I’m on the countdown to my holiday – well, belated honeymoon – to Walt Disney World and thus everything else has disappeared from my mind. Actually, that’s not at all true. I still intend to blog about a whole host of things since I’ve made a little progress on the Grown Up Monster Book and there are some exciting things happening in the world world of social media.
But, in the meantime, forgive me if pick a different thing every day for ten days that I love about Disney. It’ll take my mind off how much I freakin’ hate flying, to use some US terminology that seems appropriate.
So, day one, obviously: Alan Menken and Howard Ashman.
When I was a child, The Aristocats was my favourite film. It’s still one of my favourite films; I was walking down Shaftesbury Avenue the other day with Ashley and could be overheard explaining “no, it’s Abraham DeLacey…”. Still, despite that fondness and regular viewings of Snow White, 101 Dalmatians and The Fox and the Hound, I was still a middling fan of the films in my early youth. From my first visits at four and five years old, I was a major obsessive when it came to the parks but the films were a bit hit and miss for my liking.
And then there was The Little Mermaid. As it transpired in later life I would go on to love some of Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman’s other work – namely Little Shop of Horrors – too. But somehow, coupled with a new Disney zeal for making not just pretty and child-friendly but once again groundbreaking animation (though in fairness I didn’t realise that as a nine-year-old), it made me into a Mouse evangelist overnight.
The Little Mermaid marked a post-Oliver and Company new dawn of Disney animation. The films became more complex and adult-friendly. They took on the feel of Broadway musicals again in a way that seemed to have been lost after complete joy that is The Jungle Book and the heyday of the simply magical Sherman brothers. The journey that would lead to the adoption of Pixar and animated movies that are now just good films that also raise the bar for hand-drawn and digital artistry had begun.
The music was a huge part of that. My friend Lizzie and I, giggling pre-teens, would sing the songs from The Little Mermaid all day long if we had the chance. She’s now throwing a Little Mermaid-themed hen do for another friend, and it’s definitely the theme of the film, not just the story. The lyrics were witty, the tunes relentlessly hummable and, occasionally, heartbreaking. At university, I attended an audition for a musical to support a friend and the first thing she pounced on in the whole list of possible audition songs was Part of Your World.
Things actually improved from there, impossible as it seemed. Beauty and the Beast was an extraodinary achievement, and the music was a huge and very prominent part of that. The powerhouse continued on to Aladdin before Ashman finally succumbed to illness, leaving Menken to complete the music with famous Lloyd-Webber lyricist Tim Rice. Ashman was, to me, a huge loss. When I heard what had happened I found myself crying over a man I’d never met and didn’t know simply because I was so impressed by his work – surely the way an artist wants to be mourned? Despite Rice’s immense talent and Menken’s continuing brilliance, it’s all too easy to tell which songs were primarily Ashman’s work (A Friend Like Me, Arabian Nights) and which mostly Rice (A Whole New World, which leaves me rather cold).
Since then, Disney’s taken a typically inventive attitude to soundtracks, with a combination of using old favourites like Menken and partnerships with pop stars like Phil Collins (Tarzan). No matter how good, I don’t believe they’ll ever sound as good as the glory days to me, but with my DVDs at my disposal, what does that matter?