Monday, February 17, 2014

The 6 Elements of the Winning Disney Formula

Original Little Mermaid poster
Ok, I'll say it. Frozen is the best Disney musical since Hercules. And it's not just for the plot, though I love that. It's because of the music. I have been contemplating this for weeks, trying to understand why the music in this movie was so refreshing. At first I thought it was because Frozen finally brought in a new songwriting team (I love composer Alan Menken, but Tangled felt mechanical, and his heart did not seem to be in it). I realized it's really that Frozen had returned to the lost Disney musical structure, which was used for the awesome "2nd generation" Disney movies. I am referring to the late '80s-'90s when the Disney animation studio was inches away from being shut down completely but was saved by a resurgence of animated musicals, including the Menken/Howard Ashman ones: The Little MermaidBeauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. These all followed a very similar song pattern, which, until Frozen, had been largely abandoned by Disney movie-makers as of the 21st century. Below is the breakdown of what types of songs make a winning Disney movie.

  1. Opening song or narration- In the same way that overtures at the beginning of musicals are becoming few and far between, the opening song/narration in Disney movies is a dying art, as you can see (note: I believe the only reason Enchanted had one was because it was primarily a caricature of previous Disney movies). I've always appreciated opening songs, because they set the scene and give me a basis to start from, telling me what to expect. The openers are usually sung by external, undeveloped characters. I'm not totally sure why this is, but it's another pattern.
    • Frozen: (2013) "Frozen Heart"
    • The Little Mermaid: (1989) "Fathoms Below"
    • Beauty and the Beast: (1991) "Prologue"
    • Newsies: (1992, not animated) "Prologue"
    • Aladdin: (1992) "Arabian Nights"
    • Lion King: (1994) "Circle of Life"
    • Hercules: (1997) "The Gospel Truth I"
    • Enchanted: (2007, half-animated) "True Love's Kiss"
  2. Everyday life song- It usually comes right after the introductory song. Whereas the opening sets the scene for the plot as a whole, this one hones in more specifically on the home/direct surroundings of the main character(s) without really going into their character.
    • Frozen: "Do you wanna build a snowman?"
    • The Little Mermaid: "Daughters of Triton"
    • Beauty and the Beast: "Belle"
    • Newsies: "Carrying the Banner"
    • Aladdin: "One Jump Ahead"
    • Lion King: "Morning Report" (this was added for the stage version, so it was not technically in the movie)
    • Hercules: ------
    • BONUS* Anastasia: (1997) "Rumor in St. Petersburg"
    • Enchanted: "Happy Working Song" (I'm not totally sold on this one)
  3. Angst/"I want more" song- This is probably the one of which I am the most picky, because it is the most important. This song focuses in on the main character's struggles specifically, and it is one of the first songs, after the audience has seen the big picture. This is when the audience sees that this character has a deep need that absolutely must met, or s/he may actually die. Thus, the tune is crucial. The most effective angst songs have a tune that is thoughtful, serious, and more often than not, slow. This is to fit the tone, which is yearning bordering on despair. 
    • Frozen: "Let it Go"
    • The Little Mermaid: "Part of Your World"
    • Beauty and the Beast: "Belle (Reprise)"
    • Newsies: "Santa Fe"
    • Aladdin: "One Jump Ahead (Reprise)"
    • Lion King: -----
    • Hercules: "Go the Distance"
    • Anastasia: "Journey to the Past"
    • Enchanted: -----
    • Tangled: ----- (Some may argue that "When Will My Life Begin?" from Tangled should be on this list, but I disagree on the grounds that the tune is way too upbeat. And even the lyrics do not fully convey the tone either. From the lyrics, I have never gotten the impression that Rapunzel absolutely needs to be free, but just that she would prefer to experience freedom sometime) 
  4. Friend/mentor solution song- There is always a friend/sidekick/mentor who gets the spotlight for a moment to encourage the main character and take the pressure off, reassuring them that they're not alone. It is usually very up-beat and fairly introductory, but the lyrics are more important than the tune in this case, because the tone can be either inspiring or funny and lighthearted. 
    • Frozen: "Fixer Upper"
    • The Little Mermaid: "Under the Sea"
    • Beauty and the Beast: "Be Our Guest"
    • Newsies: "Seize the Day" / "King of New York"
    • Aladdin: "Friend Like Me"
    • Lion King: "Hakuna Matata"
    • Hercules: "One Last Hope"
    • Anastasia: "Learn to do It"
    • Enchanted: -----
  5. Love song- This is obviously sung between the main character and his/her love interest towards the end of the movie. At the conclusion of this perfectly romantic song, it appears that the finale will be in the next scene. Inevitably, of course, something comes up that almost foils their lives forever. Spoiler: They're ok in the end.
    • Frozen: "Love is an Open Door"
    • The Little Mermaid: "Kiss the Girl"
    • Beauty and the Beast: "Beauty and the Beast"
    • Newsies: ----- (while there is a love interest, she's actually a pretty small character, and they don't get to sing a song together. Though, they do have that romantic scene on the roof. Few things say "romance" like a clothesline full of shirts)
    • Aladdin: "A Whole New World"
    • Lion King: "Can You Feel the Love Tonight"
    • Hercules: "I Won't Say I'm in Love"
    • Anastasia: "Learn to do It (Reprise)" 
    • Enchanted: "That's How You Know" / "So Close"
  6. Finale- This one is also a dying art and has mostly been replaced by instrumental tracks leading into the credits song. But it's one of my favorite elements, because just as the opening song set the scene, the finale brings closure. Most of these finales (which were short-lived) were primarily instrumental with only a few bars of actual singing, usually by a swelling chorus, but the fact that it was there completed the show.
    • Frozen: -----
    • The Little Mermaid: "Happy Ending"
    • Beauty and the Beast: "Transformation"
    • Newsies: "The World Will Know (Reprise)"/ "Carrying the Banner (Finale)"
    • Aladdin: "A Whole New World (Reprise)"
    • Lion King: "King of Pride Rock"
    • Hercules: "A Star is Born"
    • Anastasia: -----
    • Enchanted: -----
I was conflicted about a few of these, so what do you think?

Sally Henry // Twitter: // Facebook:

*Though Anastasia actually utilized some of these elements, it was 20th Century Fox, not Disney.


  1. ROBIN HOOD! Though I have not sat down and gone through all six elements, I am fairly certain Robin Hood meets all these criteria as well.

  2. (And now I must listen to "Can You Feel the Love Tonight." ... Multiple times)

  3. Good point! Yeah, I didn't go into the older, "1st generation" Disney musicals at all.

    I must say, there's never a bad time to listen to "Can You Feel the Love Tonight," so I totally approve.

  4. hmmm I don't know about Frozen still. The fact that Elsa has the angst song instead of Ana is probably what confused me in the film because you think Elsa's gonna be the main character, but then Ana is. Could "For the First Time in Forever" qualify as angsty? And if "Let it Go" is the angst number then it's out of order with the love song. RAINING ON YOUR PARADE!!! ;)

  5. Yeah, I can definitely see that. But again, I think that "For the First Time in Forever" is like "When Will my Life Begin?" in that it's just too upbeat and does not have that yearning angst it would need. Frozen is definitely different since it features two girls, so in some ways it's harder to categorize for some of these Disney formula elements.

  6. Guys and Dolls: 1) Fugue for Tinhorns 2) Follow the Fold, Bushel and a Peck, and Guys and Dolls, 3) Oldest Established, 4) More I Cannot Wish You, 5) I've Never Been In Love Before, 6) Guys and Dolls Reprise. Number 5 comes before 4 in this case. Musicals that follow this formula touch all the bases and make the music integral to the plot.

  7. So true! The Disney formula is clearly very rooted in Broadway musicals.

  8. Very true! Many people assume it is because it's a cartoon musical, but as I indicated with the asterisk, Anastasia was 20th Century Fox's attempt to compete with Disney at their game. Interestingly, Anastasia featured the voice talents of Jim Cummings (whose voice has been in just about every Disney movie ever) and Liz Callaway, who have both been Disney voices as well. Thanks for the input!

    1. i apologise for the bluntness of my statement (i just noticed how harsh it sounds). i know it is a common mistake and did not see the astrisk. thank you for replying to my comment

  9. A growing category seems to be the Villian Song (at least in the way of Disney). I doesn't exist in all the movies and certainly not in the ones prior to the Disney Renaissance, but below there's already quite the list:

    Little Mermaid: "Poor Unfortunate Souls"
    Beauty and the Beast: "Gaston"
    Newsies: none (probably because a song would have not been in character)
    Aladdin: "One Jump Ahead" (reprise)
    Lion King: "Be Prepared"
    Hercules: None (probably because Hades himself didn't like the Fates' 'verse' so it wouldn't make sense for him to sing)
    Anastasia: "In the Dark of the Night"
    Enchanted: none (that I know of)
    Frozen: The interesting thing about this one is that the song writers deliberately toyed with the formula on this one. The song "Love is an Open Door" was both the Love song AND the villain song. The lyrics naturally sound like a song about love, but if you listen to it from Prince Han's point of view, he's using love as an open door to gaining his down kingdom.

  10. I think "I just cannot wait to be king" is the I want more song for the Lion King - I know it plays with it because Simba kind of has everything but then loses it - but it is still his goal at that point.

  11. Do you think there is a love song in Moana? Seeing as she has no love interest...

  12. Which would you say are these songs for Moana? I would say
    1. Tulou Tagaloa
    2. Where you are
    3. How Far I'll Go
    4. You're Welcome
    5. None
    6. We Know the Way.

    What do you think?