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Review of Music in Disney's Animated Features: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to The Jungle Book

By Lisa Scoggin
Bohn, James. Music in Disney's Animated Features: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to The Jungle Book. UP of Mississippi, 2017.

The Walt Disney Animation Studios are a curious mix of fact, legend, and myth. They are, by far, the best-known American animation studio in the world. The Walt Disney Company as a whole made over 55 billion dollars in revenue in 2018 and has theme parks showcasing their characters and movies in California, Florida, France, Japan, and China. For many members of the general public, Disney’s animated films, especially their pre-World War II features, embody the epitome of commercial American animation, with an emphasis on beauty and realism, the use of family-oriented plots and characters, and the inclusion of a considerable amount of music. 

This view has been perpetuated by the many publications put out by Disney Studios, which, while presenting a substantial amount of information, tend to provide a one-sided view of their work. As animation scholar Chris Pallant has noted in his book Demystifying Disney: A History of Disney Feature Animation, the corporation’s tight control of their archives (as well as strict control of their films and characters via copyright, at least in the United States) has made it more difficult for third parties to challenge the official view (iv). As such, truly independent texts considering Disney's works are in the minority, especially those that examine primary materials.

This is especially true when considering the music from Disney’s animated films. While the songs have been exceedingly popular over the years (consider, for example, “Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?”, which became an unofficial anthem of the Great Depression), and sheet music for them has been available since the 1930s, only recently have academic studies of Disney's music started to emerge into the mainstream to any degree. Only in the last few decades have presentations on Disney's music occurred at music and film conferences with any regularity, and work on music in animation is still considered to be a fringe topic in musicology circles, though more accepted within film music circles. Published academic work on the studio, such as that seen in portions of Daniel Goldmark's Tunes for 'Toons or in Daniel Batchelder's dissertation on the music in Disney animation from 1928 to 1942, remains rare. A few earlier examples, such as Ross Care's landmark article on the score for Bambi, are the exception. For this reason, new published works on the music of Disney animation (such as this one) are cause for excitement. 

And James Bohn does focus extremely heavily on the music, almost (but not quite entirely) to the exclusion of everything else. Bohn uses his access to the archival material—an advantage not to be taken for granted—to study several portions of scores from Disney’s animated films in depth. This allows him to create detailed cue sheets for the feature films described here, as well as to note much of the unused material and songs. He describes various leitmotifs (i.e. repeating musical themes that often are associated with something, be it characters, a location, or a more abstract idea) and analyzes melodies from the most prominent songs for each movie, often using the technical language of music theory to describe them, particularly in the first few chapters of the book. Indeed, I found the author's reassurances that those without knowledge of music theory should have no trouble understanding the book not to be the case. Consider, for example, the following excerpt describing “Some Day My Prince Will Come” from Snow White:

“Some Day My Prince Will Come” begins and ends on the fifth scale degree (Figure 3.4). The first sub-phrase is an elaboration of the submediant chord. This motif is transposed up a fourth to create the second sub-phrase, which elaborates the supertonic. The first half of the phrase is an arpeggiation to the dominant. The second half of the antecedent consists of a sub-phrase that alternates between root and third of the dominant chord (scale degrees five and seven), which is repeated. (69)

This language is typical of many of the analyses for the earlier films (through Cinderella) within this volume; thus, if you have trouble interpreting this excerpt, Bohn's book may not be for you. Later chapters are significantly less theoretical in nature, though that may be because many of the works get considerably less coverage and simply do not have the space for such descriptions.

The films covered span the course of Walt Disney's life, including Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Dumbo, Bambi, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, Sleeping Beauty, 101 Dalmatians, The Sword in the Stone, and The Jungle Book. Bohn chooses to leave out all the movies he describes as “package films” (7)—in other words, all of the films that consist of shorter segments, such as The Three Caballeros and Fantasia. The book actually starts, however, with several precursors to the features in the form of various Mickey Mouse shorts and Silly Symphonies. The two chapters on this material use a teleological approach, suggesting that, while these short films are generally better than other shorts of the time, their overall quality, particularly the quality of their musical scores, starts slowly and improves greatly as the years progress. Consider, for example, Bohn’s comments at the end of chapter 1:

In order to advance the art of animation synchronized with music, Disney would have to look beyond composers like Stalling and Lewis… The next two composers to join Disney, Frank Churchill and Leigh Harline (1907-1969), would play instrumental roles in elevating the music used in the Studios’ shorts… (28).

This leads us into the meat of the book, with chapters that include anywhere from one to three films: Snow White, Pinocchio, and Cinderella receive the deepest coverage; Lady and the Tramp, Sleeping Beauty, and 101 Dalmatians are all lumped within the same chapter; and the other films are paired within other chapters. Averaging just over 20 pages per chapter, it soon becomes apparent that some films are considered more fully than others. The portion on 101 Dalmatians, for instance, consists of only two pages. While certain songs are analyzed in depth, some are only touched upon for a paragraph or two—especially in later chapters—making for uneven coverage. Nevertheless, the author endeavors to cover each of the included songs, as well as many of the leitmotifs within, thereby offering an overarching view of the music as a whole. 

In addition to the analyses, Bohn regularly features several other aspects related to the films and especially their music, including sections on the reception of the films and music, the use of the music outside of the films (for example, as a jazz standard), and short biographies of the major composers for Disney's animated films over the period discussed. The bios are particularly useful, as they contain valuable background information on the composers, which often provides insight into their compositional styles. However, I am a bit confused as to why the author includes a discussion of extra-filmic uses of the music (such as the various jazz and pop covers of the songs), as it seems beyond the scope of his text. Aside from these sections, though, the material covered fits within the context.

Overall, while this book has much to recommend it—especially the mini biographies, the composer/cue sheets in the appendix, and the archival work—I have several issues. First, the book already feels dated due to its positivistic approach. Because it focuses so heavily on analysis of the music and little else, Bohn rarely mentions anything regarding cultural context. Only occasionally does he note aspects other than the music, such as the accompanying animation or any interpretation, especially in the earlier chapters. While a strict analysis of the music can be useful, delving deeper into the reasoning behind that music can be enlightening (and more interesting), and this is generally missing here.

Second, because the author has preconceived notions of what makes good music, as well as good animation, his writing often seems to suggest a hierarchy of animation and of music that is old-fashioned at best (and that many believe does not exist in the first place). For instance, in describing a quality score, he implies the need for unity and connectivity via leitmotifs (a la Richard Wagner or Erich Korngold)—almost like a classic symphony or opera—rather than the postmodern stylings of composers such as Carl Stalling or scores that are more composite; thus, he considers scores that rely heavily on quotes or paraphrases to be inferior. Bohn also implies that the more realistic the animation is, the better quality it is. As such, in his view, the rubber-hose stylings of studios such as Fleischer (Disney's main competitor in the 1930s) would similarly be considered inferior.

Third (and perhaps related to the previous issues), Bohn is so blatantly pro-Disney that he often comes off as uncritical in his writing and this, at least in my opinion, makes it harder to take what he says at face value. For example, he states early on in the book, “While Steamboat Willie may not have been the first sound cartoon, it was treated as such, as it was the first quality sound cartoon.” (17) (emphasis added). While many may believe this to be the case, to state it as fact feels inappropriate at best in an academic volume.

Fourth, because the author endeavors to cover so much material, the analyses can sometimes feel as though they only skim the surface, making me want considerably more depth, either by lengthening the book or by limiting his analyses only to certain key sections, especially in the later films. This would help to make the book feel more balanced overall.

Despite these issues, for those interested in the music of early Disney features, I would recommend this book—especially because of its archival information—if you have the music chops for it.

Works Cited

Batchelder, Daniel. “American Magic: Song, Animation, and Drama in Disney’s Golden Age Musicals (1928-1942).” Ph.D. diss. Case Western Reserve University, 2018.

Care, Ross B. &ldquoThreads of Melody: The Evolution of a Major Film Score—Walt Disney's Bambi.” The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress, vol. 40, no. 2, 1983, pp. 74–98.

Goldmark, Daniel. Tunes for 'Toons: Music and the Hollywood Cartoon. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005.

Pallant, Chris. Demystifying Disney: A History of Disney Feature Animation. London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2011. 

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