Musicals and animated films, stylized and fantastical forms both, have displayed a mutual affinity since sound technology permitted their combination.
Several live-action musicals have famously included animated sequences, most notably MGM’s Anchors Aweigh (1944), where Gene Kelly dances with Jerry Mouse; Dangerous When Wet (1953), where Tom and Jerry partner Esther Williams; and Invitation to the Dance (1953), where Kelly once again danced with Hanna-Barbera cartoons. But far more often animated films have included significant musical elements to the point where they should be considered valid examples of the musical genre themselves.
In the silent period, the patented Bouncing Ball in Max Fleischer’s Song Car-Tunes guided audiences through song lyrics. (Early Song Car-Tunes employed Lee DeForest’s sound-on-film system, but those sound versions lacked wide distribution.)
Animators quickly adapted to sound, often relying more on songs and music than plot to advance the action. Early sound series titles emphasized their musicality: Disney’s Silly Symphonies, Warner Bros. Loony Tunes and Merrie Melodies, MGM’s Happy Harmonies (drawn by the felicitously named Harman-Ising Studio). During the 1940s, Walter Lantz produced three musically oriented series simultaneously — Cartunes, Swing Symphonies, and Musical Miniatures. UPA’s 1950’s “Ham & Hattie” cartoons each comprised two musical segments, one narrative and one purely impressionistic.
Leon Schlesinger’s first Warner Bros. contract required his cartoons feature songs from Warner’s library (to increase sheet music sales). Various studios’ shorts included performances by contemporary musical artists, whether live, caricatured, or rotoscoped: Cab Calloway, for instance, appeared both live and rotoscoped in Fleischer’s 1932 “Minnie the Moocher,” singing his signature title song.
Among features, Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and Pinocchio (1940) established a pattern of including several songs and even dance numbers in fantasy plots. Fantasia (1940) introduced a different paradigm, a series of vignettes, each set to its own piece of classical music; other Disney animated musical anthologies followed throughout the 1940s. Fleischer’s Gulliver’s Travels (1939) and Mr. Bug goes to Town (1941) imitated Disney’s fantasy plus songs formula with less success.
Though many animated features still follow that Disney pattern, some deliberately employ more traditional musical storylines focusing on show business and music-making. Ralph Bakshi’s American Pop (1981) charts the history of twentieth-century American music by following an immigrant family through four generations in the music business. UPA’s Gay Purr-ee (1962) and Turner’s Cats Don’t Dance (1997) present typical breaking-into-show-business stories but with animals as the main characters. And Bill Plympton’s The Tune (1992) examines the plight of a songwriter searching for a hit.
Disney’s phenomenal string of box office hits, The Little Mermaid (1989), The Lion King (1990), Beauty and the Beast (1991), and Aladdin (1992), all following the Snow White pattern, confirmed their status as animated musicals by each winning both Score and Song Oscars and eventually moving to the stage as full-scale, often award-winning musicals.
So while the potential of live-action film musicals may remain in doubt, the animated musical seems likely to preserve the genre through its even more stylized form.
Richard J. Leskosky is a past president of the Society for Animation Studies. Recently retired from the Department of Media and Cinema Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he continues research in animation history, pre-cinema animation, and genres.