Let’s face it: even without a steady diet of Mellowmas, the holiday season can be a time of profound sadness. Putting up the tree and wrapping presents often comes with pangs of melancholy over close family members or friends you’ve lost, growing distance between people you thought you would never let go of, financial stress, the reflection on what you didn’t or couldn’t get done as the calendar flips to another year – the list goes on, and often rears its ugly head through December. (Hell, for me, these things have reared their head in the last week. Is it 2012 yet?)
A half-century Forty-five years ago today, the world mourned the passing of Walt Disney, a cultural figure who devoted his life to the ida of escaping the harsh fluorescent lights of reality in favor of magical, colorful worlds where the good guys never, ever lost. As adults, we all like to think we’re too good for Disney’s brand of feel-good pap – but at the end of the day, whether we allow ourselves to briefly retreat to the calculated warmth of Disney entertainment as adults or experience the joys of the studio’s animated films through the eyes of our children or young relatives, it’s sometimes surprising how much it feels like we really need this kind of stuff in our lives.
Today, in honor of a visionary long gone, and dedicated to any traveler of the world who just needs to escape to a few minutes of goodness to block out the other crap, it’s a pleasure to present a playlist of personal favorite happy songs from across the vast reaches of Disney’s archives.
“When You Wish Upon a Star,” from Pinocchio (1940)
Sure, it’s a safe pick, but it’s by far one of the national anthems of Disney, too. Leigh Harline and Ned Washington’s soaring tune is everything Disney fanatics hold dear in four minutes of sound. Its popularity stretches to places both logical (winning an Oscar for Best Original Song, being interpolated into John Williams’ score to Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977) and positively insane (a cover on Gene Simmons’ solo debut, devoid of any irony whatsoever).
“Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” from Song of the South (1946)
Another painfully obvious choice, but it’s hard to argue with a song that often feels like the sonic equivalent of smiling. What makes it doubly interesting, though, is it comes from a movie that Mickey Mouse would rather you forget, a film that, despite its deft blend of animation and live action and ridiculously catchy tunes, hasn’t been shown in 25 years over concerns that the film’s clunky racial caricatures would induce riots. It’ll probably never come out on DVD in our lifetime, despite the pleas of serious film scholars, but its legacy will partially live on forever in this song.
“There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow,” from Carousel of Progress (1964)
The Carousel of Progress was an attraction at the New York World’s Fair where people sat in a theater that rotated through several scenes depicting modern life from the 19th century to the present day. Its “actors” were Audio-Animatronics, lifelike models of humans that moved and interacted via pre-written programs. The plucky theme, also penned by the Sherman brothers, doesn’t have the earworm-from-hell quality of the other big Disney song they wrote for the World’s Fair (“It’s a Small World”), but it’s got that big-hearted showtune quality that the best of the Sherman brothers’ songbook never lacks. And what is so bad about being optimistic for a new day – one that happens to be just a dream away?
“Ten Feet Off the Ground,” from The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band (1968)
Besides being a mouthful of a title, The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band is one of those awkward live-action Disney features produced by a company in flux, still reeling from the death of their namesake. (It would take over 20 years, and the alternately great and damning power of Michael Eisner, for the company to get back on track.) But the film’s single greatest contribution is doubtlessly this song, a jaunty ode to music penned by two people who were clearly speaking from experience: Richard and Robert Sherman, whose songwriting star ascended to the highest heavens when Disney commissioned them to write the music for 1964’s Mary Poppins and virtually every project for the company he lived to work on since. While the film version features an intriguing set of vocal turns from the likes of Buddy Ebsen, Lesley Ann Warren and Kurt Russell (Kurt Russell?), the definitive version is easily a laid-back run recorded the same year by Louis Armstrong. Who better to sing about the power of music than Satchmo?
“Another Part of Me,” from Captain EO (1986)
Before this song appeared on the occasionally brilliant Bad in 1987, Michael Jackson wrote and recorded this tune for an absolutely silly 3-D short film that he starred in for the Disney theme parks. Captain EO, recently reinstated to the parks after the wave of posthumous nostalgia for all things Jackson, is immensely dated, foolishly acted by what little human cast there is (Jackson, Angelica Huston, Tony “Bad Santa” Cox in a clumsy blue elephant alien costume) and impossible to take seriously as a work directed by Francis Ford Coppola. It’s also got a weird theme in “Another Part of Me,” seemingly sung from the point of view of a crazed utopian society eager to brainwash any resistance. But a spin or two of this song, and you’re too busy dancing to the song to give a damn about any of that.
“You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” from Toy Story (1995)
While our beloved editor-in-chief Jefito has grumbled repeatedly that most don’t know Newman beyond “Short People” and his scores for Disney/Pixar films, it’s hard to argue the homespun charm of this tune, which has helped elicit real emotions for a computer-generated gang of toys for over 15 years. Anyone who sees Newman as an acerbic, brilliant wiseass of a writer is usually correct – but that’s ignoring his ability to make magic happen even with simple, catchy tunes and heartfelt lyrics, qualities this tune has in spades.
“Life’s a Happy Song,” from The Muppets (2011)
This year’s revival of the Muppets franchise was, for many, like slipping into a really comfortable outfit you haven’t worn in far too long. One of the highlights was a witty but never snarky song score largely written by Bret McKenzie of comedy-folk duo Flight of The Conchords. This might be one of the best of the bunch, combining the can-do attitude of classic Disney with the rootsy arrangements of Paul Williams’ classic Muppet tunes and adding a dash of did-that-really-just-happen goofiness. I’m not at all sure how life’s a leg of lamb, but I do look incredibly forward to having this song score a generation of Disney parades and events. It’s just the kind of kick in the pants I needed this season – and hopefully it made some of you feel good, too.