It’s high time that Pixar Animation Studios made a musical. In some ways, it’s been high time for them to make a musical ever since they started making features. From the beginning, the people at the top of Pixar’s food chain tacitly, vocally avoided making animated musicals in the same way as many of Walt Disney Animation Studio’s most beloved classics, either from the 1930s and 1940s or from the Disney Renaissance period. Pixar has defined itself, and the genre of computer animation as a whole, by refusing to have its characters break into song and dance on the regular. But why hold back on embracing one of the ironclad tenets of mainstream feature animation? All this refusal represents is a strange, stubborn unwillingness to be risky.
Pixar’s attempts to avoid the musical genre date back to 1995’s Toy Story. John Lasseter didn’t want the exploits of Woody and Buzz to evolve into them having a duet at the climax; certainly, one wonders how awkward it might be to hear the beloved phrase “To infinity and beyond” be transformed into the key phrase in a Broadway-style 11 o’clock number. Lasseter emphasized that Toy Story was a buddy comedy, and inserting songs would feel inaccurate to the genre. Co-writer Joss Whedon agreed (even if Whedon’s no stranger to musicals), and it’s hard to deny the point. Woody and Buzz, at least, don’t feel like characters who should be singing to each other, to us, or to anyone. There is, however, a difference between picking and choosing which movies or characters deserve to have songs associated with them, and simply denying that the possibility could ever arise.
Of course, it would be incorrect to say that Pixar hasn’t dabbled in the musical genre, even in the Toy Story franchise. Though Woody and Buzz don’t sing it to each other, “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” is one of the most memorable and iconic pieces of music associated with Pixar’s two decades of filmmaking. (Also, as you probably remember, Woody does sing the song in Toy Story 2, in an episode of the 1950s TV show that made him so popular originally.) And Sarah McLachlan’s rendition of “When Somebody Loved Me” in Toy Story 2 is one of the earliest and most potent heart-rending moments in Pixar’s canon, arguably as emotionally manipulative a scene as any of those ASPCA ads scored to McLachlan’s “I Will Remember You.” Listing examples could fill up plenty of space—the last one worth mentioning is Randy Newman’s Oscar-winning song “If I Didn’t Have You,” sung by Billy Crystal and John Goodman (presumably in character) during the end credits of Monsters, Inc. Really, Pixar shouldn’t feel so shy to entering into the musical fray with these in mind.
Music is at the heart of great filmmaking, and great (and not-so-great) animation. Walk into a Disney theme park, and you will be greeted aurally with wall-to-wall music from their extensive catalog. At some point, you may not even realize that your entrée into each land in a park is scored as if you’re walking literally into the middle of a movie. The songs in any Disney animated movie are as beloved as the scores themselves. Though Pixar films don’t have as many songs as the fifty-odd canonized Disney animated features, their scores are inextricably burrowed in the pop-culture consciousness. Michael Giacchino’s Oscar-winning score for Up is that rare beast, one that relies heavily on a rhythmic hook that’s possibly the closest modern cinema has to the work of John Williams in movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back: only a few notes, and you know exactly what the score is from. What’s more, Giacchino’s work, as much as the animation, story, and characters, contributed to the amount of Kleenex people went through while watching Up. If the “Married Life” montage works, a chief reason is that score.
While some of us may be loathe to admit it, Pixar’s films have become musicals in some form. Finding Nemo has a home at Disney’s Animal Kingdom as a condensed, forty-minute musical, and Toy Story has been redone with song and dance, as Woody, Buzz, and friends belt out numbers on Disney’s cruise ships. This isn’t meant as a critique of how Pixar’s standards may have become more lax in the last few years. As an example, the repeated song in the Finding Nemo musical, “In The Big Blue World,” is charmingly but obnoxiously catchy. However, it’s clear that Pixar has become a little less stringent about avoiding the perceived pitfall of making a musical, or of the idea of farming out their preexisting characters to other branches of the Walt Disney Company for musical ends. (It’s worth wondering what inspired Lasseter, now Disney’s chief creative officer, to relax his concerns, as there’s no way these non-movie musicals with Dory, Marlin, Woody, and the rest would exist without his say-so.)
So what are the pitfalls of making an animated musical? When Pixar released Toy Story in 1995, it felt different for a number of reasons. Not only was this film presented in a totally new animation format, but the story felt more modern, more adult, and less attached to the unspoken rules of Disney animation. Toy Story was not a fairy tale, it was not inspired by centuries-old stories, and its central figures were not struggling against obstacles blocking them from their one true love. Toy Story felt fresh, even if its roots were in buddy comedies stretching back to the 1960s, specifically because it wasn’t the kind of animated movie Disney made; with or without music, Disney animated films had become familiar in a sense. For a long time, Pixar’s animated films were a form of rebuke against their eventual masters. These were not “Disney” movies. These were completely separate, a kind of evolution from the princess stories and adaptations that litter Disney’s animated canon.
But now, we have Brave. Ignoring the ups and downs of its production history (and again, it’s worth noting that most of Pixar’s films have rocky productions before the release date), Brave was Pixar’s first attempt to be new by being old. This was Pixar’s first female-centric film, it was their first princess film, and it was their first legitimate period piece. The reaction to Brave may have been more mixed than for other recent Pixar entries, but it was an admirable risk. As this column has stated in the past, taking chances is part of what makes Pixar great, what makes them a company so many people respond to positively. Making a musical is the biggest chance they’ve yet to take, and it’s difficult to figure out what’s holding them back.
It would, of course, be a leap to presume that what Pixar needs most now is a musical to get back in the good graces of the American populace. They’re not in the same dire straits that Walt Disney Animation Studios was in the mid-1980s, floundering to the point of possibly being closed down after the failure of The Black Cauldron, when modest successes like The Great Mouse Detective and Oliver & Company paved the way for the Disney Renaissance, beginning with The Little Mermaid. What Disney had in the late 1980s was Howard Ashman. The late lyricist, who worked with Alan Menken on some of the company’s best, most tuneful songs, was not the only reason why Disney’s animated films gained in popularity and quality—the animators and directors were equally integral—but his songs defined a generation of Disney films.
Now, even though there is media where preexisting Pixar characters sing, should Pixar end up tackling this final creative frontier, it’d be wiser to start fresh. This mentality shouldn’t just apply to creating a new world in which characters singing isn’t treated with a scoff or a roll of the eyes, but to the way in which the music and songs are employed. Perhaps this is the root of Pixar’s wariness of approaching a musical: the standards are so familiar, so dead-set that treating them sincerely might make a new musical look too old-fashioned. It might seem stodgy for a Pixar lead to belt out the traditional “I Want” song in the first act of a new movie, and the last thing this studio would want is to appear out of touch.
However, the old way of making musicals is not the only way. (In addition, it should be stated, an old-fashioned musical might be the most shocking thing Pixar could make precisely because of their forward-thinking attitudes.) Composers like Robert Lopez—who worked on Winnie the Pooh and Disney’s upcoming feature Frozen—are making the old feel new again. Pixar’s first, most prolific composer, Randy Newman, is no stranger to musicals either, though he’s never had a huge Broadway hit. Obviously, a musical concept should form naturally at Pixar; forcing one may not end up inspiring as much creativity as possible. But their unwillingness to indulge in a bit of the old singing/dancing razzle-dazzle is a steadfast denial of what inspired Pixar and their features to begin with.
Films like Toy Story and The Incredibles may seem as far as possible, tonally, from something like Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast. In the early days, Pixar was the rebellious teenager, defying their parent company and doing them one or two better, just to prove that they could top the fusty standard-bearers. To Pixar, all-singing, all-dancing should not be the rule for all animated films. In short, Pixar represented diversity back in 1995. They offered something new to worldwide audiences. Now, Pixar represents the norm, whether they want to be or not. Hand-drawn animation is, to this writer’s enormous sadness, a thing of the past. Computer animation is common. And most computer animation avoids singing and dancing, outside of a few recent Disney movies. (Tangled, well-liked or not, did not get compared qualitatively so frequently to Pixar’s movies in the way that Wreck-It Ralph did; the latter film had no musical elements.)
Pixar has grown up over the last 20 years. They have become their parents, as horrifying as that may sound. (Who among us doesn’t flinch at the notion that we’re more like our mothers and fathers than we’d want to admit?) What’s more, they turned into the standard-bearer without directly emulating the previous titleholder. Pixar became Disney while doing everything differently than Disney. Innovation became common. There’s no easy way for them to break free of the shackles of conformity; making musicals won’t solve everything. What it will show is that Pixar is still capable of surprising us. A movie about the inner workings of the human mind has the potential to shock us once more, as does a story set around the Mexican holiday of Dia de Los Muertos. But what would the reaction be if people heard that Pixar was finally breaking down the barrier they imposed upon themselves in the mid-1990s, that they’d finally make a musical? As always, it’s just a suggestion. Pixar should make a musical; they shouldn’t do so to prove to skeptics that they’re capable of setting the world on fire with song. Pixar should make a musical to prove to themselves that anything, truly, is possible.