SoundTreks | We Love Disney
No entertainment company is more persistently self-congratulatory than Disney. When they’re not pushing their brand to within an inch of its life (and that brand now includes just about every well-known children’s property outside of Peanuts), they’re selling and repackaging their own product (in an all-too-convincing fashion) as the important emotional bedrock of all childhood. However you may feel about the certified canon of Disney animated features, they way they are marketed would have audiences believe they are their own genre.
Of course, this is only the case with the better-reviewed Disney animated features; few people bother to sing songs or quote dialogue from, say, Fun and Fancy Free. Or Dinosaur. Or Saludos Amigos. Or Treasure Planet. Or Make Mine Music. Or Home on the Range. Or Chicken Little. Or Bolt. Or The Black Cauldron. Or The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Or The Princess and the Frog. Or Fantasia 2000. Or, I predict, Zootopia.
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But, like clockwork, Disney is going to put out a self-tribute record every few years, frequently employing the hottest kid-friendly pop artists of the day. Sometimes they may stray – have you heard Tom Waits’ version of “Heigh-Ho?” – but most frequently, these records are stuffed with small-voiced, squeaky clean youths reiterating well-known songs from oft-repeated movies. Their most recent edition of this phenomenon was called simply We Love Disney, and was released in October of 2015.
This is the perfect time, I think to start taking a look at the Disney tribute records – a extensive excursion to be sure – and SoundTreks is just the place to do it. We listened to this new record, and we have drawn the following conclusions. Strap in, eat some sugar, and let’s get to work.
Track 1. “Friend Like Me” – Ne-Yo
“Friend Like Me” is an Alan Menkin song that was originally performed by Robin Williams in the 1992 film Aladdin. It is a message from a genie to his charge that he can indeed do anything. In context, “Friend Like Me” is silly and unexpected; a dirty jazz song in the middle of an ancient Middle Eastern tale is something of a blindside. I suppose it was in keeping with the spirit of Robin Williams who added dozens of funny anachronisms.
The Ne-Yo version remains, oddly enough, largely unchanged. The Big Bad Voodoo Daddy-ish orchestrations are in tact. The only notable difference is the vocals. Robin Williams is funny, but he’s not much of a singer, so “Friend Like Me” finally sounds like a real pop song. I just wish someone with more jazzy bombast tackled it. Ne-Yo’s voice is reedy and ill-suited to the format.
Track 2. “Part of Your World” – Jessie J
Written by Alan Menkin, and originally performed by Jodi Benson in the 1989 film The Little Mermaid, “Part of Your World” is a song of longing sung by a spoiled daughter of royalty who needs more than her royal lineage provides. But I josh The Little Mermaid. It’s enjoyable and slick – and it ushered in the ’90s Disney renaissance – but it just doesn’t hold up to much intellectual scrutiny. “Part of Your World” is a decent enough song, but it’s easy to see it as the anthem of the spoiled brat. “I have everything. I want more.”
I know Jessie J from her hit song “Bang Bang,” so I’m not used to hearing her balladeering. I think this was Ms. J showing off that she actually had a decent set of pipes. And her voice is fine. She nails this song just as well as Benson did back in 1989. But here’s the thing: If I’m buying a Disney self-tribute record, I’m going to want to hear drastic reinterpretations. Change the genre. Change the meaning. Do something. This is just Jessie J karaoke.
Track 3. “Can You Feel the Love Tonight? / Nants Ingonyama” – Jason Derulo
Song fun trivia about the songs in 1994’s The Lion King: The producers wanted Alan Menkin, but he was unavailable. They also hit up ABBA to do the music, which would have been effing spectacular. They ended up with Tim Rice and Elton John. I haven’t seen The Lion King (I know, I know), but thanks to Disney’s guaranteed cultural osmosis, I kind of know the songs anyway. And here’s the thing: I kind of hate “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” There’s plenty of Elton John I like (who doesn’t dig “Rocket Man?”), but this isn’t one of them.
So this breathy, youth-ier version by Jason Derulo just has my hackles rising again. And, once again, this is not much of a departure from the film version or the Elton John version. The mixing is a bit more modern, but it’s not an improvement. I just want to go to the next track.
Track 4. “The Rainbow Connection” – Gwen Stefani
Disney, of course, didn’t start wrangling the Muppets until the mid 1990s, and didn’t buy them officially until 2004. But that, I suppose, gives the company licence to bundle the 1979 classic The Muppet Movie in with their own product, even though the song wasn’t originally theirs. “The Rainbow Connection” was originally written by Paul Williams and Kenneth Ascher, and performed by Kermit the Frog, and it will stab you in the heart. There is not a more sweet, innocent and optimistic song in the world, and many people I know tear up at the mere sound of the song’s opening banjo chords. It’s been covered by everyone from The Carpenters to Less Than Jake.
This new version by Gwen Stefani is a little slick for my taste, and her voice – to repeat myself – doesn’t quite match the material. Stefani has too much squeal and too much attitude for a gentle ballad. Luckily, the song is strong enough that it’s still fun to listen to.
Track 5. “Zero to Hero” – Ariana Grande
1997’s Hercules, with gospel songs written by Alan Menkin, has achieved a weird cult affection in recent years, and there is a small but passionate contingent of defenders standing behind the film. I’ve seen it. I get it. The film is funny, stylish, and creative; the mixture of Christian gospel and ancient Greek myth blends oddly well. Also James Woods is terrific as the voice of the villain.
Ariana Grande’s version of “Zero to Hero” is actually less energetic than the film’s version, which includes jokes and several voices interacting. When there’s just Grande, the jokes don’t quite work. There’s a line, for instance, where one singer corrects another’s pronunciation of “vase.” I’m also fond of the lyric “they’ll tell you what the Grecian earns.” Get it? Grande makes the song as fun as she can, but the original is actually silly. Get someone with more attitude in there. Tell you what, Grande can go back to “The Rainbow Connection,” and Stefani can have this one.
Track 6. “In a World of My Own/Very Good Advice” – Jhené Aiko
Although few people sing the songs from 1951’s Alice in Wonderland – I think “A Very Merry Unbirthday” is the only one I hear with any sort of regularity – it was actually one of the more musically ambitious Disney animated flicks. It has a record number of unproduced songs, some 30, written by top pop musicians of the day.
One of the songs that did make it in was “In a World of My Own.” I defy you to hum a few bars. I appreciate that Disney reached a tiny bit deeper into the vault for this one – I always want to hear resurrected obscurities before retreads of known hits. Jhené Aiko appears to be yet another youthy youth from the Disney camp; I don’t like her style. But the song is curious enough to stand out. It’s atonal and odd and ethereal. Those expecting the big hits will be caught a little off guard. Perhaps. Maybe if it has a singer who has the tiniest bit of weirdness.
Track 7. “I Wanna Be Like You (The Monkey Song)” – Fall Out Boy
Written by The Sherman Brothers, “I Wanna Be Like You,” originally performed by Louia Prima in 1967’s The Jungle Book, is pretty amazing. Here’s the best part: It can be taken out of context and still work. The song is about an ambitious orangutan who wants to be a human (specifically, he wants to know how to make fire) so that he may rule the world.
So if anyone covers it with enough aplomb, it works. I still prefer the Big Bad Voodoo Daddy version; dirty jazz is a better venue for phrases like “monkeying around,” but the Fall Out Boy version is a welcome jolt of energy to a record that’s been disappointingly mellow so far.
Track 8. “Colors of the Wind” – Tori Kelly
1995’s Pocahontas is an oddity in the Disney canon. It’s perhaps the most earnest of the lot, and was intended to be a serious adult drama about the violence done to the Indians at the hands of the white settlers. Yes, history is altered drastically for the movie, but the film clearly had a lot on its mind. The film’s central ballad, written by Steven Schwartz and sung by Irene Bedard, was a very hefty barn-burner about living in harmony with the Earth. It’s a grand song, but kind of thudding in the movie.
Here, it is mercifully sprightly. For once I am grateful for the slick Disney pop idol sheen. Tori Kelly scales the song back, and it becomes tender and more palatable. This is the first track on the record that I enjoy more than the original.
Track 9. “A Spoonful of Sugar” – Kacey Musgraves
You find the fun, and snap! The job’s a game.
Written by The Sherman Brothers, originally performed by Julie Andrews for 1964’s Mary Poppins. We know it. We all know Mary Poppins. Although it’s harder for me to enjoy Mary Poppins since I saw Finding Mr. Banks, a film about how the original author of Mary Poppins had her creation destroyed by the corporate machine.
I still love the music, though, and Kacey Musgraves’ twangy bluegrass version of “A Spoonful of Sugar” is, well, good an’ sweet. This is what I’ve been looking for. A reinterpretation of a known song. And the tune, so infectiously hummable (like most of The Shermans’ songs), translates well. I imagine it would translate to anything. Anyone got a reggae version? That’s three in a row that I’ve liked. Can we keep the streak alive?
Track 10. “Ev’rybody Wants to Be a Cat” – Charles Perry
Written by the Shermans, and originally performed by Phil Harris for the 1970 flick The Aristocats. The original was a pleasantly retro jazz tune about how great it is to be a cat. In the film, the lyrics are literal, but they were written to have two meanings (read: “dig that crazy cat”), and any smoky lounge singer could whisper this tune and feel oddly authentic.
Then why does Charles Perry sound less-than-authentic? Like Ne-Yo, his voice is too thin, and his performance is too modern to capture the jazziness of the original. You can throw in muted trumpets and saxophones all you like, your jazz hit will fall apart without a modicum of soul. This could have gone much worse of course (I picture an electro-pop version, and my gorge rises), but the vocals still aren’t right for the tune.
Track 11. “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” – Jessie Ware
Originally written by Mack David, Jerry Livingston, and Al Hoffman, and performed by Ilene Woods for the 1950 film Cinderella. This song has mutated over the years into a heartfelt ballad. In the film, the song starts as a ballad, but eventually is transformed into something playful and upbeat. Now, no one ever sings it playfully or upbeat. Now it’s just a drag. Jessie Ware adds nothing more to the song than any of the others who have covered it over the years.
Also, what the fuck does that title mean?
Track 12. “Let It Go” – Lucy Hale and Rascal Flats
Originally written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez and performed by Idina Menzel for the 2013 film The Wolf of Wall Street. You’ve heard it. It’s a barn-burner. It’s been on the radio. Everyone’s covered it. Every white girl in high school is currently preparing it as their audition piece. It still doesn’t make much sense in the context of the movie, but it’s still got Ethel Merman levels of Broadway bombast. This version is one of a million. If you already love it, you’ll stay the same. If you’re sick of it, you’ll still be sick of it. Moving on.
Track 13. “It’s a Small World” – Various
I have heard numerous Disney tribute records in my day, and even grew up listening to one of them. SoundTreks may even cover a few others in the near future. As Disney self-tribute records go, this one is right in the middle. Familiar selections, delivered competently, likely to go unnoted in a few years’ time. There are a few departures, but none so off-the-wall as to be revolutionary. It is, like so many Disney products, the very definition of average.
Disney obsessives (and I know there are many of you out there) will find plenty to activate the pleasure centers, but even they likely know that better has been done in the past, and will be done in the future. This album ultimately lacks variety. Hit the standards, but suckerpunch us here and there. Keep us on our toes. Whip out something from The Three Caballeros, and get, I dunno, Green Jellÿ to perform it. Then I’ll be more impressed.
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Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. He also contributes to Legion of Leia, and Blumhouse. You can follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.
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