Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Remembering Robert Sherman: Recapturing A Legend in a Bottle

“And when [my grandfather] died, I suddenly realized I wasn’t crying for him at all, but for the things he did. I cried because he would never do them again, he would never carve another piece of wood or help us raise doves and pigeons in the backyard or play the violin the way he did, or tell us jokes the way he did. He was part of us and when he died, all the actions stopped dead and there was no one to do them the way he did. He was individual. He was an important man. I’ve never gotten over his death. Often I think what wonderful carvings never came to birth because he died. How many jokes are missing from the world, and how many homing pigeons untouched by his hands? He shaped the world. He did things to the world. The world was bankrupted of ten million fine actions the night he passed on.”
Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

These words from a work of fiction can easily apply to Robert Sherman, one of Disney's best and most beloved composers. He and his brother Richard Sherman worked together to write music for Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book, Charlotte's Web (an animated version from the 1980s), and Winnie the Pooh.

While Howard Ashman (RIP, beloved songwriter) and Alan Menken (Hunchback of Notre Dame, Tangled) defined Disney adventure with their music, the Sherman brothers crafted secure worlds with their bouncy melodies. Even a scary song like "Heffalumps and Woozles" was packed with the safety of waking up from a bizarre, not terrifying nightmare. I laugh at elephant bees and bears stuck in cannons, even while admitting my terror of them.

The Sherman Brothers maintained that sensibility when working on other films. The 1980s version of Charlotte's Web, for example, stuck with me of the music; we jumped from bouncy fair revues to lazy, luxurious lullabies. Although my brother complains about the film's stiff animation, I remember it fondly because of the music. The movie starts with a gentle love song between a girl and her pet, which gives us a melody for the soundtrack to play with in humorous and sad moments. Some of the somber lullabies contradict with this melody, building up to Charlotte's death as a massive, heartbreaking reprise after Wilbur's bronze medal is celebrated. Despite her death, however, we take security in Wilbur's survival and his determination to become Charlotte's memory immortal.

The Jungle Book has that same sense of security, even in twisted ways. We have Kaa's villain song, "Trust in Me," in which giant snake Kaa plays with a hypnotized Mowgli before planning to devour him. Yet the rhythm is soothing while the lyrics ring creepily in our mind, almost placing us in the same hypnotic state. The Sherman brothers enjoyed messing with us, although they would soon stick to their sweet security once we hit the twenty-first century. Small wonder that we remember The Jungle Book despite it's weaknesses compared to Disney's other movies.

That said, the Sherman Brothers contributed more songs to the Disney company and other movies than I can count; I will try listening to all of them, to think about how they remain reassuring no matter what the circumstances. You can't stop growing up, but you can still love the songs that celebrate London and sweets with holes in them.

RIP Robert Sherman; you gave us a warm and fuzzy childhood.

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