Thursday, July 17, 2014

Age of Musicals

Many are asking if animated musicals will dominate now that Disney has scored a massive gargantuan success with Frozen. I've gotten this question before too from a fellow reader or maybe two, and I think that animated musicals will indeed be a commonplace thing in the coming years… That is, if future musicals are done right.

Why did the animated musical format get sent packing anyway? Well, after the quadruple-punch of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King in the early 1990s, Disney kept making musicals. Nothing wrong with that, but perhaps not every animated film warranted songs to some people. I myself would've been content with something like Mulan not having songs, not to say its songs were bad ("Reflection" is alright, "I'll Make a Man Out of You" is catchy as hell), but take them out and you wouldn't necessarily hurt the film in my eyes. But that's all subjective.

It became cool to snipe at Disney, from what I know, after Pocahontas came out. That 1995 follow up to The Lion King upset many, whether it was because of its retelling of American history (it's totally okay if those "real people" live action movies are historically inaccurate) or its political correctness or its tonal issues. Some people had similar problems with The Hunchback of Notre Dame: The comedy and darker stuff didn't mesh, it was politically correct, it was a kiddified version of the original story, and so on and so forth. Hercules was an insult to the Greek myths, Mulan was PC and insulting, yadda yadda yadda.

I won't hesitate to admit that I feel a majority of the 90s Disney films have lots of issues, particularly some of the post-Lion King films. Audiences became tired of that specific kind of animated musical, and Disney kept reusing the same story formula that worked so well in Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast: Big Broadway songs (that usually consisted of the silly song, the ballad, the villain song, the "I Want" song, etc.), romance, big bad villain, epic battle at the end, silly sidekicks, etc.

Audiences, I think, didn't get tired of animated musicals. They just got tired of the same old story.

In 1995, Toy Story was the go-to animated feature. It wasn't like the others. John Lasseter and the crew had specific rules for it too (i.e. no "I Want" moments, no love story, no breaking out into song), not that Pixar's people collectively hated the animated musical, they just wanted to do something different for a change and not follow Disney. People flocked to see it because it was good and it was not like the current Disney films or the other contemporary animated films. Oddly enough, they haven't made a musical at all. I think it's high time they do so, but that's just me.

By the time the millennium rolled in, the animated musical was pretty much gone. Pixar had ushered in an era of animated films where characters didn't break out into song, and Shrek flipped the bird at the 90s Disney formula and brought in the snarky, pop culture joke-laden comedy formula that would later dominate. Disney themselves began veering away from musicals, so the focus was on trying new kinds of stories: No fairy tales or anything, either. Dinosaur, The Emperor's New Groove, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Lilo & Stitch and Treasure Planet were all pretty bold experiments from the studio, even if many of them were held back from being good films by the powers-that-be that were running Disney Feature Animation at the time.

The animated musical just seemed to be considered sort of pass√© in the last decade. Sure we had some success with a film like Enchanted, but most of the big offerings didn't have musical numbers. Disney's return to the full-blown musical since the 1990s, The Princess and the Frog, certainly had legs, showing that audiences indeed weren't dismissive of musicals. On the live action end, you had the success of something like Mamma Mia! Musicals in general just seemed to be pretty scarce throughout all of last decade. It wouldn't be until 2010's Tangled where we'd see an animated musical make boffo numbers at the box office, and that film's marketing completely hid the fact that it had characters singing!

Who would've known???

Basically, the lesson of that story is: Not every animated movie has to be a musical, and lower quality musicals (or musicals people happen to not like) won't do well. Disney didn't learn this back in the mid-1990s, and by the time they tried to venture into new territory, the animation studio was overrun by executives who butchered films that could've been very good. Dinosaur and Atlantis are real victims of this, along with Treasure Planet. It also didn't help that Disney's rivals were also doing musicals too! Don Bluth got backing from Fox's brand spanking new animation studio, only to make a Disney-esque film with Anastasia. (Though to his credit, Bluth usually did musicals.) Other films like Fox's FernGully, New Line's The Swan Princess, WB's Quest for Camelot and The King and I, didn't help.

So now we get to Disney Animation today, currently one of the few animation studios in America doing animated musicals. (Blue Sky has the two Rio films, and Illumination has The Lorax.) Tangled was successful, then Frozen came out and was twice as big. In between, not counting Winnie the Pooh which unfortunately barely anyone saw, we have the likes of Wreck-It Ralph and Big Hero 6. I praised Wreck-It Ralph early on for being more like Atlantis and Treasure Planet, a more experimental Disney animated film that stomps out the modern Disney "comfort zone". Disney isn't just about fairy tales, princesses, cute animal stories and musicals. Walt himself proved that with the films he made.

Disney is in a good state nowadays, they create classic-style musicals once in a while, but also give us different projects to go with them. With that, they'll have no problem with musicals. One every 3 or 4 years will satisfy audiences, and if the musicals in question are good (or if the ever-so-unpredictable audiences like them), the studio will be in fine shape. Tangled was released in 2010, Frozen was released last year, Giants comes out in 2016. That gives audiences plenty of room to breathe. In between those films, we get non-musicals like Wreck-It Ralph and Big Hero 6. Again, films that show that Disney Animation is more than just fairy tales and animal stories - we need more films like that from them. Zootopia (a unique kind of talking animals film, the concept is basically Robin Hood on steroids - a world where it's all animals instead of humans) most likely won't be a musical either, but we can't rule it out just yet, for Wreck-It Ralph almost had a musical number in it.

After Giants comes Moana, but if we go by the pattern that Blue Sky Disney presented, there will still be enough breathing room. Giants is apparently set to be the studio's fall 2016 release, with Moana following in spring 2018. One is a fairy tale, and one isn't. Again, plenty of time.

But here's the thing…

Other studios…

DreamWorks has had some musical projects lined up before Frozen became the blizzard that it was. As far back as 2010, both the untitled Bollywood musical and the Trolls film were in the works. However, we didn't know the Trolls film would be a musical until last year. Last summer, DreamWorks also announced an original musical titled Larrikins which is now slated for early 2018. Trolls opens in fall 2016, followed by the Bollywood musical in spring 2017, then Larrikins the year after. DreamWorks is probably getting geared up about musicals because of Frozen, because you know how it goes: Monkey see, monkey do. They want a piece of the pie!

Illumination Entertainment, as stated before, made The Lorax. They now have an untitled original musical scheduled for Christmas 2016. I also bet their animated Grinch film will also be a musical. Pretty soon, we could see Blue Sky, Warner Animation Group and Sony Animation tackle the genre as well. Even Pixar, who has avoided the musical like the plague, could be working on one as we speak! Brave was the closest thing they had to a musical, since there's a scene where a character sings a brief ditty. Pixar should do a musical, I think.

But when other studios jump into the game, will there be too many animated musicals? Will things get overwhelming?

My firm belief is that people never tire of a certain kind of film. I see writers constantly ask questions like: "When will the superhero movie bubble burst?" "Are there too many animated films? When will that bubble burst?" "When will the big budget blockbuster fizzle?"

I think people only tire of bad movies in a particular medium or genre. Audiences soured on animated musicals that didn't satisfy them, some of the films even outright annoyed them. (You know how many people whine about characters "bursting out into song"? You'd think it was a bad thing.) As for animated features… If there was an animated bubble waiting to burst, it would've bursted years ago. Animated features have consistently done well since 1986, there's no bubble. People will keep coming as long as most of them leave them all satisfied.

The same goes for superhero films. X-Men arguably kicked off this current age of superhero films we are going through, and we got a lot of crap between 2000 and now… Yet good superhero movies are thriving. Spider-Man grossed $403 million domestically back in 2002, in 2012 that adjusted to $553 million. The Avengers took in $623 million stateside that same year. Why is that? Because people are going to see good movies or ones they enjoy, whether they are superhero movies or not. The bad ones, like Green Lantern and such, are avoided.

As long as a majority of the upcoming musicals satisfy audiences, there should be no problem. Now I just wonder… Will the other studios make quality musicals that will satisfy audiences the way Tangled and Frozen have? If so, then we will be in a new age of animated musicals…


  1. I think Toy Story is kind of a musical. It's more musical than Brave. It has the intro song "You've got a friend in me", then "Strange Things" and finally "I will go sailing no more". John Lasseter just didn't want characters to sing. Toy Story is pretty much like Tarzan, which is a musical but without singing characters.
    Anyway, I don't think Pixar is ever going to make a musical. They have their own thing. But they have to make something new at some point.

  2. Bear in mind that unlike the 90s with its formulaic Disney and Disneyesque musicals, the "fractured fairy tale" movies of the 2000s weren't ALL that there was. After all, that decade also gave as film series that still continue (for better or worse) today, like Kung Fu Panda, Ice Age, and Madagascar. We may get more musicals in the future, but they won't dominate the way they did during the 1990s.