The Best Musical Day 7: 30 Days of Animated Films

(all opinions belong to me and me alone)

The power of music in a film is undeniable – but animated films have a long association with not only music but musicals. Disney in particular has had great success with their almost-yearly animated musicals. The digital age hasn’t been kind to the musical, and the CG films of the last 15 years have only a handful of musicals to choose from.

The question for today is:

What is the best CG animated musical?

The Runners-Up

It’s a little difficult to pinpoint why CG films thus far haven’t really embraced musicals as broadly as animation in general.

Consider another animated film technique, stop-motion – out of the few feature films made with stop motion, The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach, and The Corpse Bride are straight-up musicals in the Disney tradition. Coraline has several musical elements as well.

So why not CG animation?

My theory has two parts. First, we have the example of Pixar. They made Toy Story a non-musical, and I think it set the tone for the entire industry’s first decade. In the early 2000’s, we saw a couple of straight-to-video musicals, including Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the Island of Misfit Toys and Jonah: A VeggieTales movie, but it would be until 2004 before we saw even a lukewarm-musical like The Polar Express in the wide-release CG market. (Update: I’ve been informed that Jonah was actually a theatrical release as well! Which makes it, to my knowledge, the first CG animated musical!)

She's not any less creepy in motion.

She’s not any less creepy in motion. Copyright Shangri-La / Warner Bros.

Come to think of it, this might be another reason for avoiding musicals – the strange, alien motions of Polar Express‘s choreographed song-and-dance numbers were pretty terrifying. In 2006, we also had a sort-of musical in Happy Feet – but the songs don’t reflect the plot in any way, so I hesitate to call it a musical at all. The next non-Disney animated musicals would be all the way in 2011 and 2012, with Blue Sky’s Rio and Illumination’s The Lorax (which will be eviscerated discussed later this month).

Secondly, as the unchallenged grand poobah of animated musicals, Disney had a hard time until very recently translating its finely-tuned Disney Animated Product ™ into CG form. The Disney Renaissance of the 90s had produced a style for their new animated musicals that had a ton of energy and fluid, carefully-produced animation. These techniques just didn’t translate very well at all to CG animation. Making a proper musical with the massively-expensive CG technology would be a risk the Disney Corporation wouldn’t take until…

And the Winner is…

Let’s be honest, this post was really just an excuse to talk about 2010’s Tangled. I mean, look at its competition.

I am deeply conflicted about this film, which for me is typically code for “it was good, but it could have been so much better”.

copyright Disney/PIXAR

copyright Disney/PIXAR

Tangled represents a real return-to-form for Disney, pitting an evil adoptive mother against a young, naive, and eminently marketable princess. I already mentioned my problems with Mother Gothel in the villains post, but I’d like to break down one other qualm before I get to the music.

I’m troubled by a story that makes Rapunzel’s entire motivation in the second half of the film a romance with literally the first man she’s ever met — whom she also marries. I’m not opposed to animation romances, but given the isolation of Rapunzel’s upbringing and a much-more-interesting relationship with Gothel just begging to be explored, I’m not entirely sure it was necessary in this film. I think the idea of both Flynn and Rapunzel finding their first real friendship with each-other would be just as powerful.

copyright Disney/PIXAR

copyright Disney/PIXAR

As much as I enjoy Tangled, it feels like a very safe film. This extends to the songs, as well. For me, the first musical number is unbearable in its safeness. The song is called “When Will my Life Begin” for pity’s sake — if you were to take every Disney “I Want” song from Aurora to Quasimodo and grind them into a homogenous paste, you would get this song. Lyrically it’s just exposition, there’s no cleverness or wit, and the music…


I honestly thought I was going to hate this movie after just this song alone. From the first lackluster Garageband-preset-caliber strum of guitar in the backing track, it just oozes a Disney Channel Glee-Pop sensibility that I absolutely abhor. Luckily, this song is the black sheep of the bunch, since the rest of the tracks have a lot of personality and all of them until the (equally-terrible) end-credits song rely on the orchestra for their backing.

I particularly like “Mother Knows Best” and “I see the Light”. Both are real earworms that I find myself humming for days after watching the film.


By the way, Rapunzel is a princess of a pretty brutal little monarchy – one that has the death penalty for theft. Anyways. Tangled is a really fun movie, no matter what problems I have with it. And, it’s a heck of a musical.

Let’s hope that Disney can keep the tradition going with Frozen later this year.

Later: The Film with the Best Message


  1. Allawicious says:

    But Jonah was released in theaters!

    Everybody wants a water buffalo.

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