It’s difficult to picture anyone arguing that Disney’s animated adventure musical Moana is in any way inferior to fellow cartoons like DreamWorks’ Trolls, a movie based on a once-popular line of toy trolls, or Illumination Entertainment’s Sing, a movie based on the frequently popular idea of singing. But 20 years ago, actual cartoons with contemporary music cues or dizzying mashups might have felt downright cutting edge. These days, there’s a good chance you find this vaguely annoying. Have we as a culture grown so hardhearted to both eye-popping animation and glittering pop music that we can no longer be impressed by a combination of the two? Or is there something genuinely and insidiously annoying about what has come to be known as the dance-party ending?
Back in the ’90s, with Disney having re-established its stranglehold over big-studio feature cartoons, the world’s most famous animation brand also held sway over its narrative formulas. Animated movies were supposed to have plucky heroes and/or heroines, comic-relief sidekicks, perhaps a villain who experiences a falling death, and at least four or five original Broadway-style songs. While some of the Disney pictures that followed in the wake of their early-’90s golden age were strong, they nonetheless could feel constrained by the formula established by Beauty And The Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King.
It was this world of formula that explains, at least partially, why a spoof as mild and secondhand as Shrek seemed almost subversive when it came out in 2001. Shrek, the movie itself made repeatedly clear, was too smart and too knowing to indulge classic fairy-tale cartoon tropes—especially treacly ballads and splashy production numbers. Shrek was a movie for contemporary audiences who rejected those formulaic, childlike constructions for more sophisticated and adult-oriented entertainment, such as Smash Mouth covering The Monkees, or, moments later, Eddie Murphy also covering The Monkees.
That’s how the rapturously received Oscar-winning movie Shrek ends: with a fairy-tale wedding scored by Smash Mouth’s version of “I’m A Believer,” which quickly segues into Donkey (voiced by Murphy) fronting a wedding band playing the same song, as nearly the entire cast of the movie reappears to dance and frolic in a crowd-pleasing curtain call. DreamWorks may not have invented the dance-party ending—it has roots as diverse as old-timey movie musicals and beach blanket movies of the ’60s—but it certainly popularized it and made it a new standard for animated films. Besides the appallingly successful Shrek 2, the dance-party ending also closed out the DreamWorks stablemate Megamind, the Illumination hit Despicable Me, and Disney’s Chicken Little, among others. I assume Norm Of The North has at least two but I can’t bring myself to fact-check this by learning any more than I already know about Norm Of The North.
Better cartoons aren’t immune, either; this year’s Zootopia painted a complicated picture of modern urban dynamics, and then attempted to heal its quasi-racial fissures by forcing all of its characters to attend a concert by the pop-singer character Gizelle (Shakira), so they might happily bop to the movie’s radio-ready theme song. There’s even arguably an early version of the cartoon dance-party ending in the masterful Toy Story 2, predating Shrek, but Pixar characters have such believable emotional and physical lives that the scene more closely resembles people standing around and swaying at a pleasant office party than a boisterous wedding reception with an overly aggressive DJ who really, really likes Smash Mouth. The dance-party ending is a trope—and, like most tropes, its very repetition does not actually disqualify it from ever working.
But if Shrek sequels turned a trope into a bothersome trend, Trolls and Sing have brought that trend to its apex. They practically turn the dance party ending into its own driving aesthetic, a reason for being from which entire features can be backward-engineered. Interestingly, both movies use the dance-party ending to return to the musical mode Shrek once attempted to reject with its hip employment of the consensus choice for the finest popsmiths of their day, Smash Mouth. In keeping with that fine tradition without necessitating any legal contact with anyone in Smash Mouth, these dance-party cartoons use songs from the radio or, in the case of Trolls, an infectious song-of-the-summer tune recorded for the film by Justin Timberlake, but released well ahead of time to become its own sui generis hit. Surely, the pop sensibilities of Justin Timberlake should make for a cooler, more satisfying musical than Disney’s Alan Menken and whoever he’s dredged up to serve as one of his rotating lyricist ringers.
Yet even as the dance parties extend enough to bring the movies back around to musical territory, there’s something irritating and hacky about them, despite the way a movie like Trolls uses the trope as an excuse to mount an eye-popping Moulin Rouge-style fantasia. (In that respect, it’s not unlike the misbegotten but weirdly likable George Lucas-produced oddity Strange Magic, though the Lucasfilm production actually commits more strongly to the musical form.) Trolls has moments of weirdo visual invention, and it’s a pleasure to hear stars Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake sing; they both have lovely voices and good comic timing, and ought to do more musicals. (Timberlake also served as executive music producer.) So why doesn’t Trolls feel like an actual musical for its stars, even though it pretty much is one? Why did I literally cry with joy when I saw Moulin Rouge for the first time but managed only a series of skeptical half-smiles while watching Trolls?
I think it’s because there’s an unmistakable demographic-covering neediness to the pop-obsessed exuberance of Trolls, while Moulin Rouge, while similarly populist in musical selections, is too bonkers to be anything but a labor of love. The neediness of Trolls is exacerbated by the much worse Sing, wherein celebrity-voiced cartoon animals compete in an American Idol-style competition. Sing has plenty of things wrong with it, but its celebratory performances feel particularly empty-headed. Enduring so many mindless dance-party endings should prepare any animation fan for the grim sight of cartoon pigs mounting a “Shake It Off”-themed production number, but the smirking cuteness of it still breaks through mere cynical disinterest to prove actually, actively irritating. Sing is the kind of movie that can make you question whether you ever want to see pigs perform pop music, even if decades of Muppet fandom has conditioned you to believe otherwise.
That’s the thing about dance-party endings: Disliking these moments in modern cartoons doesn’t always feel rational, especially for fans of cinematic musicals. The dance-party ending has been used in plenty of live-action films, and while it’s often just as clear a play for audience approval in that format, it rarely feels quite as pandering in the flesh. This may have to do with inherent differences between animation and live action. In movies like The 40-Year-Old Virgin or Hitch, group dance scenes break the format of movies that, while exaggerated in their comedy, are intended to be more or less naturalistic. These sequences, often running into or over the end credits, also offer the opportunity to see a variety of familiar stars show off their dance moves, which can range from endearingly amateurish to surprisingly adroit.
In animation, though, there are far fewer physical limits to the medium; even in the age of endless CG fixes, there will always be plenty of live action movies with clear parameters regarding what they can or will depict within their chosen worlds. Live-action dancing can still thrill at sub-Astaire levels because real bodies are involved, and there’s something infectious about, say, the Muppets dancing around that knocks playfully against the limitations of puppetry. But cartoon gingerbread men or pigs or superheroes can be made to do virtually anything, even on a budget. Just doing it isn’t enough; dancing in cartoons is less inherently interesting than it is in real life. If you absorb enough of it, cartoon dancing becomes like a guide to seeing through visual effects: Behind every animated gyration is the effort of dozens of animators, designers, and executives with cartoon dollar-signs in their eyes.
Singing, at least, involves a “real” voice regardless of format—and despite the coinage centering on dance, dance-party endings do also tend to involve singing. Sing would have you believe that this craft is central to its story, and part of the movie’s appeal involves hearing famous folks like Reese Witherspoon and Scarlett Johansson doing through cartoon animals what they haven’t done much in their live-action vehicles: singing middling to terrible pop songs. But the movie focuses just as intently on the production of the singing contest, wherein at least some of the animals (particularly Witherspoon’s pig) have to rehearse elaborate dances to accompany their performances. Even when the characters aren’t shaking their animated butts, Sing shares the dance-party sensibility by trading on familiarity with the concept of pop music more than an actual, visceral, personal love for the form.
That, in the end, is the chief disappointment of this trope: It takes the joy of the movie musical and replaces it with a kind of aggressive entreaty to have a great time recognizing stuff. (Basically, it’s Mamma Mia, all the time, without the saving grace of Pierce Brosnan’s glorious inability to sing). Worse, it couches this technique in a hipper-than-showtunes appreciation for pop music, only to turn around and use hacky pop-music cues no more effectively (and often less effectively!) than any number of second-tier Disney originals. It’s poptimism run cynically amok.
That’s not to say that any and all filmmakers who profess to enjoy using Michael Jackson’s “Bad” as a reformed supervillain’s theme or Smash Mouth covering “I’m A Believer” to express true love are insincere. But animation, even when aimed explicitly at children, should be held to some of the same standards of live action, including applying good, offbeat, or in any way interesting taste when selecting music. Cartoon characters don’t look or move very much like real people, so why are they ascribed the same boring taste in music as someone who owns fewer than 10 albums, six of which are greatest-hits collections? Most dance-party endings are scored to songs on the level of either dusty live-action musical cues like “Bad To The Bone” (perhaps not coincidentally, also used in Megamind) and “Don’t Stop Believin,’” or soundtrack-original panderers like Despicable Me 2’s “Happy”—a perfectly catchy upbeat tune with toddler-level exultations of how good it is to feel good.
That’s the principle behind the dance-party ending in a nutshell: Singing and dancing feels good, familiarity feels good, the audience deserves to feel good, so just do it! To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with crowd-pleasing, or even with repeated tropes. There are certainly more than a few tropes in a movie like Moana. But dance-party endings now feel like orthodoxy, perhaps more so than Disney’s mandatory musicals ever did. The Phil Collins ballads from Tarzan may be goopy and terrible, but at least the filmmakers don’t seem to be imagining that they will leave crowds floating out of the theater in the ecstasy of having heard some song from the radio, but with pigs singing it. The songs from Moana have real emotional weight, which makes them feel more adult than a burst of mandatory fun. Much of Trolls makes for a visually stimulating, crowd-pleasing dance party. It might have made an even better heartfelt musical.