For starters, music in film can be a difficult thing to get right, be it background music, a musical number inserted to denote the passage of time, or a full-blown musical.
Personally, I don't like musicals. Never have. Not saying there aren't good musicals out there, like the Broadway performances of Cats or Chess. But in animated films, after thirty-plus years since Disney adopted the 'Rogers and Hammerstein' song-and-dance formula for the Little Mermaid (and every studio out there tried to attain success by copying Disney's model), it just feels so played out. More often than not, when I'm watching a movie and they break into song, my heart just sinks in my chest and I start counting the minutes until the sequence is over.
My opinions are based partially on the belief that I think music can often be used as a cheap tool to engender an emotional connection within your audience when you should've done it through careful character development within the script. Not saying that music cannot be skillfully used to enhance the experience (see Disney's Bolt or Nina Paley's Sita Sings the Blues), but would a film like Guardians of the Galaxy be as popular as it was without using music from the 1960's and 70's that was already heavily ingrained in the collective consciousness of an American audience? Not knocking the film, I loved it and its sequel, but the music had to have been carefully selected and weaved into the film causing it to become a character in and of itself. I suspect it was done so because the 'Guardians' weren't as well-known as characters like Iron Man, Captain America, and Spider-Man, so they needed that extra 'oomph' to build a connection with the audience and make people care about the characters.
In many cases though, especially in musicals, the music just falls flat and seems out of place. It reminds me of that comedy routine you see at Renaissance Festivals where the singers keep purposefully stepping in front of each other as they try to upstage each other's performances. It's a comedic bit and it's funny at Ren Fests. But in so many musicals, it's like the acting is competing with the story which is competing with the song-and-dance numbers and so on. It abruptly pulls you out of the experience. And consider cringeworthy sequences like the "No Fear" song in the Swan Princess--"No Fear" being a popular modern marketing catchphrase at the time which in the film was placed smack-dab in the middle of a medieval fairy-tale world. The sequence ended up marring an otherwise decent and enjoyable movie that had a great message for kids.
To be fair, there are some musicals where the song-and-dance number (or the musical sequence in films) doesn't seem out of place and is completely in tune with the emotional tone of the story and the characters. I offer as evidence: the 'Son of Man' sequence in Disney's Tarzan, 'Once Upon a December' from Anastasia, the 'Hellfire' sequence from Hunchback of Notre Dame, 'Deliver Us' from Prince of Egypt, or the entire film: Mary Poppins.
Another example is Disney's Enchanted. It's a musical that parodies Disney musicals (both animated and live action), expertly directed by Kevin Lima. There are so many ways that movie could've gone wrong. Disney definitely chose the right director, the right songwriters & composers, and the right actors & actresses to bring the right script to life. The song-and-dance numbers make perfect sense both in the context of the film's internal world AND in the context of filmmaking overall. Honestly, it's a movie that I'm happy to see sitting on the shelf in my DVD collection.
Speaking of Enchanted, I
have very fond memories of being in Toronto, sitting in a Schoolism.com
presentation and watching Kevin Lima state that he loves musicals.
Seated right next to him was his wife, director/scriptwriter Brenda
Chapman who immediately rolled her eyes and gave an exasperated "Oi!". I
knew right then and there that I had found a kindred spirit as it
turned out that Brenda was very much not a fan of musicals. The irony of her working years later on the film Strange Magic is delightful. I know there's got to be a story behind it and I'd love to hear her tell it.
So. I'm not opposed to musicals, per se, or the skillful use of music in films, it's just that when they get it wrong, they pull me out of that delightful headspace, that flow state where nothing exists but the film you're watching. You're sitting there slowly getting drawn into a movie with beautiful cinematography, engaging characters, and an interesting story... then they break into a song-and-dance number for no apparent reason other than to have a song-and-dance number. It's honestly why I haven't had any desire to watch any of the recent Disney films. And there "is" obviously a market for such films, as evidenced by the varying degrees of success that Disney musicals continue to have in the box office, especially compared to far superior films like Atlantis: the Lost Empire.
I guess I'm probably at that stage of life where I'm looking for something with more substance--like the Summit of the Gods or Arcane, both of which premiered on Netflix.To summarize my rant and get to the review: when music is done poorly, or treated as an afterthought, it sticks out like a sore thumb. But when done skillfully, purposefully, it can elevate a film to an almost spiritual experience.
Belle was so much more the latter than the former. During the opening sequence where we see Belle singing the song 'U' while riding atop a skywhale loaded down with speakers, it gave me chills! And the 'Gales of Song' sequence was achingly beautiful as you realize what she's singing about. You can see parts of this in the Belle medley video that was released on the Official Belle Channel on YouTube. Go ahead and watch it now, I'll wait.
Mamoru Hosoda and Studio Chizu did a wonderful job filling this film with interesting characters that were easy to care about. And the backgrounds were as picture perfect as I've ever seen in an animated feature. The virtual world of U was a visual feast of characters and settings without ever making you feel overwhelmed or confused about what was happening on the screen. And Cartoon Saloon's background work is sublime (executed by Tomm Moore & Ross Stewart). In the end, my only real regrets were that a. I didn't have time that weekend to go back and watch the English dub version, and b. that I didn't watch the film in the large-scale IMAX format.