Michelle Anya Anjirbag is a first year PhD student at the Children’s Literature Centre at Cambridge University.
Can any of us imagine a children’s film without the soundtrack? I might read voraciously, but my true love, beyond words and their power to enchant, has always been music. I am addicted to my headphones and what comes through them – usually Broadway or Disney or other film soundtracks lately. Music has a particular capacity to communicate story to us, and to augment that which we otherwise see or hear. The sound becomes as indicative of the story as any visual expression or clip of dialogue – just think about how closely tied music is to Disney films, with not only the release of soundtracks and Broadway musical adaptations, but the release of favorite films in special sing-along versions such as has been done with Frozen and Moana. When it stands alone, a piece such as John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” or Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful Word” we hear a vignette shaped by emotion and relation to the different connotations both the name of the songs and the sound itself, or in the latter’s case, the lyrics evoke. But when sound is paired with a full story, there is something quite magical about it.
Layers of memory and meaning are what soundtracks add to film, especially, perhaps, children’s films; from the lullaby-theme that reprises itself throughout the score from Brave, to the pervasive undercurrent of “Lavender’s Blue” in the 2015 live-action Cinderella, to Jack Frost’s theme in Rise of the Guardians, hearing a repeated musical phrase can make us sit up and listen, remind us of plotlines, and help bring us further into the narrative. One of my favorite examples of this is in the film Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, a very underrated family narrative featuring Dustin Hoffman and Natalie Portman, which I tend to watch repeatedly when at my most low and most homesick. And when I am not watching it, I am listening to the soundtrack, which is at once evocative of the whimsy of the film itself while underscoring much deeper themes about life, love, finding oneself, and what it means to grow up. But what I love most about it is how it builds upon itself. There is a story in the music. It starts simply enough at the beginning but adds layers as the narrative does, and as the finale comes to its own conclusion, you realize you can trace every single one of the narrative threads through the songs, and that it is not really an ending, but an opportunity for a beginning. That, to me, is part of why we return to children’s literature; it’s not about “happily ever after” or the magic itself, but remembering that there are so many opportunities to start fresh if we just believe we can, and that we can always do more or become more than we think we are capable of. While the soundtrack carries the narrative if simply listened to, I don’t think that the film itself would be as powerful without the music woven into it.
Songs can also become symbolic of films, especially those we remember from our childhood. When I think about the first time I watched The Lion King, I don’t see a movie clip in my head, I hear the opening of the “Circle of Life.” Remembering Pocahontas recalls “Just Around the Riverbend” and I remember being at a ballroom dance competition where “Once Upon a Dream” was used as the song for my heat of the Viennese Waltz – I swear it was the best waltz I’ve ever danced thanks to years of pretending to dance to it in my living room. Even now, it doesn’t take much for me to burst out into songs from Moana, and one of my best school memories is my senior year AP Literature class spontaneously breaking out into “Be a Man” from Mulan. And that is the beauty of these songs; they are not just about the tie to a film, but a tie to what that film or story might have meant to us as children. They add layers and depths to our memories. It’s not just about remembering the sun rising over the pride lands, but remembering that this was the first film I watched with my mom and sister when we moved from Maryland to Connecticut when I was not yet five years old. It’s remembering being taken to a musical for my birthday by the first boy I dated, and being brought to tears listening to that rendition of “Shadowland” on stage because it reminded me of my grandfather who had passed just a couple years before. Above all, these songs remind us, I think, that in our journey to adulthood we carry our child-selves with us; our childhoods, though in the mundane everyday of our adult lives they seem quite removed, are not really that far away at all.
What are your go-to tracks, your earworms? What songs remind you of happier times, or of being home? What songs can’t you wait to pass on to others? Bonus – if you really want to play with your childhood memories, Disney remixed the Lana Del Rey cover of the original “Once Upon A Dream” to make it align with contemporary music and the aesthetic of Maleficent… It might be my favorite thing they’ve done yet to make it feel like my memories, too, have “grown up.”