This weekend, we face the premiere of Gnomeo and Juliet. Do I need to explain this further? It appears to be an irreverent, Shrek-style animated spin on guess-which-play, starring garden gnomes. Fine. Leaving aside whether or not this movie looks like fun – I won’t pee on anyone’s parade over that – hasty research indicates that large parts of music in this Disney-subsidiary production will be provided by Elton Yawn. Oops…
Elton John is a tried and true rocker, no question. Unfortunately, getting into the Disney songwriting business did for his career what reality television did for Ozzy Osbourne – took the edge off, to put it lightly. He just doesn’t seem very cool anymore. The man known for his outrageous flair and hard-rocking piano comes off like a handsome Janet Reno these days, crooning rather bland hits for children’s entertainment. Come on, man. David Bowie still looks cool as a cat on stage, and so should you.
There was a time when family movies showed considerable effort to make each a unique and memorable piece of work. It all seems like mush out of the same barrel these days, and the practice of hiring pop stars to phone in “original” songs is helping not a bit. Perhaps if the surviving members of Thin Lizzy were to record “Gnomeo and the Lonely Girl,” I might…
No. Terrible idea.
This week, Julia Rhodes and I (Dan Fields) recall a bygone era, when entertainment for kids – specifically the musical accompaniment – got as much attention and thought as anything produced for an adult audience. It’s not meant strictly to pick on Elton John, but he seems an appropriate figurehead for the rather bland trends in children’s movie music today. This is not your typical twentysomething anti-Disney rant. It is a cry of nostalgic woe, and includes a number of selections from pre-downhill-slide Disney. Please enjoy, and remember some songs you might like to track down and show your own kids.
“Movin’ Right Along” from The Muppet Movie (1979), music by Paul williams and Kenny Ascher, performed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz
Sat on a log with his little banjo, Kermit the Frog will be best remembered by generations beyond for singing the sad and wistful “Rainbow Connection” at the beginning of The Muppet Movie. It is indeed a profoundly enchanting movie moment, but let us not forget that the film (as well as its successors) is a full-length musical with one charming number after another. “Rainbow” tends to eclipse them, but there is hardly a bad song in any of the Muppet shows or films (even after the shows and films began to get tired).
For more background on the Muppets, please consult your local television screen. To set up this particular song, recall that the movie opens with Kermit the Frog entertaining notions of moving to Hollywood and becoming a movie star. The first stop on his outrageously funny and cameo-riddled journey is a run-down dive where Fozzie Bear is working as an unsuccessful comedian. After Kermit rescues Fozzie from a hostile audience, the bear decides to join the frog and go west… in a Studebaker.
To put it simply, “Movin’ Right Along” is their tribute to seeing the world and getting hopelessly lost in the process. What better way to make fast friends?
“Jolly Holiday” from Mary Poppins (1964), music by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman, performed by Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews
Let me be clear. Dick Van Dyke’s perenially maligned Cockney accent sounds just as bad to me as it does to the rest of the world. Nonetheless, I don’t care. He plays his role in Disney’s Mary Poppins with such charm and comic aplomb that I could not imagine any other actor doing it. Even though his East End patter is more of a quasi-Australian travesty. There. Moving on…
The music of Mary Poppins is undoubtedly the finest work of the Sherman brothers, who composed for numerous Disney projects. Every song is memorable, and impeccably delivered by a fine cast. Yes, I really love this movie, and will now settle down about it. The best sequence, in my humble estimation, is the first of several magical journeys on which the mysterious Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews) embarks with her two young charges, Jane and Michael. Leaving aside the conceit that any English lady of the Edwardian period would freely associate with street people, we soon learn that her closest friend in London is Bert (Van Dyke), a chalk artist and sidewalk musician. When Mary and Bert decide to stroll through one of his drawings, they find themselves in a splendidly animated version of the English countryside. Bert croons her a silly song. They dance. Penguins arrive. They serve tea, dance, and continue to sing about how great Mary Poppins is. There’s really nothing more to say.
“Little Black Raincloud” from Winnie The Pooh And The Honey Tree (1966), music by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman, performed by Sterling Holloway and Bruce Reitherman
Close on the heels of Mary Poppins, here is another Sherman brothers composition for Disney. Their Winnie the Pooh movies were always a lot of fun, capturing the warmth and understated humor of A. A. Milne’s stories very nicely. The adventures of Winnie the Pooh and his pals often spun off into cute musical numbers dealing with subjects as diverse as rainstorms, Tiggers, and Heffalumps, as the plot might dictate. The unique charm of these stories also had to do with a fine voice cast, featuring narration by Sebastian Cabot and character work by radio veterans like Sterling Holloway and Junius Matthews.
One tale involves Pooh’s attempt to infiltrate a tree full of bees in order to secure a lifetime supply of his precious honey. Disguising himself with mud, he borrows a balloon from young Christopher Robin and tries to put the bees off their guard by passing himself off as a “little black rain cloud.” He even weaves a little song about his ruse. Sterling Holloway’s odd, unmistakable voice for Pooh is still one of the best cast parts in animation. Needless to say, the poorly thought out deception ends badly for the little bear, but it’s a delight to watch him try.
“We Don’t Have Any Paté de Foie Gras!” from The Wind In The Willows (1987), music by Jules Bass and Muray Laws, performed by Roddy McDowall and Eddie Bracken
Hopefully, this rare treasure of children’s entertainment will find its way back to circulation soon. This is not generally regarded as the definitive adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s beloved book. That distinction goes to the admittedly excellent 1983 version by Cosgrove Hall (the British firm who brought us Danger Mouse and my one of my very favorite cartoons, Count Duckula). That one is a lovely stop-motion piece, featuring David Jason of Only Fools And Horses as Mr. Toad, and doubtless a direct inspiration of Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. The animation of the 1987 Rankin/Bass film is drawn, not sculpted, and beautifully so. The rich atmosphere and wonderfully rendered characters make it an equally fitting tribute to the story book which inspired it.
Mr. Toad of Toad Hall is always getting into trouble with his passion for speedboats and sports cars. His woodland neighbors Rat, Mole, and Badger find themselves continually put upon to help him out of a jam. The result is a magnificent musical fable of friendship and loyalty, set against the constantly changing seasons of life. Charles Nelson Reilly (yes, really!) is a suitably brash Mr. Toad, with character players like Roddy McDowall and Jose Ferrer giving voice to his more sensible friend. Of the many great songs in this movie, the one that stands out best in childhood memory is a lament by Rat and Mole over Toad’s lack of preparation for a camping trip. Not only do the discover that “We Don’t Have Any Paté de Foie Gras,” they find the cupboard completely bare, and choose to dance about bewailing the fact before berating their ungracious host for not feeding them. I learned the names of lots of fancy food from this song. For those who know this movie, the scene will no doubt bring years past rushing back.
“Calculatus Eliminatus” from The Cat In The Hat (1971), music by Dean Elliott, lyrics by Dr. Seuss, performed by Allan Sherman
Long before Hollywood began attacking us with Jim Carrey as the Grinch (gahh!) and Mike Meyers as the Cat In The Hat (GAACK!), a faithful troupe of geniuses put these and other Dr. Seuss favorites to music as animated television specials. Chuck Jones (where is the Nobel Prize for the the man who created Roadrunner cartoons?) handled the animation. He also produced the classic “Grinch” special. In the case of The Cat In The Hat, the prestigious firm of Freleng and DePatie (each a longtime producer for Looney Tunes) took the helm and left Jones to the magic of his drawing board.
Freely adapted from the Dr. Seuss original, the show expands the witty afternoon caper into a full-blown song and dance adventure, in search of nonsensical items on a rainy afternoon. Allan Sherman, pre-eminent among song parodists until “Weird” Al Yankovic rose to glory, provides the voice of the eponymous cat who appears, Poppins-like, to enliven the dreary existence of two unsuspecting kids. Master voice actor Daws Butler appears as the suspicious family goldfish. Enough said, really.
“One Jump Ahead” from Aladdin (1992), music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Tim Rice, performed by Brad Kane
Aladdin has gotten some serious criticism for its complete lack of cultural sensitivity. It’s certainly not the most P.C. of flicks, but it’s still totally enchanting. I danced around my bedroom with my little sister for hours to this soundtrack, and it is still that good.
“One Jump Ahead” reaches out to the audience and asks us to tango. It presents us with the movie’s deliberately exotic setting (and the cause of all that criticism): in his capering escape Aladdin uses to his advantage a sword swallower, a man walking on coals, and a snake charmer. Our oppressed, broke, eminently lovable protagonist Aladdin doesn’t let the Man (or a bunch of huge be-turbaned dudes with broadswords) get him down. It’s ridiculous–the carpet doesn’t actually fly until later in the film, and few would survive that fall unscathed–but hey, it’s a cartoon and that’s what they’re for, right?
“A Whole New World” got all the love from this movie, but damn if it hasn’t been massively overplayed. Let’s have someone cover “One Jump Ahead,” yeah? The Bieb, perhaps?
“I Want It Now!” from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), music & lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, performed by Julie Dawn Cole
Roald Dahl’s novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory pulls double-duty as an incredibly imaginative fable and a cautionary tale. The 1971 version of the film, starring Gene Wilder as the reclusive and bizarre Wonka, managed to distill the material into a sometimes-psychedelic Technicolor classic. In fact, is there anyone who hasn’t seen Willy Wonka? Didn’t think so.
Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum) and Grandpa Joe are the only truly virtuous characters in the film. Everyone else is a complete jerk. Think about it: the seven deadly sins are represented here with the exception of lust and wrath (and it is, you know, a kids’ movie). We have sloth (Mike Teevee), gluttony (Augustus Gloop), pride (Violet Beauregard), envy (Slugworth), and my favorite, greed.
Veruca Salt (Julie Dawn Cole) is a spoiled brat who, well, wants it all. Her father’s an enabler. The Oompa-Loompas sing it best. Her number is downright brilliant: her previously obnoxious behavior escalates to unbearable levels even after she decides to tone it down a bit in the middle. My mother used to say you catch more flies with honey than vinegar, and the terrifying little beast is already learning the rules…though not always following them. She gets hers, the little orange guys sing and dance about it, and don’t forget, kiddies: all bad eggs go down the chute. Finally, doesn’t Cole look like she’s having a blast destroying the sets?
“Drive Away” from Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004), music by Thomas Newman
Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is a forgettable movie, which is odd considering its cast includes Jim Carrey, Meryl Streep, Timothy Spall, Dustin Hoffman, and Billy Connolly. Composer Thomas Newman (brother of that other great kids’ movie musician Randy Newman) has made some of the most recognizable film scores in the last two decades (The Shawshank Redemption and American Beauty are among them). Newman didn’t drop the ball on the Lemony Snicket score. It’s melodic, soft, lilting, and tonally lovely.
Part of the reason this song stuck with me, though, is the beautiful woodcut-style animation that accompanies the end credits (directed by Jamie Caliri). The music is inextricably linked to those visuals for me, and Newman does a brilliant job complementing the animation. Someone in the YouTube comments notes, “The whole movie should have been like this.” I think this anonymous internet opinionator is correct. Had the whole film looked as beautiful and slightly terrifying, I’d probably remember some of what happened.
“NeverEnding Story” from The NeverEnding Story (1982), performed by Limahl and Beth Anderson
Just look at Limahl. His haircut alone is enough to make this song a winner.
In all seriousness, “The NeverEnding Story” song is ridiculously catchy. The synth and keyboards are danceable, the electric guitar solo is rad (to use the Bill and Ted parlance of the era), and the drum machine bass keeps it all moving. The movie wouldn’t have been the same without a pop song to go along with it, and like “Cry Little Sister” from The Lost Boys, this iconic song is a brilliant addendum to an awesome movie.
“Baby Mine” from Dumbo (1941), music by Frank Churchill, lyrics by Ned Washington, performed by Betty Noyes
Horror movies are my true love, and the internet is aware of it. But here’s a secret: I cry at Disney movies. It doesn’t matter which ones, either. Those f*$%ers can awaken my tearducts like almost no one else. I almost cried in WALL*E. I definitely teared up at Toy Story 3. Don’t even get me started on The Lion King or Bambi.
Seriously, though, all it takes to turn me into a messy puddle of salinate goo is “Baby Mine” from Dumbo. Poor Dumbo’s mother went on a rampage to save her baby, and the circus locked her up in a car surrounded by bars and signs proclaiming her a “MAD ELEPHANT.” Dumbo visits her, but he can only get so close. The pachyderms’ prehensile trunks caress (that sounds kind of dirty, huh?), and she takes him into her trunk to rock him to sleep. As Mrs. Jumbo rocks her baby, the movie tours through the circus’s other mothers and babies, rendered in gorgeous watercolor animation. The zebras’ tails twitch while the giraffes rest their tiny little heads on bales of straw; the ostriches snore from their holes in the ground as hippos blow bubbles from beneath the water. Even the hyenas are adorable (only Disney can do this). It only serves to make us horribly aware of the bars between Dumbo and his mom.
Frank Churchill’s simple composition, heavy on emotional violin and vibrato vocals that were so common in the 30s and 40s, make it even more effective. The lyrics hardly even matter–it’s the voices and music that do it for me. Seriously, I’m tearing up writing this. Must now rewatch “NeverEnding Story,” because no one can look at the David Bowie mullet and be sad. No one.