Zayn and Zhavia Ward Transcend an Odd “Whole New World”

Disney’s nostalgia experiment – the release of live-action or 3D-realized remakes of its animated classics – has produced some interesting strengths and weaknesses of the most powerful entertainment library in the world. A strength: re-imagining the Disney vault for Generation Z and millennials clinging to their childhood has been a commercially and critically lucrative effort. A weakness: Disney hasn’t yet cracked it for its soundtracks.

A major ingredient of Disney Animation’s imperial phase success was the music, those timeless songs that were the emotional pulse of their films. They were simple, beautiful, and incredibly popular, both in their film and pop versions serviced to radio. With Disney is working through the films with those iconic themes, they now face the challenge of re-creating that musical magic. Their first attempt was 2017’s Beauty and the Beast, with Ariana Grande and John Legend covering the Oscar-nominated Peabo Bryson-Celiné Dion duet. Despite their best efforts, Grande and Legend’s version was a garish mess, charmlessly arranged and overproduced (why they didn’t go with the orchestral version previewed in the movie’s trailer is still a mystery). What should’ve been a slam dunk, considering the caliber of vocalists they pulled, was a complete miss.

The stakes are higher for “A Whole New World”, the theme from Aladdin. “Beauty and the Beast” was a hit, but “A Whole New World” was a full-blown smash back in 1992. The song, performed by Brad Kane and Lea Salonga in the film and by R&B legends Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle for the pop version, won an Oscar and is still the only Disney song to hit #1 on the charts. Taking up the mantle for the remake is Zayn and Zhavia Ward, a finalist on FOX’s singing competition The Four. While Zayn is a proven pop quantity, Ward is less familiar unless you followed her on the show (I didn’t). On paper, their duet could go either way: unlistenable mess or excellent interpretation worthy of Alan Menken’s material.

The reality falls somewhere in the middle, a bit closer to the latter. The song starts off very strong, with a lovely Eastern-influenced introduction that immediately feels fresh and continues through the first verse. Then, things start getting weird, with drumbeats, snaps, and other needless flourishes that crowd into the chorus and add nothing but distraction from the excellent lyrics and the two voices singing them. The second verse is where the song goes off the rails, completely ignoring the original’s key change and spoils the experience. It’s unfortunate, because Zayn and Zhavia Ward are excellent. Zayn’s rich, soaring tone fills the song’s space wonderfully (diction issues aside). Ward has a very distinctive, unique voice, and that she can go toe-to-toe with one of the best male singers in pop this early in her career is impressive. Together, they nearly reach that magical point that Bryson and Belle did, but the song itself holds them back.

This version of “A Whole New World” is better than “Beauty and the Beast”, but it also signals a troubling trend in the Disney remakes. I can understand wanting to update these songs for the streaming generation, but that shouldn’t mean dinging them with bizarre arrangements and useless instruments. Modernize, sure, but “A Whole New World”, like the rest of Disney’s musical canon, stands the test of time for a reason. Hopefully the studio figures this out in time for what will be its biggest challenge yet: the near-untouchable The Lion King soundtrack coming in July.

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