song “Part of Your World” is a traditional Broadway musical theatre style and features orchestras; the theme song of Beauty and Beast, which is sung by Canadian singer Celine Dion and American singer Peabo Bryson, is a “conservatively-rendered pop song” (Beauty and Beast, Filmtrack.com); the song “How Far I’ll Go” in movie Moana is produced as a pop-soul instead of Pacific island music style, because pop-soul is more widespread than island music style in the global market. Sometimes, Disney even produces two versions of a theme song: a stylized one for the movie scene, and then a popular one for movie campaign and soundtrack record. In a word, it is hard to define a specific genre of Disney songs. Basically, these songs are musical theatre style, but Disney keeps borrowing culture references to diverse them. For Disney, a principal that has never changed is to produce a high-quality, refreshing, contemporary and easy-circulated song for as many audiences as possible. The Lion King and Chinese Animated Movie The Lion King is regarded as one of the greatest animation movies in history.
After it premiered in 1994, The Lion King movie reached a worldwide gross more than $94 million, and it created the record of highest-grossing traditionally animated film of all time (boxofficemojo.com). The music in The Lion King is as extraordinary as the movie. Three songs from The Lion King were nominated the best original song of Academy Awards and finally won one. The soundtrack was the fourth-best-selling album of 1994 on the Billboard (Trust, billboard.com). “The Circle of Life” is one of the best opening music of Disney Animation. It is so perfect that Disney used the whole opening clip as the movie trailer and used it again in the latest trailer of the new live-action The Lion King 2019. The musician borrowed African element, like Zulu chant and vocal in this opening song. It highlighted the whole song and offered the audience an incredible perspective of Savannah. Another wonderful culture reference was in the song “Hakuna Matata.” This song was a typical musical style with spoken words and dance, and the Swahili phrase “Hakuna Matata” was so catchy which made the song become a delightful Disney classic. In The Lion King, the protagonist song was a love song “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” which combined musical style with pop style.
Disney also produced another version of a piano and soft rock ballad. The Lion King went viral in China, too. It was the first Hollywood animated feature film imported to China. In mainland China, it reached $6.58 million in the box office, ranked top fifth in the box office in 1995 (Yan, Qdaily.com). Its soundtrack was the first and most memorable album for the people born around 1990. At that time, many kids could understand and sing the songs from The Lion King because the record included several Chinese version performed by Mandopop singers. Furthermore, the big success of The Lion King caused extensive reflections and discussions about the animation industry in China. The first full-length Chinese animated film can be traced back to in 1941, but the Second World War and the Cultural Revolution interrupted the progress. After 1977, the Chinese animation industry revived. However, around 1990, a large number of cartoons from Japan and Western countries were introduced to China and dominated the market. During this period, most of the Chinese animated feature films were produced by the state-own studios; these films were more educational and political than entertaining; songs from the movies are all children rhymes.
Animators were struggled to change the situation. On the other hand, The Lion King arrived at a timing that Chinese people were eager to more kinds of pop music. Taiwan was the biggest hub for Mandopop during the 1980s to 1990s; Taiwan’s record labels and singers dominated the mainland China’s market for decades. Facing a market with huge potential, the local musician wanted to create and commercialize original songs instead of copying or covering Taiwan singer’s work. In a word, both Chinese animation and music industry sought to explore a new way for the local audience. The Lion King displayed that high-quality movie song was popular, and it could promote the movie. Therefore, The Lion King inspired Chinese practitioners and became the benchmark. It directly affected the song production of Chinese full-length animated film Lotus Lantern, which released in 1999. First, Lotus Lantern invited three famous Mandopop singers to perform three movie songs: Jeff Chang from Taiwan, Liu Huan from mainland China, and Coco Lee who was a Hong Kong-born American singer and she also sung the theme song of Disney’s Mulan in the same year. This choice of singer meant that Lotus Lantern targeted to all the Mandopop fans in the Greater China area.
Besides, all the songs from Lotus Lantern were at the highest production value in that time. All the songwriter were famous, experienced and watched the market closely. Just like The Lion King’s strategy, those three high-quality songs played essential roles in the movie campaign. They were played constantly on the radio shows, and music videos which included movie clips were shown frequently on the TV earlier than the movie’s premiere. However, Lotus Lantern didn’t borrow the musical performance style from Disney. It was a choice based on the local audience preference. Musical movies hardly appeared in Chinese theater, and people tend to connect musical to the traditional Chinese drama and the Western movies, so it was understandable that producer eliminated the musical style in the Lotus Lantern. Although lacking dialogue or dance with the song, the poetic lyrics and melodious tune established character’s personality and storyline as well. As the producers expected, Lotus Lantern and its songs were the blockbusters in film and pop music market. The soundtrack sold over 150,000 copies. The movie was marked as the first success of commercialized animation in China and reached $3.64 million in the box office (Eastday.com). Mulan and Localized Song in China In 1999, another Disney movie Mulan was released in China. This animated musical action-adventure film was based on a Chinese legend, but lots of Chinese people were not fond of the version created by Disney.
The box office of Mulan in China was only $1.46 million, much less than the Lotus Lantern (boxofficemojo.com). Although the box office was not good, songs from Mulan were famous as well. Coco Lee performed the theme song “Reflection” in Mandarin. This version featured Chinese instruments, and Coco Lee performed it in a western R&B style. For Chinese audiences, this song was a perfect fusion of eastern and western elements, traditional and modern aesthetics. Another important song “I’ll Make a Man out of You” was produced a Mandarin and Contone version, too. Both versions were performed by globally known martial artist Jackie Chan. All the audience were crazy this version, because no better candidate than him could magnify the energetic theme of this song. An appropriate singer of the target market is an important step to localize song for Disney. A precisely-targeted style can also help a Disney’s song become more famous than the movie. In 1996, Rock Recorder, the biggest record company at that time, released an album called “New Happy Haven.” This album included 12 most famous songs of the Disney animated feature movie like Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Pinocchio, Aladdin and Cinderella, etc., although all these movies weren’t released in mainland China (music.douban.com).
Without the movie’s context, this album still sold well, because all these mandarin versions were interpreted as romantic ballads which were the most celebrated genre in the Mandopop market. Some of the Chinese lyrics were very different from the original, but it didn’t bother listeners. A large number of people knew Disney characters from this album firstly and then tried to find underground film resource. Disney was glad to collaborate, localize their songs for the big mandarin pop music business because it would be beneficial to their brand and movie ultimately. Frozen and New Distribution Method Almost 10 years after The Lion King, in 2013, the animated musical fantasy film Frozen made Disney a higher peak. Frozen’s box office finally achieved $1.2 billion which broke the record made by The Lion King (boxofficemojo.com). It won the best-animated feature film and best original song in the Oscar.
In the week ending January 2014, Frozen soundtrack reached No.1 and “sold over 10 million copies in 2014 alone. It was the year’s best-selling album globally.” The theme song “Let It Go” kept in the billboard hot 100 chart for 15 weeks (BBC Newsbeat.com). Fantasy story and wonderful song are the magic ingredients of Disney animation movie, but things were different in the new generation in 2013: girls were not taught to wait for her prince, so Disney created a new “princess” story and songs. For instance, “Let It Go” was designed to be a “badass song” (Willman, hollywoodreporter.com). It was a “power ballad in the key of A-flat major overall, but begins in the relative minor. The song has a fast tempo of around 137 beats per minute” (Lopez, et al.,musicnotes.com). The piano and string instruments which were played for princess’ waltz dancing in the past, now were played for a princess’ freedom and ambition. The lyrics of “Let It Go” intensified the energy as well. Not talking about “wish or waiting”anymore, the protagonist now was independent enough to sing “I don’t care what they’re going to say” (Mynott, ohmy.disney.com). Again, Disney proved that they deeply understood how to sing out the contemporary value. Besides the powerful theme song, Disney kept entertaining audiences. The song “In Summer” was an amusing song which was aimed to create a funny snowman character in Frozen. The singer exaggerated this musical performance, and this song mixed jazz and opera which made the character real and incredibly funny.
Also, a love story is not the most important subject in the movie, but Disney knew that audiences love romantic ballad at any time. The song “Love Is an Open Door” was a romantic duet in a wonderful musical style which contained sweet dialogs and performances. The producer intended to make it “feel like the perfect first date” (A FANtasy Come True). Moreover, many people made this lovely date song into “carpool karaoke” video on the internet, and the most popular video was viewed more than 23 million times (Youtube.com). It revealed the song’s popularity, and also marked the fact that, in the internet era, a hit song didn’t only rely on the radio, television and records. Disney was used to inviting famous pop to attract audiences; now the internet allows everyone to share their videos via a platform like Youtube and to be part of the movie’s circulation and promotion. This trend happened globally. A Shanghai dialect version of “Let It Go” video made by an individual was viewed 557,000 times on YouTube. On a Chinese popular video platform Bilibili, a version of “Let It Go” which covered by 26 dialects was watched about 2 million times. Perhaps, there is no single pop singer can make a song spread so widely and rapidly.
Disney, which is good at music innovation, encourages the video trend. Disney officially published a sing-along version of “Let It Go” on Youtube in 2014, this video has been viewed 1.6 billion. On the biggest Chinese social platform Weibo, Disney’s official account forwarded and commented the most viral self-made “Let It Go” video, and be glad to receive this free movie campaign. The internet and video is not the only channel for Disney’s song to circulation in the new age. For example, in 2016 when the biggest Disneyland was officially opened in Shanghai, China, the stage show “Frozen: A Sing-Along Celebration” has been the most popular performance in the theme park. This performance shows 6 times a day to satisfy a large number of audiences (shanghaidisneyresort.com). The whole show is designed as a huge karaoke event: Chinese lyrics are projected on the central screen; all the people are singing with the actor in the theatre. When “Elsa” is standing on the stage and singing “Let It Go,” she is the biggest rock star for the young generation.
No one will doubt the power of a Disney song if they have been in this theater. From transferring an animated movie into a musical movie, to collecting movie songs into a musical show, Disney always knows how to attract and satisfy the audience. Conclusion Producing popular songs is a tradition for Walt Disney Animation Studio, because it is welcomed by audiences and it makes the animation more expressive and attractive. By releasing soundtrack albums, using pop singers, mixing with various genres, localizing songs and keeping up with public interests, Disney makes their songs famous and long-lasting globally. The Lion King is the best example, and the success of The Lion King directly impacted the decision making of China’s first commercial animated movie Lotus Lantern. When the old value was changing, Disney quickly adjusted their film and released Frozen and “Let It Go.” When the internet changes old music distribution channel, and self-made video allows everyone to participate in the song’s circulation, Disney embraces the new trends and takes advantage of viral topics or new form to promote the songs and movies. There is a reason to believe that Disney’s movie songs will continue to be the hit and display an important force for film promotion. Disney will keep influencing animated movies, music, pop culture, and inspire more artists, musicians and practitioners to improve and create a better dreamland for this world.