The Disney Animation Renaissance was powered by music
September 15, 2020

The era we call the “renaissance” at Walt Disney Animation was, as the name suggests, an artistic revival and rebirth that “woke up” Sleeping Beauty and produced a bumper crop of animated movie classics. The 1990s yielded one unforgettable hit after another—and it was music that started the engine.

The star songwriting duo of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken were recruited by Disney in the late ’80s because of their sharp Broadway sensibilities, and beginning with The Little Mermaid they supercharged Disney Animation by infusing it with a musical theater mentality that cast incredible singers as princesses and princes, took inspiration from an eclectic variety of musical styles, and insisted that songs powered character and drove story.

Mermaid was filled with instantly beloved tunes—from Ariel’s yearning “Part of Your World” to Sebastian’s reggae showcase of better living “Under the Sea” to Ursula’s sultry, sinister “Poor Unforunate Souls,” which convinced Ariel to sell her voice for a moment in the sun. Menken’s storybook score wove those melodies into the fabric of the fairytale, and it earned him an Academy Award (along with an Oscar for “Under the Sea”).

They topped themselves with Beauty and the Beast, which opened with the infectious “Belle” that has her, Gaston, and the townspeople set up the whole story through song. Lumiere and the other animated objects welcomed Belle to the Beast’s castle with the showstopping “Be Our Guest,” and the maternal Mrs. Potts cut to the heart of this “tale as old as time” with the emotional ballad “Beauty and the Beast.” Ashman and Menken won Oscars for the score and title song, and cast another enchanting musical spell.

Those lyrical films set the tone for the rest of the decade, with songs and scores as memorable and iconic as the animated characters. At the heart of Aladdin was the soaring, tumbling love song “A Whole New World” and the razzle-dazzle “Friend Like Me,” which showcased the limitless talents of both the Genie and Robin Williams. (Menken won two more Oscars, and when they accepted the award for “A Whole New World,” lyricist Tim Rice thanked the late Howard Ashman, saying: “I’m extremely lucky to be standing in his shoes.’)

Menken’s Broadway spirit continued to electrify Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, with lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. They gave Pocahontas her Oscar-winning anthem “Colors of the Wind,” Esmeralda’s plaintive “God Help the Outcasts,” and Frollo’s ferocious villian’s song, “Hellfire.” For Hercules, Menken teamed up with lyricist David Zippel for the gospel-flavored “Zero to Hero” and the Oscar-nominated hero’s statement, “Go the Distance.”

Running parallel to this theatrical style, the studio also brought in some of the biggest names in pop music to bring a rocking, grooving, bopping power to its hand-drawn creatures and characters. Elton John, a lifelong Disney fanatic, became the balladeer of Simba’s journey from boyhood to kingdom in The Lion King—gifting us the sun-waking glory of “Circle of Life,” the peppy “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” Scar’s slithering warning in “Be Prepared,” Timon and Pumbaa’s philosophy of the good life, “Hakuna Matata,” and one of the all-time great love songs, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” which won an Academy Award. Composer Hans Zimmer gave the whole story a serious, sincere score full of heartbreaking emotion and indelible melodies, earning his first Oscar.

The singing-songwriting-drumming superstar Phil Collins was asked to bring Tarzan‘s story to life, and he came up with “Two Worlds” about the character’s role in the dual realm of humans and animals, and the achingly beautiful lullaby “You’ll Be in My Heart”—which won Collins an Oscar.

And we can’t forget Mulan! The Chinese warrior’s new live-action adventure isn’t a musical like its animated counterpart, but it does pay homage to some of the singular tunes by composer Matthew Wilder—including the training montage earworm “I’ll Make a Man Out of You,” and the longing ballad about identity and belonging, “Reflection.” As she did on the original 1998 soundtrack, Christina Aguilera performed a pop version of that song on the new Mulan, along with the new anthem, “Loyal Brave True.”

With lyrics by David Zippel, the animated Mulan soundtrack featured the powerhouse vocals of Tony-winning Lea Salonga as Mulan, Donny Osmond, Broadway legend Marni Nixon—along with the curtain-closing banger “True to Your Heart” performed by Stevie Wonder and 98 Degrees. Tying it all together, and lending the unconventional warrior’s story real pathos and gravitas, was Jerry Goldsmith’s muscular, melodic, Oscar-nominated score.

It was a renaissance of eye-catching animation and fantastic stories with cherished characters—but at the heart and soul of it all was this fountain of immortal, storytelling music.

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