Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Toon-arama: To Sing or Not?

Have you ever noticed how many animated films are done as musicals? It almost seems like it's required that animated films be musicals. Disney after Disney is packed with fantastic songs -- I'm particularly partial to King Louie's song in Jungle Book. South Park is a musical. Prince of Egypt was a musical. I'm sure that all the Pixar stuff is musicals, right? Well, no. Most of the Pixar stuff is not done as musicals. And the more I think about it, the more it seems that non-musicals dominate.

As I said, at first glance, it seems that all cartoon films are musicals. When you think about the Disneys, they were all musicals. Then there's South Park, The Nightmare Before Christmas, An American Tale, Charlotte's Web, Anastasia, All Dogs Go To Heave, and of course, Disney's still doing it too: Frozen, Tangled, The Princess and the Frog, etc. People talk about the songs in these films. Awards shows tend to focus on the songs. Many of these cartoons now end up as live musicals too.
But the more I started thinking about it, the more I realized that many of the best films of the past couple decades were not musicals. Wreck-It Ralph, which is perhaps the best animated film in a generation is not a musical. Yes, it has a musical montage, but that does not a musical make. Indeed, what makes a musical is when the characters stop reality and break into a song about the plot. That doesn't happen here. WALL-E wasn't a musical, nor was Toy Story, nor was Monsters University. Wallace and Gromit and Despicable Me weren't either. Yes, these films typically had a song in them, but they weren't musicals.
This got me thinking. And it struck me that despite the perception that animated films are always musicals, the truth is that few are. I wonder what this means? For one thing, it suggests that the public has a skewed view of what cartoons are -- a view that harks back to Disney. But at the same time, the public has no issue with seeing a film that doesn't meet their expectation of what cartoons should be. On the other hand, few films completely give up on the musical number as most still do include a musical montage involving some current pop hit.
Equally interestingly, when you think about television cartoons, singing is actually quite rare. There are some instances. South Park sometimes does musical numbers. The Simpson's doesn't. A handful of the original Scooby Doos had musical montages, typically love songs as they monsters chased them. The copycats, like Jabber Jaw and Josie and the Pussycats involved the bands singing a song. But most cartoons did not. Even Looney Tunes, which uses vast amounts of classical music and opera almost never has their characters sing. So why do we expect something different from television cartoons than we expect from animated films?

I'm thinking this is a question of history. I'm thinking that animated films basically were Disney's domain for so long that we began to see the Disney traits as definitional. At the same time, television was packed with shorts that were more verbal, things like Looney Tunes and The Flintstones. So these two genres developed separately and created separate expectations that we still believe today, even if they are no longer true.

Interesting? Not interesting? Thoughts?


Kit said...

I think the explanation is this: Disney was, for a long time, the only company producing major animated motion pictures and a lot of them were musicals, from the 1930s to the 1960s before hitting decline in the 1970s and early-80s where you had non-musicals like The Rescuers and The Great Mouse Detective

Then in the 1980s Don Bluth, who had worked at Disney, started doing movies for Universal and his were musicals. But, still, in the 1980s most of Disney's animated movies, aside from Oliver and Company, were not musicals. And even that one had more of a Jukebox quality with the music written, and mostly sung, by Billy Joel.

Then, in the late-1980s, as the men trained at Cal-Arts in the early-70s came of age, Disney decided to return full swing to the classic musical format of their Golden Era with Little Mermaid. This was followed by a spectacular run of movies such as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King in the early 1990s that caused the other studios to say "Hey, we can get in on this!"

The result was a series of Disney knock-offs of varying quality such as Anastasia, Cats Don't Dance, and Quest for Camelot. Even Dreamworks produced as its first animated motion picture, a 2-D musical, Prince of Egypt.

But as Disney's shine began to fade in the mid- and late-1990s you had the rise of Pixar and CGI animation in 1995 with the release of Toy Story, a non-musical. As Disney's animation department went into free-fall in quality Pixar rose and so the other studios decided to copy its format of CGI-animation and no music.

Now the musical is starting to make a comeback with movies like Tangled and Frozen. As well as non-Disney features like The Lorax. So, there.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, That could well be. So you would agree that Disney defined the animated film as a musical?

Kit said...


I would agree with that statement.

And then Pixar defined the CGI film as a non-musical.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, Though I would say they didn't define it for the public. They changed the industry, but the public still thinks in the older way of "musical." And that's pushed by awards shows and musical tie-ins, etc.

Outlaw13 said...

The Simpsons had the famous musical number Monorail along with Stop The Planet of the Apes I Want To Get Off. I think early Simpons shows had a lot of music. Family Guy has music as well. In the 70's along with Josey there was also The Groovie Goolies, The Archies and every Cosby Kids episode had a musical number.

Anonymous said...

The Simpson's doesn't.

One word: "Monorail!" :-)

All kidding aside, The Simpsons may not have many traditional musical numbers, but there have been plenty of original songs, jingles, etc. (So much so that there have been three separate soundtrack albums released.)

But you're right about the historical thing. And animated movies and TV shows have always been geared towards the family so when something like South Park or The Simpsons comes along, the nattering nabobs always bitch: "Think of the children! These cartoons aren't kid-friendly!" Blah blah blah.

As if an entire medium should only be able to do one thing.

PDBronco said...

When Disney started feature-length animated films, it probably seemed natural to make them as musicals. In the 30's and 40's, all of the major studios were churning out musicals. Most of the studios making animated shorts from the beginning had a musical-based line (Merrie Melodies from WB, Silly Symphonies from Disney). And I wonder if there was also a thought that you needed music/songs to keep a young child's attention for a full-length movie. Plus, it reduces the amount of dialogue you need to move the story along.

As time has gone on, musicals in general have gone out of favor and it seems like Hollywood has forgotten how to make a good one - even from a Broadway hit (see "The Producers" and "Sweeny Todd", two great stage musicals that just come up short in the movie adaptation). So instead of musicals, you have the "Musical Interlude" as mastered by Pixar - a scene set to either a song or an instrumental piece to give us backstory or to act as exposition to move the story along.

I do find it interesting that each time Disney attempts a comeback, it does it as a musical. I think that is because it has always been the Disney strong suit. They can be great at using music to bring the emotion and heart into the story.

I also wonder if the only way to make a successful musical now is to do it as an animated feature. Since the animation itself leads to "suspended disbelief", it makes it easier for today's audiences to accept singing and dancing.

Kit said...


The Nattering Nabobs need to natter and nag or Nike will never favor noble goodness and nasties will drift the norm natantly toward nihilism.

AndrewPrice said...

Outlaw, The Simpson's have had a handful of episodes out of 200+ that were musicals. It is rare, however, that the characters engage in song.

As an aside, their musicals are fantastic... very well done. "See my vest, see my vest, pure gorilla chest..." LOL!

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Commentarama... needs a monorail. :D

Agreed, there's no reason that this genre or any other be limited to only one narrow type of thing, but it does seem that people get hooked on the idea that "X is Y! How can you make X without it being Y?! You're doing it wrong!"

AndrewPrice said...

PDBronco, You make some great points.

First, I think you're right that making a musical today is a hard sell, so it's probably easier to do it in animated form.

Secondly, you make a great point that Disney was largely copying what was in style at the time. That makes me wonder if Disney hadn't started until the 1960s, would they still have done musicals or would they have been very different?

Third, I totally agree about how difficult it seems to be to adapt musicals today. It's amazing how often the films fall flat compared to the stage productions. Interesting point.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, Yes indeed. LOL!

Tennessee Jed said...

I can only add this ( semi-rhetorical question to be sure) : If animated films were not meant to have music, why are they called "carTUNES"? Please, don't hit me :)

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Nice! I could almost buy that, except that I know the term cartoon is much older than films.

Unknown said...

Or "Looney Toons"?

I've never equated animation with Disney, and so don't have this "all animated films are musicals... no wait a minute... no they're not" thing. My favorite feature length animations almost all non-musical, just as most of my favorite live action movies are not musicals. I think there is a reason for that. While I appreciate a well done musical number (Bare Necessities, for example), musical sequences that are not integral to the plot slow down the action and development.

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