Annecy Recap: “Storytelling Through Music” with Disney Television Animation

During an Annecy presentation called “Storytelling Through Music,” Disney Television Animation offered a glimpse at three upcoming shows while highlighting two fan favorites, Big City Greens and Kiff. But in terms of what was new, attendees got to see and hear three episodic songs from three upcoming shows – Disney Jr.’s Ariel, ZOMBIES: The Re-Animated Series, and Disney Jr.’s Kindergarten: The Musical. Moderated by Jay Sutler, SVP of Music for Disney Television Animation, the panel offered an insightful look at the storytelling benefits of songs.



ZOMBIES: The Re-Animated Series premieres June 28th on Disney Channel. Executive producer Aliki Theofilopoulos represented the animated spin-off of the hit DCOM franchise. Her experience on Phineas and Ferb helped hone her songwriting skills, which she further developed on Descendants: Wicked World. Bringing back some of the songwriting teams from the live-action films, the creative team initially planned an original song for the show’s main title sequence. While those songs will be heard as episodic songs, in the end, they found the easiest way to welcome fans to this animated version of Seabrook was with a familiar song – “Our Year” from the first film.

One full song from ZOMBIES: The Re-Animated Series was released early as part of the show’s promotional campaign, “Repeat.” Aliki revealed that she began tinkering with the song in the writer’s room for the first episode, which finds Aspen rewinding time so all of their friends can start their senior year of high school over again. She passed her concepts on to Chantry Johnson and Michelle Zarlenga Arrangement, who wrote “We Got This” from ZOMBIES 2 and “Exceptional Zed” from ZOMBIES 3.

Disney Jr.’s Ariel splashes onto screens beginning June 27th, and executive producer Lynne Southerland joined the panel to talk about how music was used to help integrate Afro-Caribbean culture into the series. This concept was critical to get right in the series’ main theme, and when Disney Television Animation opened its doors for pitches, Lynne was overwhelmed by the number of submissions. Through a blind selection process, she narrowed it down to two contenders and begged Jay Stutler to find room for both. Two songwriting teams created music for the series, alternating between even and odd episode numbers. Sean K. Skeete from Berklee College of Music also serves as a consultant as an expert on Afro-Caribbean music.

The main title sequence was released early to promote the series, which had the challenge of welcoming longtime fans of The Little Mermaid back to Atlantica while giving preschoolers their first exposure to Ariel’s undersea world. Debuted during the panel was an episodic song, “Trust in What You Know,” from an episode titled “Fernie’s Notebook,” in which Ariel sings to her friend to try and cheer him up when he loses the fish facts book he wrote.

The main titles for Kindergarten: The Musical were recently released. Executive producer and songwriter Kay Hanley, whose previous Disney Jr. music work includes Doc McStuffins and Vampirina, represented the show. She revealed that as part of the pitch, she wrote an opening theme for the show that worked well, but as they reached the midway point of the first season, it began to feel out of synch with how the characters had evolved. So she set about writing a new opening theme, which is the one viewers will experience at the start of each episode. She also revealed that there are two versions of the main titles, one with Birdie’s dad driving her to school, and the other with her mom (Birdie’s parents are divorced).

As the title suggests, Kindergarten: The Musical is a musical. But when the show was first developed, Kay didn’t realize just how many songs that would entail. Each 11-minute episode has an average of 3 songs, 2 of which occur in the “real world” (CG), and 1 that is always set in fantasy (2D). The fantasy songs are usually traditional “I Want” songs,” and we got to see one from the premiere episode titled “I Want to Go Home,” since Birdie’s first day of Kindergarten didn’t go the way she planned. Unlike Doc McStuffins, where songs were primarily used to reinforce a theme, the songs in Kindergarten: The Musical are driven by story and character development, like a traditional musical. As a parent who recalls sitting through some bad music in preschool shows, Kay also talked about the importance of making the music palatable for co-viewing.

Big City Greens co-creator Chris Houghton reflected on how his decision to not have lyrics in the show’s main titles was considered a bold risk. He would often listen to music while developing the show, particularly a band called The Mowgli's, whose style he wanted to emulate. He wasn’t expecting Jay Stutler to respond to that idea by suggesting they call up the band, who indeed wrote and recorded the Big City Greens theme song. Music wasn’t initially a big part of the show, but the Season 2 Christmas special (“Green Christmas”) included 5 songs, which were very well received. By Season 3, songs had become a regular occurrence on the show. And all of that work made the feature-length musical spectacular, Big City Greens the Movie: Spacecation, easier to make. Also of benefit was the additional time afforded to the film’s development compared to a regular episode of the show. As part of the panel, attendees got to watch “Green Family Vacation,” the film’s opening song.

Kiff co-creator and executive producer Nic Smal discussed how music was part of the show from its inception, with “Things” part of the show’s proof-of-concept. When it came time to create a main title sequence, co-creator Lucy Heavens suggested the idea of seeing the lead character’s point of view as her name is called. Nic came up with a beat, and a repeat of Kiff’s name each time it’s shouted, which became the main titles fans know and love. As an example of a song from the show, Nic recalled how one of the writers came into work worried about a long text they sent somebody and how they hadn’t received a response yet. They referred to it as a “Chunky Text,” and Nic’s wheels immediately began turning, leading to one of the show’s most popular songs.

Music from Big City Greens, Kiff, and Disney Jr.’s Ariel is now available from all major streaming platforms. Music from ZOMBIES: The Re-Animated Series should be released close to the show’s premiere date on June 28th. Stay tuned for more news about Kindergarten: The Musical, which does not yet have a release date.

Alex Reif
Alex joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and has been a lifelong Disney fan. His main beats for LP are Disney-branded movies, TV shows, books, music and toys. He recently became a member of the Television Critics Association (TCA).