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The Evolution of Disney Animation Over 100 Years of Art

Music and Voice Actors

Mickey Mouse shot to fame in one of the first fully synchronized sound cartoons, “Steamboat Willie” in 1928, and both voice acting and music have been key to the success of Disney animated feature films ever since. In fact, the first voice of Mickey Mouse was Walt Disney himself until a combination of smoking and doing Mickey’s high falsetto regularly resulted in some vocal damage in the 1940s. Ironically, the only Disney animated classic in which Mickey has a substantial role is Fantasia, in which he only has one speaking line—but that is because Fantasia is all about the other key ingredient to the sound of a Disney film, the music.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), as well as being the first full length animated feature film, was also the first movie to have a commercially issued soundtrack released. Music has been a key ingredient to the success or failure of Disney animated films ever since, especially in the hugely successful period known as the Disney Renaissance, which lasted roughly between 1989 and 1999.

While songs had never disappeared entirely from Disney animation, they had become a much less integral part of the films during the 1970s and 1980s. For example, The Black Cauldron did not include any songs at all. All that changed when it was decided that The Little Mermaid (1989) should be a full musical, with numerous songs sung by the characters and forming an integral part of the story. The songwriting team from 1982’s off-Broadway hit Little Shop of Horrors, composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman, were hired and the rest, as they say, is history. Ashman tragically passed away from complications due to AIDS in 1991 after contributing to the Oscar-winning music of Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin (and more or less defining what a modern Disney musical’s storytelling structure should be), but Menken continued to work on numerous Disney films through the 1990s and some after, most recently animated classic Tangled in 2010 and Disenchanted in 2022.

Tim Rice had to finish Ashman’s work on Aladdin, which had been Ashman’s original pitch, but the music was not the only notable thing about that film. Comedy superstar Robin Williams was hired to voice the wacky, over-the-top character of the Genie on the agreement that neither his name nor image would be used for marketing—a condition that perhaps inevitably was not met.

Aladdin was not the first Disney film to include celebrity cast members. Robin Hood (1973) cast big name British actors Peter Ustinov and Terry Thomas as its villains, and Billy Joel and Bette Midler both appeared in Oliver and Company (1988). But the impact of the Genie as well as the next two films, The Lion King (1994) and Pocahontas (1995), was huge. Pocahontas also featured a major star in Mel Gibson as John Smith, and The Lion King was filled with celebrity voices including James Earl Jones, Whoopi Goldberg, Matthew Broderick, and Nathan Lane, not to mention songs by Elton John. Thanks in no small part to the success of Aladdin and The Lion King, animated movies for the past couple of decades have been filled with star voices.

Those voices also include, like The Lion King, both actors and singers. After Enchanted made the baffling decision to cast Broadway star Idina Menzel and then not have her sing, Frozen (2013) famously put that right with the bane of every parents’ existence, the mega-hit “Let It Go.” Hits like that and the cachet of a Broadway star like Menzel have ensured that Disney’s recent animated classics are, like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast before them, fully fledged musical films.

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