Let it Go (Elsa, Frozen) and How Far I’ll Go (Moana, Moana) can both go jump: the best Disney songs come from the classic 2D animated films. Here’s our top 4! In no particular order…
Poor Unfortunate Souls
Ursula, The Little Mermaid (1989)
Like other songs from Disney movies, especially Under The Sea (Sebastian, The Little Mermaid) and Part Of Your World (Ariel, The Little Mermaid), Poor Unfortunate Souls has many parts that are the same note played over and over again. But, more so than any others, Ursula’s devious number utilises these simplistic note arrangements perfectly, since the entire song is actually quite conversational.
Pat Carroll is glorious as the scheming Ursula, keeping the song harmonious while giving each word weight and purpose, at least when compared to songs like Be Prepared (Scar, The Lion King) or Friend Like Me (The Genie, Aladdin) where the singers simply talk melodiously through the lyrics. Even the titular phrase, “Poor Unfortunate Souls” is a deceptively specific choice of words, encapsulating Ursula’s phoney compassion and verbal cadences.
It’s easy to grasp the structure of songs like I Can Go The Distance (Hercules, Hercules) and You’re Welcome (Maui, Moana), both having clear AABA and ABABCBB forms, respectively, but Poor Unfortunate Souls is trickier to figure out. It begins with ABC, followed by a talking break and repeating AB with C morphing into a fast paced climax continuing to malevolent chanting and Ariel’s ascent to the surface.
The differing melodies effortlessly blend together, enhancing the intimate nature of the entire piece. Not that it doesn’t have a bombastic and triumphant ending, especially when looking at the Broadway version which uses Poor Unfortunate Souls to end act 1, clearly showing its capabilities as a literal showstopper.
Poor Unfortunate Souls: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gi58pN8W3hY
The Circle of Life
The Lion King (1994)
One of a handful of Disney songs capable of making my eyes leak, Circle of Life is the encapsulation of all that The Lion King strives to be. Here is an animated movie for children that has to be about a flawed but worthy hero; it has to deliver an environmental message; it has to pay homage to the customs of Africa; and it has to be an entertainment rousing enough to coddle parents. On all accounts it succeeds with pride, and remains one of the greatest Disney films.
Its first – and best – move was to begin with a dialogue-less scene that explains, through song, the harmonious relationship between every living thing on Earth. It is a bravado opening, plunging us all into the world of hippos, rhinos, zebras and lions, and the sacred bond they all share with each other.
Not only is it a moving sequence, it’s also one of the most succinctly entertaining nature lessons in history. The camera swoops and dives over rivers and grasslands, providing the scope of the film to come. It’s the majesty of this opening number that sets the stage. It’s arguably my favourite Disney song of all time.
The Circle of Life: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GibiNy4d4gc
Friends On The Other Side
Dr Facilier, The Princess and the Frog (2009)
While not as successful as anyone would have liked, The Princess And The Frog brought us a breakout villain song, Friends On The Other Side. Villain songs, like the villains themselves, are usually the most engaging thing in a musical, if only because they are usually what initiates the story. Dr Facilier’s bouncy number is not only the liveliest moment in the entire movie, but one of the most animated (metaphorically) moments in any Disney installment.
Keith David as the deceitful, yet desperate doctor portrays his fake friendliness so convincingly he almost comes off as a nice guy, being intentionally vague about his “friends” and never coming off as irredeemably evil. Compare that to Ursula literally saying “You belong to me” to Ariel.
The music itself is appropriately difficult to get a beat on, literally, and not just because of the talking segment in the middle, which, thankfully maintains a melodic tone instead of just being a boring line of Ghost Notes. No two parts of the song seem to repeat. Even the first AA segment has some pauses, keeping the song constantly and suitably “off”.
The animation is bendy and colourful, with spooky masks surrounding the characters, and cards and shadows flipping and flying around Dr Facilier’s lanky form. It’s a song you need to watch a few times to catch everything and one you gladly will.
Friends On The Other Side: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g00kEcGh4j8
Pink Elephants on Parade
Up until 1941, the most horrifying thing Disney put out was the sound Snow White made when she sang. Bambi’s mother hadn’t died. Scar hadn’t tossed his brother into a stampede. Computer animation had yet to suck the life out of all that is kind and good. Bliss was to be found. And then Dumbo sounded his lonely trumpet, and it all went tits up. He’s separated from his mother. He’s tricked into joining the circus. He’s bullied from every corner. His only respite comes during one of the most bizarre and inexplicable musical numbers of any Disney film: the psychedelic Pink Elephants on Parade.
I swear this is the song The Beatles wished they had made Yellow Submarine about. It begins with a seductive horn intro before dissolving into a chorus of spooky vocals that leads rather unexpectedly into an idyllic interlude. But it’s not just the soundtrack that’s subversive; the visuals accompanying the song include elephants of all shapes and sizes performing all sorts of mind-boggling feats, from marching along the frame of the screen, to decapitating themselves and using their severed heads to form one giant elephant from hell. It’s nasty stuff, but creatively inspired and boundary-pushing.
Kids younger than five will simply find all the bright colours amusing, but I’m not so sure about everyone else. This is a musical number, mind you, that only happens because the cute little prepubescent elephant who imagines it is drunk on champagne.
Pink Elephants on Parade: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RJv2Mugm2RI
Images courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures