THE BEST DISNEY SCORES

With its Academy Award nomination for Best Song, Moana is now the 20th Disney animated movie to receive such recognition.  For the occasion, I am offering my own choices for the best animated Disney scores.

For the sake of relative brevity, I have limited this list to films that have at least four original songs.  (While this excludes Oscar nominees Saludos Amigos and The Emperor’s New Groove, the most regrettable losses are The Three Caballeros, Lilo & Stitch, and The Great Mouse Detective.)  Furthermore, I am taking the Siskel & Ebert approach and providing observations about certain entries rather than covering all of them.


1. Beauty and the Beast
What more can be said about the score that helped Beauty and the Beast become the first animated Best Picture nominee and launched Disney’s Broadway enterprise?  Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s songs are simply magnificent.  The one quibble I’ve ever had is perhaps the lyrics are too sophisticated for provincial villagers (like when one woman thinks the Beast is “set to sacrifice our children to his monstrous appetite” in “The Mob Song”).  Still, if not for Mary Poppins, I would not hesitate to call this the best score in any animated or live-action Disney movie.
My favorite song: “Belle”

2. The Little Mermaid
The Little Mermaid is a remarkably fleet-footed movie, and the score is an extension of that.  Only one scene and song in the whole film (the “Les Poissons” number) can be argued as being arbitrary.  Everything else is shaved down to the essentials without ever feeling rushed or underdone.  One interesting side effect is how the score has two false starts.  We get a short sea shanty (“Fathoms Below”) and an interrupted concert performance (“Daughters of Triton”) before we arrive at the big production numbers.  It suggests the creators were aware this was Disney Animation’s first large-scale musical since The Jungle Book and they wanted to build up how much of an event this movie was.
My favorite song: “Under the Sea”

3. The Hunchback of Notre Dame
This movie is one rare occasion in the Disney canon where the creators aimed for creating a great musical instead of just a great Disney musical.  In no other film could Disney reach the spiritual power of songs like “God Help the Outcasts”, “Heaven’s Light”, and “Hellfire” in addition to the musical theatre splendor of numbers like “The Bells of Notre Dame” and “Out There”.
My favorite song: It changes every time.  Today, it's "Out There".

4. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
For my money, this is one of the most romantic scores ever written for a Hollywood musical.  It’s near impossible not to get swept up in the playful grandeur of songs like “I’m Wishing”, “One Song”, and “Someday My Prince Will Come”.

5. Dumbo
Dumbo has more emotional potency in 64 minutes than most live-action movies have in two hours.  A significant part of this comes from the music.  The songs hit precisely the right emotional beats, accentuating each moment of humor (“When I See an Elephant Fly”), intensity (“Pink Elephants on Parade”), and love (“Baby Mine”).
My favorite song: “Baby Mine”

6. Aladdin
When you split the Aladdin score between the Howard Ashman songs and the Tim Rice songs, they feel both opposing and compatible.  While Rice tries to match Ashman’s wordplay, he does not aim for the same sense of time and location.  “Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali” could only happen in an Arabian Nights sort of setting like this, but the lyrics in “A Whole New World” are nondescriptly romantic enough that it would not take much effort to make the song work for another fantasy story.  And yet, because the most verbal songs come from the Genie and the more emotional songs come from Aladdin, the divergence works in the story’s favor.
My favorite song: “Friend Like Me”

7. The Princess and the Frog
The proverbial gumbo the creators set out to make this movie is best expressed through the score.  So many different styles of music mesh together into a lively whole, from jazz (street jazz in “When We’re Human” and upscale jazz in “Almost There”) to African rhythms (“Friends on the Other Side”) to zydeco (“Gonna Take You There”) and gospel (“Dig a Little Deeper”).

8. The Jungle Book
My favorite song: “I Wanna Be Like You”

9. Bambi
My favorite song: “Little April Shower”

10. Pinocchio

11. Lady and the Tramp
My favorite song: “Bella Notte”

12. Pocahontas

13. Cinderella
There is hardly a more delightful phrase in any Disney song than when the Fairy Godmother claims Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo is “the thingamabob that does the job.”
My favorite song: “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo”

14. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad
I’ve talked about “The Headless Horseman” before, but I still believe such tremendous villain songs as “Poor Unfortunate Souls” and “Friends on the Other Side” are indebted to this song’s alternating moods of jubilation & dread and the imposing theatricality of its staging.
My favorite song: “The Headless Horseman”

15. Moana
My favorite song: “You’re Welcome”

16. The Lion King
My favorite song: “Be Prepared”

17. Tarzan
My favorite song: “Strangers Like Me”

18. Sleeping Beauty
My favorite song: “Once Upon a Dream”

19. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
My favorite song: “Winnie the Pooh”

20. The Sword in the Stone
With its reliance on gags over story, The Sword in the Stone is clearly the animated film that had the least amount of Walt Disney’s attention.  The songs by Richard and Robert Sherman are where the film tries its hardest to focus on the core aspect of Merlin educating Wart.  Songs like “That’s What Makes the World Go Round” and “A Most Befuddling Thing” are where you feel Merlin is imparting knowledge that will help Wart when he becomes King Arthur.
My favorite song: “Higitus Figitus”

21. Hercules

22. The Aristocats
While these songs are enjoyable, they are indicative of how Disney moved away from relying on music as a storytelling device after Walt Disney’s death.  Only “Thomas O’Malley Cat”, the introduction for the male lead, really does anything to establish character or keep the story moving.  For an enlightening comparison, pick up the Aristocats album in Walt Disney Records’ Legacy Collection.  The deleted songs by Richard and Robert Sherman suggest a version of this movie where music plays a more constructive role.
My favorite song: “Thomas O’Malley Cat”

23. Peter Pan

24. The Rescuers

25. Alice in Wonderland
Without counting reprises, Alice in Wonderland has 14 songs, the most of any Disney animated film.  Most of them are only seconds long.

26. Winnie the Pooh
My favorite song: “The Backson Song”

27. Tangled
My favorite song: “I’ve Got a Dream”

28. Mulan

29. Frozen

30. Home on the Range

31. Robin Hood

32. Melody Time

33. Oliver & Company
My favorite song: “Why Should I Worry?”

34. Make Mine Music

35. The Fox and the Hound
My favorite song: “Best of Friends”

36. Brother Bear
My favorite song: “Great Spirits”

37. Fun and Fancy Free
Of all the films on this list, Fun and Fancy Free is the one where the songs feel the most like padding and/or window dressing.

I apologize for the barrenness of this second half, but sorting the mediocre scores was hard enough.



The Fantasia image is from DisneyScreencaps.com

AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER


I have no idea how or what to write about Avatar:The Last Airbender.  That shows how much I adore this series.

I feel compelled to write something about it since today is the tenth anniversary of the show’s premiere on Nickelodeon, a fact that has startled me more than last fall’s tenth anniversary of my own high school freshman year.  (I wager the upcoming decennial of my beginning college will also be a lesser shock.)  Avatar reshaped my idea of what television could be over the course of its 2005-2008 run, and it has become my personal favorite TV series.

And it absolutely floors and delights me that my engagement in it was entirely accidental.


THE SWAN PRINCESS (1994)


Several acclaimed and popular movies turned twenty this year, and each bears significance to at least one person in this world.  While I am thankful for 1994 movies like Pulp Fiction, The Lion King, and Ed Wood, one less-than-acclaimed film, whose anniversary is today, has been on my mind quite a lot recently.  It’s Richard Rich’s The Swan Princess, a film whose appeal somehow stayed with me despite two decades of maturation and a much more expansive view of animation’s capabilities.

NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2011



I wish I could say I saw all of the movies featured in that trailer. School, alas, prevented me from doing so, but at least I did squeeze some good ones into my schedule. Here, in order of when I saw them, are the movies I watched at the 49th New York Film Festival.

Melancholia – R
Lars von Trier writes and directs this eerie story about the end of two worlds. The first collapse is an intangible one, of a bride (a moving Kirsten Dunst) losing her mind over the course of a disastrous wedding reception. The second and better half shows the bride, her sister (a wonderful Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her brother-in-law (a potent Kiefer Sutherland) witnessing the imminent collision of Earth with the planet Melancholia, brought to life through simple yet entrancing special effects. The uniformly superb cast successfully maintains von Trier’s sad and gloomy tone even in the film’s more jovial moments. From its artful opening montage to its beautifully terrifying final shot, Melancholia works very well as both science fiction and as a personal drama.
This review was originally published by The Fordham Observer.

A Separation – PG-13
When an Iranian couple (Peyman Moadi and Leila Hatami) divorces, the husband hires a woman (Sareh Bayat) to help care for his father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), who is stricken with Alzheimer’s. A terrible incident sparks an endless parade of accusations and revelations that turns employee against employer, spouses against spouses and children against parents. Asghar Farhadi’s deeply involving drama withholds many details in this affair to let each viewer debate the facts long after the movie ends. This film is subtly tense, deftly puzzling and tenderly human, creating an impartial mystery in which even characters who do not appear deserving of sympathy earn it.

Miss Bala – R
Gerado Naranjo has fashioned a genuinely exciting action film about a beauty pageant contestant who is forced into the world of Mexican drug trafficking. Every single scene is told from her perspective, which works thanks to Stephanie Sigman’s appealing performance. Naranjo uses long takes throughout the film to build an impressive amount of suspense. One major shortcoming is the escalating sexual advances the gang leader (Miguel Couturier) makes on the girl. These scenes are distracting and somewhat plodding, adding little to her already humiliating situation. The film is much more stirring when it focuses on the girl acting alone as hostage and forced accomplice.

My Week with Marilyn – R
Simon Curtis’s My Week with Marilyn is a biopic whose adoration for its subject, Marilyn Monroe, is so strong it renders the film a little insufferable. Set during the production of The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), it has so many moments that exclaim, “Wow, what a beautiful and tragic star she was” that there are too few introspective scenes. Michelle Williams gives a fine performance as Monroe, but the real treat is Kenneth Branagh’s highly entertaining take on Sir Lawrence Olivier. The actors are good enough to warrant a slight recommendation, but if you want a real tribute to Monroe’s talents, just watch Some Like It Hot (1959) if you haven’t seen it before (or lately).

Goodbye First Love – NR
Mia Hansen-Løve’s story of a young French girl’s loss of her first love and how she moves on with a new one is the only movie I saw this year that I would unreservedly say is bad. It is full of dull, mopey characters whose self-centered demeanors failed to earn any of my sympathy; I suppose it may have been Hansen-Løve’s point to paint a picture of how childish first love can be, but painting a picture so thoroughly sullen does not build solid interest. As I watched the movie, there were times when I would much rather have followed the horses in the background than spend any more energy focusing on the drab humans.

The Descendants – R
In Alexander Payne’s first film since Sideways (2004), George Clooney plays a father who must reconcile with his family after his wife goes comatose in a boating accident. This is Clooney’s best performance since Michael Clayton (2007), mixing frustration and heartbreak with a despairing hope that things will get better. The rest of the movie does not match up, for it fails to integrate drama and comedy into a cohesive whole. While the comedy in Sideways is an extension of the drama, the jokes in The Descendants feel more like bald, inorganic relief from the surrounding sadness. The overall film is competent yet uneven, but Clooney makes it absolutely worth seeing.

THE MILL AND THE CROSS - Not Rated



Lech Majewski’s The Mill and the Cross is a good movie that falls aggravatingly short of excellence. The film, which opens at Film Forum on Sept. 14, shows us riveting visuals as it ponders the source of artistic inspiration. Two recurring and vexing flaws spoil the atmosphere and ultimately hinder what should have been a lovely piece of work.

THE LION KING Rereleased in 3-D: One Dimension Too Many?



This weekend, Disney’s The Lion King returned to theaters for a two-week 3-D engagement. This release is the latest in a small trend of 3-D reissues that began five years ago with Disney’s reissue of The Nightmare Before Christmas. Beloved films that have not been seen in theaters for years are being converted into 3-D prints for theatrical exhibition. While this is still an evolving practice, one should consider whether it should be happening at all. Are 3-D reissues spoiling classic movies, or are they a modern outlet for seeing notable older films in theaters again?

SUMMER 2011 IN REVIEW

Now that the summer movie season is in its last week, I'm going to reflect a bit on the highs and lows of this year's crop. Since I was not writing for a newspaper this summer, I did not see as many summer movies as I have previously. This list marks selected movies I did see (in current order of preference) with annotations of their particular achievements. The only movie I excluded, Crazy, Stupid, Love., was not bad, but it did not have anything too distinctive.