When the Academy announces its shortlist for song nominations on Dec. 16, you can be certain that at least one Disney song will be on it and probably more.
Disney songs have been nominated 33 times in the past 30 years, winning 12 of the gold statuettes.
This year, the studio has at least four in the running: two from live-action remakes of animated classics and two from highly anticipated sequels. Three are already among the top-10 grossing films of the year, and the fourth, just released, is expected to join that elite crowd in a matter of weeks.
“Speechless,” from this year’s “Aladdin” remake, was written by original composer Alan Menken (who won a 1992 Oscar for that film’s “A Whole New World”) with new lyricist partners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Oscar winners for a song from “La La Land” three years ago). It’s sung by Naomi Scott as the new film’s more-assertive princess Jasmine.
“Jasmine needed a song that, in order to be important in our contemporary world, had to do with finding her voice,” says Menken. “The Jasmine in this movie was going to become much more three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood, and she needed a song to reflect that.”
Adds Paul: “The idea of someone not having a voice, being told they’re better seen and not heard, and this moment where she finally takes power in her own hands and comes to her full purpose, seemed like a great way to express how she’d be feeling and what she might say.”
Randy Newman, who has two Oscars for previous Pixar films (“If I Didn’t Have You” from 2001’s “Monsters, Inc.” and “We Belong Together” from 2010’s “Toy Story 3”), is vying for a third with “I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away” from “Toy Story 4.” He sings this himself, as he did the other two.
The fun song is surprisingly literal and refers to new toy Forky. “It’s exactly what Woody was trying to stop him from doing,” Newman explains. “Forky gets it in his head that he’s disposable, so he keeps trying to jump out of the van they’re in, or throw himself in the trashcan. Woody puts himself in charge of keeping him from doing that.”
The most recent entry in the song sweepstakes is “Into the Unknown,” for another Disney princess: Elsa in “Frozen 2.” It begins with the siren call that she follows into an enchanted forest where she discovers her destiny. Idina Menzel’s powerhouse voice takes her back into “Let It Go” territory. That song won a 2013 Oscar for “Frozen” songwriters Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez.
“It’s calling her away from everything that’s comfortable, everyone she loves, to make this very difficult and dangerous journey to find the place where she really belongs,” Lopez says. “It’s the catalyst of the story, this voice that she can’t ignore.” Adds Anderson-Lopez:
“It is really a metaphor for anyone who feels that restlessness in their soul, who is asking ‘Is this really what my life is supposed to be?’”
The wild card in the bunch is Beyoncé’s “Spirit,” a late addition to the soundtrack for this year’s CGI remake of the animated classic “The Lion King.” She co-wrote it (with Timothy McKenzie and Ilya Salmanzadeh) and performs it as the adult lion Simba returns home at the behest of Nala, whose character she also voiced.
“She took this movie very seriously, and right at the last moment, presented us with this truly beautiful song that was absolutely perfect for a key scene,” says “Lion King” composer Hans Zimmer. “We’d actually done something else in that place, but how can you say no to getting a masterpiece sent to you? It was all changed at the last moment [to accommodate the new song].”
Elton John and Tim Rice, who were Oscar-nominated for three of their original songs in 1994 (and won for “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”), reunited to write a new one for this “Lion King,” “Never Too Late,” heard under the end credits. But John has publicly expressed dissatisfaction with the new “Lion King” and has thrown his weight behind the campaign for “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again,” the song he wrote with Bernie Taupin for the biopic “Rocketman.”