Disney films have had a fundamental influence on American culture for nearly a century, and have thus been a key means of exposure to other art forms, particularly music. Walt Disney wasn't interested in making "sophisticated" films; rather, he wanted to make films that everyone, from the least discerning to the most erudite, would find entertaining. This was something he made no bones about. He also never claimed to have any real knowledge of either art or music, though both were fundamentally important to his revolution of the young animation medium. And yet, despite Disney's resolute populism, his studio has produced the films, from Fantasia and Make Mine Music to the Silly Symphonies series, that introduce(d) most Americans to classical music and that keep that music in the American public consciousness.
Disney's very first sound cartoon, "Steamboat Willie" (1928), has very little non-musical sound, and indeed, most of the cartoons, both shorts and features, heavily emphasize musical expression over spoken. While it's true that the Disney studio was hardly the only one producing cartoons with musical jokes, the Disney productions tended to have a more sophisticated story-telling vocabulary, both visual and aural, and a deeper engagement with the music used. This was partly the result of the studios' superior resources, both from a technical and artistic standpoint, but it was also due to Disney's attitude toward experimentation and constant attempts to push the medium further. Huge numbers of the short cartoons are structured around musical references and adapted scores, many of them with plots that riff on opera plots, backstage drama, or attempts to put on a successful concert (oh, vain hope).
"Farmyard Symphony" (1938) is essentially a series of gags, linking the dramas of the barnyard with references to classical music, created through the clever use of animal sounds in conjunction with instrumentals. The romance between a (rather disturbingly sexualized) chicken and a debonair rooster is set to "La donna è mobile" from Rigoletto, as well as music by Beethoven, Rossini, and Wagner. Throughout the cartoon, musical quotations fly thick and fast, as the various animals in the barnyard assert their personalities.
In "The Band Concert" (1935), one of the most iconic of the Disney short subjects, Mickey is a frustrated conductor, desperately attempting to haul his orchestra through a performance of the William Tell Overture, despite the rather malicious interruptions of a "Turkey in the Straw"-playing Donald Duck, an overzealous bee, and a tornado. Widely considered one of the greatest cartoons ever produced, "The Band Concert" is a tour de force both visually and aurally. (Arturo Toscanini allegedly went to see it six times.) The overture is adapted for the purposes of the short, segueing into other musical pieces, or aural gags; though the music is treated with respect, it is an instrument for the animators, a means of furthering the story and integrating visual humor with the sound elements. The end result is one of the wittiest musical commentaries of film.
One of the most entertaining of the musical shorts is "Symphony Hour" (1942), in which Mickey (or in this case, Maestro Michel) Mouse must conduct a live radio broadcast after Goofy has accidentally dropped all of the instruments down an elevator shaft. The sponsor of the program, Mr. Sylvester Macaroni, played by Pegleg Pete, nearly loses his mind with rage when he hears the disastrous performance, but the audience loves it. Although very similar to "The Band Concert" in plot, "Symphony Hour" instead pokes fun at the American tin ear, while showing great empathy for the frustrated musicians, including Donald Duck as the incensed percussionist, Goofy as a wind and brass instrument jack-of-all trades, and Clarabelle Cow as a deeply distressed violinist. The busted-instrument version of von Suppe's Light Cavalry Overture also functions rather brilliantly as a parody of contemporary classical music.
"Music Land" (1935) encapsulates the Disney attitude towards music in animation. In this delightful cartoon, the Land of Symphony, ruled by a curmudgeonly cello, and the Isle of Jazz, ruled by a redoubtable saxophone, each regard the opposite nation with hostility, but a romance between an errant violin princess and a bashful alto saxophone prince sparks a war. The cartoon succinctly dramatizes the conflict between high and low culture (one that is as ferociously fought today as it was then), but, in the Bridge of Harmony built between the two countries at the end, finds a solution. Rather than reject high culture as elitist or low culture as vulgar, the two are melded together, the classical and jazz instruments play together, and a spirit of inclusiveness - something the Disney studio always strove to achieve and still does - is evoked. "Music Land" brilliantly references music in a way that both enriches the story and characters and yet it isn't necessary for the viewer to catch those references in order to follow the events. The cartoon is funny and charming, whether or not one recognizes that the musical notation the alto sax sends from prison is a transcription of "The Prisoner's Song" or the bombardment from the Land of Symphony is "The Ride of the Valkyries."
The animators also show a sophisticated understanding of how the instruments function, making use of pegs, strings, mouthpieces, and keys for visual expression, while the sound team brilliantly feigns speech with the instruments themselves. In fact, as a child, it never occurred to me to differentiate between the sounds made by the instruments and actual linguistic speech; the clarity of expression is astounding.
These are hardly the only music-centric shorts that Disney produced and, even those that emphasize music less heavily tend to be chock-full of musical references and gags. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to find a single sound cartoon produced by the Disney studio that doesn't have music as an indispensable component. Though the Looney Tunes have most likely played as great a part in introducing classical music into contemporary American culture, it was Walt Disney whose innovation in animation and sound technologies brought this music to the fore, creating not only the basic structure and conventions of the medium, but also America's appetite for these marvelous cartoons.