Friday, December 11, 2009

Randy Newman is the Magic in Disney's return to animated musicals.

Disney released their last hand drawn animated feature, Home on the Range in April of 2004. With an estimated budget of 110 million, the film's run took in just a touch over 50 million in the U.S. and could only manage a dismal 26.5 million in foreign box-office. On the other end of the scale is Pixar's computer animated Finding Nemo (2003), with a box-office first run worldwide take of 865 million. Easy to see why hand drawn animation found its light extinguished at the Disney Animation Studios.

That is, until Disney acquired Pixar and got off its creatively spent tush.

Today Disney will release its proverbially long awaited and dramatically over-hyped return to hand drawn animation, in the tradition of its best rather than its last. That tradition, started with Snow White and cemented with classics from Cinderella to 101 Dalmatians, was once before reignited with the nearly perfect trio of Beauty and the Beast (in 1991), Aladdin (1992) and The Lion King (1994). It only charmed again briefly but recently in the Oscar nominated short The Matchgirl in 2006. Today the torch is passed to The Princess and the Frog.

As for the hype about return to traditions and the (mostly pointless) hoopla about the introduction of Disney's first "black" princess (who for most of the story is green), forget it. Here's what is most worthy of celebration - a return to the grand tradition of gorgeously animated Disney musicals. The best part? Disney has also returned to a tremendous musical talent to provide songs and score - Randy Newman.

In all of the variations of trailers that have preceded its release, and beautifully evident in a sampling of selections from its soundtrack, Mr. Newman, who spent childhood summers in New Orleans (the movie's setting), elegantly slips here into a custom fit. Having seeped his musical tastes in a good helping of jazz and zydeco, Randy Newman's melodies and arranging talent, used often by Pixar animation, finds a kind of perfect summit in this story set in deep blue, firefly studded bayous, dreamily tinted nostalgic New Orleans streets and fanciful, voodoo spiced swamp shacks. It's all a pleasure to look at and irresistible to the ear.

There's a taste of everything in the score. Jazz, dixieland, blues, zydeco and gospel, all get a spotlight and the songs are as fun and energetic as they are unforgettable. I challenge anyone with a touch of a ten year old in their heart to be able to shake off humming "Dig a Little Deeper" on the way out of the theater. Don't worry about where it comes in the movie, you'll smile to yourself the moment you hear the first refrain. Just let it wash over you and enjoy.

Congratulations to Disney on reasserting a strength that has so long laid forgotten. Congratulations to Mr. Lassiter on recognizing an art form that can be reenergized by simply nurturing great ideas and talents. And most of all, thanks to all of those involved for affording Mr. Newman yet another window for framing his spectacular talent. It is so happily preserved, along with so much before, as another piece of his growing legacy.

And just a note to Bob Iger - leave the talented guys alone and don't exploit this rediscovered treasure by mucking it up with heavy exploitation and mediocrity. We sincerely hope this will be only a once-every-few-years pleasure.

For those of you with a little bit of bandwith, we've included this production video courtesy of Disney Animation. Enjoy.

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