History of Musical Film

The 1990s: Disney & Beyond

by John Kenrick

(Copyright 1996; revised 2014)

More Dead Than Live

Live-action screen musicals were rare in the 1990s. Those few that made it to the big screen did not advertise themselves as musicals, fearing that the label might scare audiences away.

None of these films caused any critical or commercial sensation, and Hollywood remained convinced that live-action musical films were not worth the tremendous effort. But big-screen musicals remained a multi-million dollar business in the 1990s thanks to the efforts of one studio.

Disney's New Golden Age

The Disney team's animated Beauty and the Beast (1991) was one of the best musical films ever made. The screenplay by Linda Woolverton made Belle a gutsy heroine, and the Beast became more touching than in any previous version of the classic tale. The Howard Ashman and Alan Menken score was worthy of Broadway, performed by a cast of voices that included Angela Lansbury as a teapot and Jerry Orbach as a Chevalier-esque candelabra. Standout numbers included the hilarious spoof of masculinity "Gaston," the Busby Berkley-style "Be Our Guest" and the endearing title tune.

When the unfinished Beauty and the Beast was previewed at the New York Film Festival, the audience responded with a wild standing ovation. Many (including this author) were overwhelmed to see musical film looking as big and lovable as ever, and heartbroken that lyricist Howard Ashman had not lived to see it happen. His death from AIDS a few weeks before had silenced a genius just reaching his creative peak. If anyone could have guaranteed that musicals would thrive into the 21st Century, it was Ashman.

Beauty and the Beast won the musical Oscars (Best Song went to the title tune), and was even nominated for Best Picture. It earned hundreds of millions of dollars in worldwide box office sales, a figure that further skyrocketed when the film became available on home video. It became the first Disney film adapted into a smash hit Broadway show, running well into the next century and recreating its success in productions all over the world. At a time when stage musicals were in a serious decline, Beauty and the Beast proved that the musical could live on profitably in animated films.

"A Whole New (Animated) World"

Ashman had partially completed one more project with Menken. Lyricist Tim Rice helped to finish Aladdin (1992), which was even more of a box office sensation than Beauty. Robin Williams gave an inspired performance as the voice of the Genie, singing the Ashman & Menken showstoppers "Friend Like Me" and "Prince Ali." In what was becoming a tradition, the Rice/Menken ballad "A Whole New World" received the Academy Award for Best Song.

Newsies (1992), an awkward live action musical (music by Menken) that told the story of an 1899 newsboy strike in New York, was such a box office disaster that it guaranteed Disney would stick to animated musicals. This film developed a devoted cult following, and Disney would profit handsomely by recycling this as a stage project in the next century.

Disney's next animated effort was The Lion King (1994), with a pop-style score by Tim Rice and Elton John and a story that mixed Hamlet with a generous dash of Bambi. Broadway clowns Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella sang the lighthearted "Hakuna Matata," and many loved the soaring chorale "Circle of Life," but the Oscar-winning score was otherwise mediocre. Even so, The Lion King became the highest grossing musical film ever, and its 1997 Broadway adaptation became one of the biggest stage hits of all time.

Alan Menken teamed up with veteran Broadway lyricist Stephen Schwartz for the score to Pocahontas (1995). It won Academy Awards for Best Original Score and Best song ("Colors of the Wind"), but many felt that the film took itself too seriously. Menken & Schwartz followed this with The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) which did not receive any Oscars but damn well should have. "Out There" and "God Help the Outcasts" were first rate songs, and the opening sequence was a masterpiece of musical narrative. Although the dark Victor Hugo story seemed a surprising choice for an animated musical, Hunchback was the most mature animated musical yet. Parents who thought nothing of letting their children see blood-drenched action films complained that Hunchback was "too intense." (Go figure!) Despite limited domestic attendance in the US, Hunchback brought in over a hundred million dollars in worldwide box office and video sales – proving that America is not always the most perceptive audience for great animated musicals.

After Jeffrey Katzenberg left Disney, executives decided to follow Lion King's formula in future animated projects, emphasizing action and animation rather than music. As if the songs didn't matter? The scores for Disney's feature cartoons became something of an afterthought, with no hint of Broadway flavoring. Alan Menken worked with Broadway lyricist David Zippel on Hercules (1997), a visually garish action comedy with a few songs that did poorly at the box office. Mulan (1998) had even less of a score and was even more of a box-office disappointment. By the end of the decade, Disney's popular action cartoon Tarzan (1999) offered a few pop songs noticed by no one. After a mere eight years, the audience-pleasing, Oscar-winning lessons of Beauty and the Beast had been forgotten.

Beyond Disney

Other studios tried to get on the animated musical bandwagon, but one-shot projects could not hope to match the accomplishments of a well-established animation division. Few efforts were as misguided as the animated remake of Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I (1999), which dumped most of the score and "dumbed-down" the story -- turning the Kralahome into an evil sorcerer and the King into a macho action hero. Soupy orchestrations added insult to infamy, making this project an embarassment.

The last big-screen musical of the 20th century was South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut (1999) – an independent animated feature that would have left Walt Disney's ghost quivering in disbelief. Based on a popular cable television series, this foul-mouthed, artistically primitive and altogether brilliant satire spoofed obscene pop lyrics, overprotective parents, and the widespread obsession with blaming others for one's problems. When American children start spewing profanities, their parents "Blame Canada" and the United States goes to war with its northern neighbor. Some of the songs were so explicit that several cannot be quoted (or even named) on this family-friendly site, but the score was one of the funniest ever used in a feature film. A few viewers found the film offensive, but it proved that screen musicals could still entertain. It also proved that animated musicals are not just for tots.

Next: Screen Musicals in the 2000s