Celebrating Disney's Mood-Setting Opening Numbers, 20 Years After 'Circle of Life'

From the majesty of 'Circle of Life' to the racism of 'Arabian Nights,' the stained glass of 'Beauty and the Beast' to the ignominy of Phil Collins' 'Tarzan' songs.

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Whatever you think of The Lion King, celebrating its 20th anniversary this week, its opening number remains pretty undeniable. "Circle of Life" is the best in an enduring tradition of atmospheric musical introductions to Disney musicals—sometimes serving as table-setting for the plot, other times just giving us an idea of the world we’re about to enter. It’s a formula that seemed to be dying out before Frozen brought it back in a big way last year, opening its tale of two princesses with a worker’s ballad of ice harvesting. Starting with Oliver & Company (the forgotten prelude to the Disney Renaissance), here’s a rundown of those openings:

“Once Upon a Time in New York City,” Oliver and Company

Oliver and Company is to Oz as The Little Mermaid is to The Sopranos. It came first in the revival of the animated Disney musical, but it’s not well-remembered and, watching this clip, the animation style is much rougher around the edges. The film actually has some great musical numbers, but this Huey Lewis ballad is not one of them. It’s a cheesy ripoff of an ‘80s Billy Joel ballad in a film that already had the real deal coming up later. But that impressionistic opening shot of the New York skyline is real pretty. —DS

“Fathoms Below,” The Little Mermaid

Like a number of songs on this list, “Fathoms Below” is often the one you would skip on the soundtrack, but it’s fairly unintrusive. In fact, it is mostly overlayed with dialogue in which Prince Eric introduced to the concept of mer-people. Soon enough we’re underwater and the main titles (which strongly borrow from the theme of “Part of Your World”) begin. Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez—the songwriters of Frozen, which we’ll get to later—told The Wire back in November that they took inspiration from “Fathoms Below” and opened their film with a worker’s song driven by male voices. "I think that’s why 'Fathoms Below' is in The Little Mermaid. It’s telling the boys this is going to be a story with songs, but there’s going to be something in it for everyone," Robert said. In The Little Mermaid, the song sets up a distinct parallel between a harsher world above the water, and the magical world we’re about to enter below. —EZ

“Prologue,” Beauty and the Beast

The thing that stands out most about the opening prologue of Beauty and the Beast is its stunning artistry. The story is illustrated in stunning stained glass panels, which give way to darkness as we meet the tortured beast, shutting himself away from the rest of the world. Of course, the most memorable part of Beauty and the Beast comes after the opening title, when we get the first full-fledged musical number, “Belle.” —EZ

“Arabian Nights,” Aladdin

Yes, it was more than 20 years ago, but it’s worth noting that the lyrics to “Arabian Nights” weren’t even considered acceptable at the time. Aladdin’s real opening scene with the Cave of Wonders is terrifically creepy, but that’s preceded by Robin Williams’ merchant character (singing voice by Bruce Adler) introducing us to Agrabah as a place “Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face.” Justified consternation led to those lyrics being changed for the home-video release, but even so, it’s a pretty off-putting way to begin the show (“it’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home!”). To its credit, “Arabian Nights” does establish the film’s mix of wry humor and foreboding mysticism; it just could have done it a lot better. —DS

“Circle of Life,” The Lion King

Everything lines up perfectly here. The animation is gorgeous, from the big painted backdrops to the giant animal crowds gathering to cute lil’ Simba. We don’t need any voice-overs explaining the situation unfolding: we get the importance of the baby before a beam of light ERUPTS FROM HEAVEN to bathe him in princely glory. “Circle of Life” is easily the film’s most memorable and least cheesy number. Aladdin opens on a weird, racist minor-key note. The studio learned its lesson. “Circle of Life” is meant to make everyone in the theaters sit up straight, and that cut to the title screen is perfect. —DS

“Steady as the Beating Drum,” Pocahontas

There’s really not much to “Steady as the Beating Drum,” but it still signifies everything that was wrong with Pocahontas. We’re introduced to the Powhatan tribe before they meet British settlers from the new world, and there’s much more sensitivity and care to present them as a thriving community, in comparison to Aladdin’s “Arabian Nights.” It all feels a little toothless and patronizing, though, and it doesn’t help that the song is totally forgettable (which goes for most of the Pocahontas music). —DS

“The Bells of Notre Dame,” The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Hunchback’s opening number is unsurprisingly focused on the film’s most-memorable character, its villain Judge Frollo. This is one of Disney’s darkest and plottiest openings; Frollo kills a band of gypsies trying to sneak into Paris and almost drowns their deformed baby before being shamed by a priest, then resolves to secretly raise the baby in the cathedral as penance. Frollo is fascinating for a Disney villain because he’s not funny at all, and “The Bells of Notre Dame” sets the serious tone the film will follow, which is probably why it’s not as well-remembered. The song is also a little annoying in its heavy repetition of the title. —DS

“The Gospel Truth,” Hercules

Hercules is often glommed in the lesser post-Lion King movies, but its opening is immensely clever and true to the entire movie’s stylistic homage to Greek amphora painting—if not to actual Greek mythology. The opening is a bit cheeky, too. At first we get stodgy scenes of a deserted museum overlayed with a traditional male voiceover that begins the story of Hercules. Then, narrator hands things over to the movie’s “muses,” who come alive off a vase to sing “The Gospel Truth.” Though the song itself is not that memorable, watching the vase paintings come to life is a treat. —EZ

“Two Worlds, One Family,” Tarzan

Tarzan is not a great movie, and that much is clear in its opening, which scuttles through the dead human parents/dead gorilla child backstory. But I in the words of Jack Donaghy have “two ears and a heart” so I listened to the Phil Collins soundtrack incessantly when this movie came out. All that said, “Two Worlds One Family” is one of the weakest songs in the film. (It’s all about “Strangers Like Me.”) —EZ

“Perfect World,” The Emperor's New Groove

Probably the most underrated entry in Disney’s recent canon marks its turn away from the epic musical genre. New Groove was first planned as an epic musical called Kingdom of the Sun, with songs by Sting, but the songs were excised and the film was re-written into a cheerful buddy comedy that came and went without much fanfare. It’s surprisingly funny once it gets going, but the opening number is formulaic stuff. Emperor Kuzco (David Spade) is a spoiled king! He tosses an old man out of his throne room for wrecking his groove! This movie isn’t really funny until Patrick Warburton shows up. —DS

“Frozen Heart,” Frozen

As songwriters Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez explained in the aformentioned interview, “Frozen Heart” drew inspiration from mood-setting tunes like “Fathoms Below.” It’s a bold choice to start with a look at the ice-cutters, considering they play no real part in the film’s plot (except for little Kristoff and his moose Sven, who run around in the background), and honestly, it doesn’t make the impression of follow-up “Do You Want to Build A Snowman,” which introduces us to the central sisters, but it’s a nicely moody overture to the fear and respect the citizens have for ice, since it’s going to swallow their town up eventually. It’s worth noting that “Frozen Heart” is preceded by a title card accompanied by the rousing “Vuelie” chant, performed by the Cantus Chorus and inspired by Scandinavian hymnals. It sets the mood even better. —EZ

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