Kicking off with 1989’s “The Little Mermaid,” the Disney Renaissance was a critical and commercial success period for animated films based on fairytales and other well-known stories. During this creative movement, Disney took a Broadway-like approach to the construction of musical numbers. They became extravagant set pieces with intricate choreography and soaring lyrics — veritable showstoppers that significantly advance the plot.
In this new era of Disney filmmaking, the songs were the driving force of the story, exemplified by tracks like “Hakuna Matata” from “The Lion King” where Timon and Pumbaa encourage Simba to abandon his responsibilities at the Pride Lands, or “Savages” from “Pocahontas” which brings the acrimonious conflict between the Native American tribe and English settlers to a dangerous head. These songs have a highly emotional, dramatic thrust that pushes the characters towards the conflict and its eventual resolution.
Disney has also made great use of the “I Want” song, a Broadway device where the characters burst into song because they are so overwhelmed by their desires. While earlier Disney characters (mostly princesses) typically sang of being rescued by a prince, these new Disney protagonists yearn for so much more — like Quasimodo for a life outside the bell tower, Hercules’ determination to “Go the Distance,” or Ariel to be part of the human world.
Disney songs continue to evolve. The new live-action adaptations tend to increase the number of songs, like “The Little Mermaid,” which brought us Lin-Manuel Miranda’s dastardly (or genius?) “The Scuttlebutt.” In these reimaginings, Disney uses the new songs to not only pad the runtime, but also flesh out different aspects of the story that are glossed over in the shorter animated films, ideally giving the audience a more well-rounded understanding of what the characters are going through, their thoughts and emotions, and even new elements of their backstory.