Nov 20 2013 12:00pm

Frozen Breaks the Ice: The Decline, Fall, and Rebirth of the Disney Musical

In the 1980s, Disney’s imagination was growing stale. During the era of Walt himself, classics such as Cinderella, Pinocchio, and Peter Pan had made Disney the most respected animation company in the world. But its newer movies—titles such as The Great Mouse Detective and Oliver and Company—seemed to lack the timeless magic of those earlier ones. The company’s theme parks, though profitable, relied heavily on aging characters. And while Disney was still a brand to be reckoned with, it needed to do some serious wishing-upon-a-star when it came to new content.

The return to glory began under the sea. In 1989, The Little Mermaid splashed into the mainstream, and not just because of its dazzling underwater animation. Nearly every Disney movie had included a trademark song or two, but The Little Mermaid was a full-on musical, complete with calypso ensembles and a touching teenage solos. The soundtrack went on to win two Academy Awards: one for Best Score and one for Best Song, with two of its songs competing against each other (“Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl.”) So began the era of the Disney musical.

The enchantment continued with 1991’s Beauty and the Beast, Disney’s most beautifully-animated film yet. Not only did the movie earn the same two Oscars as The Little Mermaid, it made twice as much money and became the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture. (It lost to The Silence of the Lambs.) In 1992, Aladdin did even better at the box office and again won the Oscars for Best Song and Best Score. Observers began to wonder if Disney might just have a magic lamp up its sleeve after all.

But the coup de grace was 1994’s The Lion King, a Shakespearean drama set in the heart of the African pridelands. Not only did Elton John’s soulful score win two Oscars (this time with three songs competing against each other for Best Song), the movie inspired a hugely-successful Broadway show, won the Golden Globe for Best Picture (Musical/Comedy), and remains the highest-grossing traditionally-animated film ever made. If there had been any lingering doubt, Disney was now the undisputed king of the jungle.

But like a brilliant firework that fades and disappears, Disney’s comeback was short-lived. The next four animated films (Pocohontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, and Mulan) each made a smaller splash at the box office, and none of them nabbed a coveted golden statue. Insiders whispered that the glory days were over; high-ranking Disney creatives began to jump ship. By the time Tarzan hit theaters in 1999, the landscape at Disney had totally changed, and despite an Oscar win for Phil Collins’ score, Tarzan marked the end of Disney’s musical years. (They tried once more, with Home on the Range, and failed abysmally.)

Toy Story

Meanwhile, an animation revolution was taking place just outside of San Francisco. Pixar Animation Studios, whose hit film Toy Story had launched computer graphics into the mainstream, quickly came to replace Disney as the world’s top animation company. The studio’s hit movies such as Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles made Pixar known for the very things that once defined Disney: great stories, lovable characters, and dazzling, colorful animation. But these movies notably did not include musical numbers. As other companies began imitating the Pixar model (one of those imitators being Disney itself, who soon claimed traditional animation was dead), music disappeared off the map entirely.

By 2006, you might have guessed the animated musical was dead. But that year, Disney’s new CEO Bob Iger announced that Disney (which distributed Pixar’s films) was going to buy Pixar outright. It was a huge hullaballo: not only was he buying Pixar’s movie franchises, he was also buying its creative leadership, who would now double as the heads of Disney Animation. In essence, Bob Iger spent $7.4 billion dollars to buy back Disney’s mojo and pave the way for his animation department’s gradual return to glory.

And within a few years, Disney got its groove back. In 2009, The Princess and the Frog marked the return of traditional animation and of musical numbers; the movie wasn’t quite up to the standard of the early 90s, but it still received widespread praise. In 2011, the CG movie Tangled became Disney’s most successful film since The Lion King, and in 2012, Wreck-It-Ralph proved that Disney could develop great stories that didn’t star princes and princesses. Even though Pixar movies were still much more popular (almost every new attraction at the theme parks these days is Pixar-themed), Disney was once again back in the game.

But there was still one thing that no company had yet done: produce an original, computer-animated musical in the style of those 1990s classics. (Tangled was a musical, but its unconventional folk rock score made it more of an experiment than a return to Disney’s roots.) As a rule, Pixar still mostly avoided musical numbers, and the closest any other company had come was Animal Logic with its jukebox-style Happy Feet. If Disney had a destiny, it would have to be bringing together the heart-lifting song-and-dance of the 90s with the computer animation techniques of the post-Pixar era. Sooner or later, the day would come. The only question was when.

Which brings us to Thanksgiving 2013, and the release of Disney’s Frozen. Frozen is the story of two princesses, one of whom has the power to turn things to snow and ice. When Elsa (the magical one) accidentally freezes the entire kingdom, it’s up to Anna to embark on a magical quest to find her sister and save the land from an eternal winter. In short, this is a classic Disney story, rendered with gorgeous Pixar-style computer animation, and filled with Disney-style music harking back to the 1990s.

In a way, Frozen is history come full circle: like The Little Mermaid, the story is based on a tale by Hans Christian Andersen (“The Snow Queen.”) Like The Little Mermaid, Walt Disney himself considered animating the story back in 1943. Like the earlier film, Frozen is a bold new musical with a watery-theme, hitting theaters after what many would call a dark period for Disney. And just like in 1989, the movie has a lot riding on it.

It remains to be seen if Frozen is any good—not to mention whether its heroines are positive role models for little girls, a topic which has darkened the legacy of many of Disney’s princess movies. But the fact that this musical is happening at all is hugely exciting for Disney fans. If it succeeds, Frozen could usher in a new wave of musicals just as The Little Mermaid did in 1989. Like all things Hollywood, it depends on the box office—but with so much at stake for Disney, you can bet that the powers-that-be have been careful to get this fairy tale not too cold and not too hot, but just right.

Personally, I know where I’ll be on Thanksgiving: center seat, center aisle, wearing the 3D glasses. Which is saying a lot given that I’m in my mid-thirties and my daughter’s still too small to go to the movies. There are many kinds of Story World out there—worlds of fantasy, worlds of sci-fi, worlds of animation—but as kids have been learning since 1989, there’s nothing quite as magical as singing your way through a Disney movie.

Brad Kane writes for and about the entertainment industry, focusing on storytelling in movies, TV, games, and more. If you enjoyed this article, you can follow him on Twitter, like Story Worlds on Facebook, or check out his website which archives the Story Worlds series.

1. RobWillB
"But there was still one thing that no company had yet done: produce an original, computer-animated musical."

But, wasn't TANGLED the first original, computer-animated musical?
Brad Kane
2. bradkane
Editorial mea culpa: Frozen is indeed the second 3D Disney Musical, following on the heels of Tangled. Both Glen Keane and Alan Menken (key to The Little Mermaid) were involved in that film, and that's the one that got the ball rolling again.

Luckily, Frozen has even better early reviews than Tangled had, so Disney does seem to once again be on the rise with the musical genre. Of course, we'll know for certain next week!
4. shellywb
You know, even the 4 year old me back in the 60s knew that Sleeping Beauty wasn't meant to be a role model. She was a fairy tale princess, and as such had nothing to do with real life. My parents and older brother were my role model. Give us little girls some credit (and maybe point out to parents that no matter what movies they plop their kids in front of, at the end of the day the way they act is far more important in shaping us).
Jenny Thrash
5. Sihaya
Unconventional folk rock style? Broadway sing-along musicals include plenty of folk rock. High schools produce Hair. You could say The Lion King doesn't count as a classic Disney musical, either, with all its Elton John rock hits (and the strangeness of hiring John was ballyhoo'd alot at the time), but it most certainly does. To me, Frozen might show us if Tangled is a one-off or not, but Tangled is definitely a lively iteration of the Disney formula.
Kelly Quinn
6. KellyQ
Alan Menken did the music for Tangled, which I think qualifies it as a full-on Disney musical - he did, after all, win most of those Oscars from the 90s Disney Renaissance era!
7. Doug M.
Man, there's never any love for Lilo and Stitch. That was a flat-out wonderful movie, and it had *Elvis songs* as musical numbers.

Doug M.
Jenny Thrash
8. Sihaya
@8 Doug - LOVE Lilo. But don't forget its most famous original tune. "He Mele No Lilo" has become a standard song for many hula troupes.
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
9. Lisamarie
This article made me squee, as the first movie I really remember being excited about as a young child was The Little Mermaid. I LOVE me some Disney musicals, and was always quite sad that they seemed to be fading away . My parents also did a good job of gifting me with the 'classics' - Sleeping Beauty is a favorite of mine from that era. I did enjoy the other movies as well (especially Hunchback) but I think the last 'current' Disney movie I saw in the theater was Atlantis (definitely NOT a musical, although has some other good points), and I also saw Lilo and Stitch (also delightful) in college when they did a movie night. But, after that, I really never kept up to date with newer Disney movies (although I'm trying to search out some of the ones I missed for completness's sake - we have almost the entire animated canon at home). Tangled (which I do consider a musical) - once I finally bought the DVD and saw it - pretty much immediately skyrocketed to one of my all time favorite movies lists. I consider I See the Light one of the greatest Disney songs of all time - it honestly chokes me up a bit, heh.

So, I am super excited to hear that they are going to continue down this path. Maybe I'll go see this instead of the Hobbit ;) Generally my family only ever sees one movie in the theater.

As for the much maligned Disney Princesses - I think there are some fair criticisms of the merchandising aspects (especailly the overly sexualized way in which they are drawn) and certainly should not be considered a complete view of womanhood or the only correct way to be a woman - but I do weary a bit of them being called BAD role models. Actually Cinderella is one of my son's favorite movies, and if he can pick up some of the gentleness and good humor that character shows amidsts his love of other rowdy movies...I'll be pretty pleased! And I had a similar experience as shellywb at 4, I never really thought they were supposed to be direct role models, even as a child, and my parents provided me with a lot of well rounded influences.

I have talked to others who did feel that their exposure to Disney princesses had a negative influence on their lives growing up and the kinds of expectations they put on them, so I won't discount that it's there, or that there isn't meaningful discussion to be had on the topic.
Kerly Luige
10. Celebrinnen
"The next four animated films (Pocohontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, and Mulan) each made a smaller splash at the box office, and none of them nabbed a coveted golden statue."

Errr, but "Colors of the Wind" DID win the Oscar for Best Original Song in 1995, as far as I know.

Sidenote: agree with Lisamarie, "I See the Light" is very, very good, although not my very favourite Disney song :)
11. Frank Novotny
"The next four animated films (Pocohontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, and Mulan) each made a smaller splash at the box office, and none of them nabbed a coveted golden statue."

Pocahontas one 2 academy awards for Best Song - Colours of the Wind and the Score.

Colours of the Wind in fact won a golden globe and grammy award too...
Jenny Thrash
12. Sihaya
I think I would like to see a survey with two questions: How old are you? What year did Disney movies start to decline? I think we'd see an age related correlation, rather than one that tracks to box offices, awards, the death of Walt, etc.
13. Emmeline
Frozen was good. People say it's supposed to be more traditional Disney, hearkening back to the glory days. But I think at the heart, Tangled follows the romantic recipe that a lot of girls love about princess stories (an upright girl who may stumble here & there, but then she gets her prince). It's romantic love song, "I See the Light" is worthy of listening to & makes sense being played at wedding receptions, perhaps even more appropriately than the theme from my fave Disney movie "Beauty & the Beast". Who wants to describe their groom as a beast? Tangled had moments that choked me up & made me wonder which Disney movie was my fave of all time: Tangled or Beauty & the Beast?
So about Frozen...I give Disney credit for going free & big, but I still like Tangled. It might be a smaller, quainter film, but I feel it is more complete, as in less loose ends. Wow, my post was all about Tangled! haha
...So, let me get back to Frozen...cute sisters, nice character development, sometimes random (the snowman reminded me of my faves Bob Hope & Bing Crosby, I guess they need the comedic relief, so that the kids don't cry), I love the sister love, good for my 2 daughters to see. Good lesson: be careful of sweet talking fast movers, way to not make the villain super-obvious. Nice dynamic music. I kept on looking for Alan Menken's name even after seeing Christophe Beck's...hmm, I wonder did they name the character after the composer?
...About Brave, sorry. LOTS of potential, but completely missed the mark. I can't help but feel that Disney was in a hurry when they made that one, like they just ran out of time & couldn't finish creating it .
15. Nancy_M
So, many months after the release, post-Oscar wins, and all the hoopla, I have to state that, at least for me, Tangled is the stronger movie, both the music and plot. I'm just about ready to mad-slap the next person who breaks into "Let It Go". The music in Frozen is much more pop-style Broadway than classical musical theater Broadway. Tangled has that amazing henchmen song "I've Got a Dream" with full male chorus/kickline action going on. I don't think we learned enough about the Elsa and Anna to care about them before all the mayhem started. In Tangled, the sceen where the king and queen are preparing to go out to launch the lantern one more time made me cry (and I don't cry in movies). Although I own both movies, I watch Tangled more.

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