There’s just something about a sad song. Why do we love them so much? There a few theories out there that try to explain the appeal of diving into melodic heart break, but whatever the reason it seems to be an inarguable fact. We can’t get enough of music that hurts.
Over the years, Disney has released a whole catalog of songs that serve as an emotional gut punch. A number didn’t make this list simply because we’ve written about them recently (for example “Goodbye May Seem Forever,” “Evermore,” “Dos Oroguitas,” and “Someone’s Waiting for You”). Luckily, there were still plenty to choose from and I’ve been relistening to them all. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a little something in my eyes.
God Help the Outcasts (The Hunchback of Notre Dame)
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is one of Disney’s most startling achievements, a film that proved that animation was not “just for children.” It was a dark, passionate, philosophical film, as one could only expect from a movie based on Victor Hugo’s gothic masterpiece.
“God Help the Outcasts,” which is performed by the character of Esmerelda (whose singing voice was provided by Heidi Mollenhauer) appears in the film shortly after the character has claimed sanctuary in the cathedral of Notre Dame. With music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, the song is a prayer of pleading offered on behalf of the outcasts of the world, and more specifically her people, the Romani, who were the subject of persecution. The words of Esmerelda’s prayer are sharply contrasted with those of the people around her, who all pray for selfish gain. It’s a piercing, poignant song that (sadly) remains perpetually relevant.
When She Loved Me (Toy Story 2)
Sarah McLachlan has made a career out of performing devastating songs, from “Angel” (now famously associated with a particular ASPCA commercial) to “I Will Remember You” and “Forgiveness.” So, she was essentially the perfect choice to perform Randy Newman’s “When She Loved Me” from Toy Story 2.
Out of context, it sounds like the perfect break-up song, a melancholy meditation on love lost. Within the context of the film, it becomes even more heartbreaking, with the character of Jessie reflecting on the child who loved and ultimately outgrew her, casting her aside as she ventured toward adulthood.
Our Town (Cars)
It’s sad enough when a person is forgotten, but what about when it’s an entire group of people? That’s the story that Randy Newman told in “Our Town” from Cars, encapsulating the slow death of an American community.
Performed by James Taylor, who brings his smooth, understated vocals and acoustic guitar style to the song, it recounts the effects that the interstate bypass had on towns all over Route 66. Visitors disappeared, while businesses dried up and closed. In a way, it’s a bit like a John Steinbeck novel placed to music, exploring what happens when profit and expediency are valued more than people.
Baby Mine (Dumbo)
In a vacuum, Baby Mine from Dumbo seems nothing more than a lovely, comforting lullaby. Though perhaps a bit more melancholy than others, given lines that hint at themes of alienation and mockery in the film, such as:
Little one when you play
Don’t you mind what you say
Let those eyes sparkle and shine
Never a tear, baby of mine
If they knew sweet little you
They’d end up loving you too
All those same people who scold you
What they’d give just for
The right to hold you
In the context of the movie, however, the song becomes even more heartbreaking. Mrs. Jumbo has been locked up in a train car after defending her child from bullying. Dumbo visits her and she attempts to comfort him from between the bars of her cell.
With music by Frank Churchill and music by Ned Washington, “Baby Mine” has become a classic of American cinema, and is a song sure to make you hug your loved ones just a little tighter.
The Next Right Thing (Frozen 2)
Speaking of the song “The Next Right Thing,” actress Kristen Bell (who performed the role of Anna) stated, “A lot of people feel that feeling: What do I do when I don’t know what to do? My personal mantra is you just do the next right thing. It also stems from when I am experiencing anxiety and depression. What do I do when I don’t want to get out of bed in the morning? You just do the next right thing, and that’s stepping out of bed. The next right thing is brushing your teeth. The next right thing is eating your breakfast. The next right thing is looking at your calendar and going to work. This idea of having an intrinsic motivation versus extrinsic motivation is something that as a parent I know is incredibly important to show kids and to help them cope. I really wanted Anna to be representative of that.”
Written by Kristen Anderson Lopez and Robert Lopez (the duo behind the songs of Frozen, Coco, and Finding Nemo: The Musical), the song deals with feelings of helplessness and despair, surviving by simply placing one foot in front of the other. Bell’s voice is fragile through the first half of the song, gradually growing in strength as her character slowly finds the strength she needs to keep moving.
We’ve Only Just Begun
Of course, this list only scratches the surface of Disney’s sad songs. They seem to have perfected the art of the melancholy melody, always finding a way to tug at our heart strings. And as fans, we just keep coming back for more, knowing that no matter how devastating the number is, the characters are destined for a happily ever after.