Disney, for better or for worse, is one of the most powerful cultural influences in the world. We learn and grow from their movies as children, taking in their messages and philosophies at the most malleable stage in our lives, learning who we are as we watch dancing crustaceans tell us how awesome the jazz scene is at the bottom of the Caspian Sea.
Translated into countless languages, their songs are perhaps the most effective at getting their points across. Catchy, easy to remember, beautifully crafted–they are the perfect vehicle for any feel-good mantra. And though some of their songs can be rather saccharine, and some of their messages quite misleading, there are occasionally songs that ring extremely true and prepare us, whether or not we know it at the time, for what life really is.
1. “Hellfire,” The Hunchback of Notre Dame
I could write a book on why The Hunchback of Notre Dame should be required viewing for children, and on every re-viewing it remains as poignant and surprisingly honest as the first time. If you think for a moment of how many extremely adult themes are dealt with without metaphor, it’s staggering: religious hypocrisy, genocide, racism, sexual repression, murder, social stigma–there’s even a pole dance at one point. It just so perfectly captures the “This is it, kids, this is medieval France for you… sucks, doesn’t it?” feeling. And while the whole movie is in stark contrast to the usual Disney sugar overload, Judge Frollo’s dark ode to the tortured conflict between his faith, his power, and his sexual desire may be the most brutally honest moment in the film.
“You know I’m so much purer than
The common, vulgar, weak, licentious crowd”
The fact alone that they managed to integrate the word “licentious” into a children’s song makes it deserving of some kind of medal, but the greater themes conveyed in just these two lines are brilliantly incisive. Even while murdering gypsies and torturing his deformed son-figure, he uses his religion to convince himself that he is somehow above his actions. I couldn’t think of a more acute, direct representation of the evils in the world that can be acted out in the name of religion. Though there are benevolent religious figures in the film, Frollo represents all that can go wrong with dogma, in no uncertain terms.
“I feel her, I see her
The sun caught in raven hair
Is blazing in me out of all control”
Keep in mind that this is being said while he watches a seductively dancing image of Esmeralda in his fire, as he is condemning her to hell. His repressed sexuality is presented as the hypocritical, illogical handicap that it is. He is evil in all of the ways humans are actually capable of being evil, and in this way is the most terrifying Disney villain of all time. There were and are many Frollos in life, most of whom much worse than he, most of whom never punished for their actions. This song teaches children to fear and mistrust those who hate in the name of religion, and for that deserves an enormous amount of respect.
2. “Something There,” Beauty and the Beast
This song deserves note for its spot-on description of the act of falling in love, and the nervous excitement that comes with it. It is not perfect; it is not a sweeping, beautifully choreographed movement–it is a light stumbling into romance, awkward and honest. Belle, of course, is the Disney Princess that bookish little girls everywhere will look up to (who amongst us doesn’t swoon a bit every time they see Beast present her with a library?), she is witty and brave and uninterested in the chauvinist pretty boys that flock to her. As she falls in love with a 500-pound minotaur-like creature, we fall in love with the idea that romance itself isn’t always what you think it would look like.
“She glanced this way
I thought I saw
And when we touched she didn’t shudder at my paw”
Beast, the scary, ugly, often mean Prince, reveals himself to be insecure, to be vulnerable. He tells us, confides in us, that the thing he most appreciates about her is her ability to see him for who he is, not what he looks like. Aside from being one of the few Disney Princes to open up and reveal a tortured inner life, Beast succinctly conveys the insecurities that men are often not allowed to express. He is not as strong as he looks; he has feelings, too.
“New and a bit alarming
Who’d have ever thought that this could be?
True that he’s no Prince Charming
But there’s something in him that I simply didn’t see”
“New and a bit alarming,” is there a better description of falling in love? Simple, impossibly complex, nerve-wracking, exhilarating–this little passage nails it on the head. And after years of telling little girls to look for their Prince Charming, quite literally, Disney does an about-face and admits that perhaps the dashing good looks and daring sword fights aren’t what it takes to be happy with someone. No, as Belle shows us, looking inside the man–looking past his outward flaws–and seeing how generous and loving he is, that’s what brings true happiness.
3. “Poor, Unfortunate Souls,” The Little Mermaid
Ursula may just be the most misunderstood Disney villain ever. Sure, she misleads desperate people and is the undersea-sorceress version of a loan shark, but she doesn’t go to her clients. They come to her with their problems, and she takes an afternoon off from abusing her eels and helps them out–at whatever cost. This song shows us what we as humans (or mermaids, who appear to have all of the same flaws, just none of the legs) are prepared to do to get what we want.
“This one longing to be thinner
That one wants to get the girl
And do I help them?
Ursula never says that wanting such shallow things is going to make them happy, and she certainly doesn’t promise that it will all work out according to plan, but she’ll help them. Those poor, formerly unattractive merpeople who are now sexy and a couple–they end up as another two of those moaning algae things, and why? Because they were willing to sacrifice freedom and safety to fit into a smaller seashell bra or get laid. This song asks children up front, what do you want and how badly do you want it? Be careful.
“The men up there don’t like a lot of blabber
They think a girl who gossips is a bore!”
Although this statement was probably true at the time The Little Mermaid was set in, and maybe is to some extent today (who likes idle gossip?), what’s really poignant about this is Ursula demonstrating to us just how much we become willing to sacrifice for someone we’re interested in. Ariel wants this man she’s never spoken to, and is easily convinced to give up her only method of communication to get him. This song becomes a cautionary tale for young girls looking to change who they are to impress some guy who probably won’t notice the difference.
4. “I Won’t Say I’m In Love,” Hercules
Running neck-in-neck with Belle for the Disney character that most speaks to smart girls everywhere, Megara is the rare Princess that is world-weary and not naive or innocent–everything from selling her soul to the devil to having a prior live-in boyfriend, she’s seen it all. Reversing the traditional Disney roles, she takes Hercules under her wing and teaches him about everything that the Danny DeVito goat just can’t. And she manages to perfectly express the hesitancy savvy women everywhere feel when trying to stop themselves from falling head over heels in her one song, “I Won’t Say I’m In Love.”
“If there’s a prize for rotten judgement
I guess I’ve already won that
No man is worth the aggravation
That’s ancient history; been there, done that”
Who can hear that, especially sung in Meg’s deliciously sarcastic, smoky voice, and not have a little flutter of “You go, girl”? Meg sums up in four lines everything that we’ve ever tried to convey while on our third drink out at the bar with the girls. I believe this song would come shortly after dancing in a circle with all women, but just before the tearful texting of your ex. Meg is the kind of girl you would invite over to drink wine and watch old movies before devolving into a four-hour conversation about whether or not to call this new, amazing guy your boyfriend to coworkers. He’s awesome, but we just haven’t had that conversation yet, and you don’t want to make that assumption, you know?
“It’s too cliche
I won’t say I’m in love
I thought my heart had learned its lesson
It feels so good when you start out”
Thank you, Meg, for pointing out just how cliche “I love you,” can be and how insufficient and false it can often feel. Thank you, also, for telling little girls everywhere not to automatically be fooled by the first flutters of infatuation–love is something else, love takes time, love can hurt us badly. One feels this entire song that it’s going to end with Meg sitting by that fountain, giving a resigned sigh, and smoking a cigarette. She’s just so cool.
5. “That’s How You Know,” Enchanted
Enchanted, despite having Idina Menzel in a musical and not making her sing, remains a charming, extremely well-done spoof of everything Disney is without ever going to the cynical. And nothing exemplifies the simplification of the Disney ideals into a more real-world application better than this lovely little ditty about showing your affection for someone.
“It’s not enough to take the one you love for granted
You must remind her, or she’ll be inclined to say,
‘How do I know he loves me?’”
The song tells us up front one of the most important rules of any relationship, whether romantic or not–we must show the ones we love how much they mean to us. We can be inclined, as Giselle puts it, to “take them for granted,” but nothing can be more dangerous. In our own small ways, we must put forth the effort to make them feel loved and special. That alone is a beautiful and very true sentiment, but what really makes this song refreshingly honest is the examples she gives for just how one can go about this whole “making your love feel special” business.
“Well does he take you out dancin’ just so he can hold you close?
Dedicate a song with words in
Just for you?
Because he’ll wear your favorite color
Just so he can match your eyes
Plan a private picnic
By the fires glow-oohh!”
These things aren’t outlandish, not extravagant or expensive–they are things that everyone could do for each other. They are small, simple, but they come from the heart. She also encourages “leav[ing] a little note to tell you you are on his mind,” possibly the easiest and most effective way of making someone’s heart flutter and catching them off guard. And “tak[ing] you out dancing just so he can hold you close” is the perfect example of making an effort to do something that you may not be the best at, but that you do to spend time with the one you love. We take the time to make each other happy, to find the best in any situation because we are with someone we care for. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, it matters that you’re together. And that Disney message may be the most touching of all.