Sunday, 17 January 2010



...And we're on to the top 3! :)

So all the classic Disney fairy tales have a love song, and almost all of them are quite lovely, to be honest. What is it that distinguishes Once Upon a Dream from all its alternatives so much that not only it beats them all, but it earns a whopping third place in this list? In terms of lyrics and even animation, the song is actually quite simple. What makes it so affecting is its bizarrely metatextual quality. The song can be read as Aurora telling her imaginary (is he imaginary?) prince about their connection. Yet it can also be read as the narrator him/herself speaking to the fairy tale that s/he is narrating. The expression itself ‘fairy tale’ is dubious – it designates a story that is not true, in everything from its history to its message, so much so that in slang use the term means precisely ‘not true.’ The concept is incredibly complicated – and the song itself, in its metatextual inception, yields to an infinity of readings.

Obviously Once Upon a Dream recognises the ‘untruth’ status of its message – ‘And I know it’s true that visions are seldom all they seem,’ go the lyrics, and the background itself, at the beginning, shows a square tree – testimony to the song’s artificiality and detachment from the material/natural world (they are in a garden, not a forest). Not only Aurora knows about the deceptive nature of ‘visions,’ but the song itself foregrounds it. Aurora is walking in a dream even as she speaks about a dream, and the vaguely Edenic resonance of her overture below a tree serves to ground the video in the primordial roots of myth. Her setting is a dream, and it is also the raw world of the symbolic (if the two are distinct).

The core line of the song: ‘I know you, I’ve walked with you once upon a dream.’ ‘I’ is Aurora and ‘you’ is the prince, but ‘I’ is also the spectator and ‘you’ is the fairy tale rolling before him/her, or, plastically, the ‘I’ is the narrative that has walked with ‘you,’ the fairy tale, to its conclusion many times before. The planes of the song are multiple, and the brilliant expression ‘Once upon a dream’ exemplifies this – it is narrative, but at the same time it is a reflection on narrative (the fairy-tale-defining phrase, Once upon a time). ‘Once upon a time’ occurs ‘upon a dream,’ suggesting that the fairy tale, which by definition is no more than a dream, is itself contained by/within a dream. Not just dream, but meta-dream. Their double nature is reflected as Aurora and her prince start dancing over a lake and their image is mirrored in reverse – their own re-presentation, the tale that addresses itself, and which couple is real, which one is the illusion? Perhaps the reflected image, precisely by being no more than a projection, an image, is more real than the real couple (or, a more accurate and therefore more real reflection of what fairy tales are). The imaginary image, and what a convoluted concept that is! Still, even though the fairy tale is not true, the power of its ideals is so great and its myth so rooted in our history that the genre infinitely repeats itself across the generations, re-narrating these fairy tales in different ways and through different mediums over the ages – that’s why the spectator and the narrative can tell this story, ‘I know you.’ Because they do already know it. And even though they know that its nature is deceptive, that ‘visions are seldom all they seem,’ they embrace it and accept its deceptiveness as a familiarity – ‘But if I know you, I know what you’ll do.’ They already know the function of the story.

The song closes by going back to a note of ambiguity – ‘You’ll love me at once, they way you did once upon a dream.’ The song goes back to its initial double status – to the epistemological angst about what stable truth we can know and where we can find it. The fairy tale is not true, but as an untruth, it is one of the truest things in our history. Its instability is one of the most stable things in our imaginary (and one of the most recurring). The text does not solve this anxiety, and in fact couches it in one of the sweetest and most tranquilising songs in the Disney repertoire – making of Once Upon a Dream not just the best fairy-tale love song in the genre, but one of the most complex and disturbing of all the Disney songs, and truly superb in its ambivalent execution.


Mory said...

Seriously? But "Once Upon a Dream" is awful! They pulled the music from an opera, and tried to stick in their standard lyrics. The result is something which sounds very awkward, as though they couldn't quite pull it off. The lyrics they stuffed in are the sort that refuse to commit to any kind of specific meaning, because they're more concerned with tone than content. I'm surprised at you.

Tell me, is it a deliberate choice that you haven't picked any songs from WDFA's output after the 1970s? Do you think Disney's movies went downhill at the point where everyone started taking notice of them again?

John Silver said...

Oh, so it's from an opera? I guess that explains why I like it so much. :D It doesn't sound awkward to me, but quite melodious. Though of course I've been hearing it since I was very young, so I can't deny a certain bias.

As for your second enquiry... have patience, man. The list is not over. :P

Mory said...

All the music in Disney's Sleeping Beauty is taken from Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty. It's an interesting experiment which to my ears doesn't work, because what works for an opera doesn't work for a pop musical.

Kirsten Irving said...

You know I trust you, right? Friends don't let friends unwittingly link to horrendous High School Musical caterwauling! Dude, I thought it would be an actual ace pastiche!