I have a dear friend in Austin who refuses to see animated films. I’ve tried for nearly 25 years to convince him of their worth but he refuses to pay money to go see a “cartoon.” We don’t even discuss it anymore. I think he’s a fool and I’m sure he thinks the same about me.
But I love animated films. Why? Stunning artwork, great stories, the often stellar vocal work, but most importantly, the music. The classic set of orchestrations and sound that animation requires catapults me right back to childhood. While watching an animated film, I can let go of my jaded cynicism and become a kid again. And, for me, it’s the music that does it. My recent enjoyment of THE LEGEND OF SILKBOY prompted me to devote this month’s “9 on the 9th” post to this special genre of film music.
Trust me, combing through over 70 years of animated films was tough. I laid myself two ground rules for this list. 1) They had to be feature films. So, rightly or wrongly, I had to leave out classics like Albert Hague’s immortal HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS and Vince Guaraldi’s A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS, as well as Julian Nott’s fantastic work on the WALLACE & GROMIT shorts, especially his pitch-perfect pastiche of Rachmaninoff in A CLOSE SHAVE. And 2) if it’s an animated musical, the songs count as well, which is why Elton John and Tim Rice’s supbar efforts killed Hans Zimmer’s THE LION KING and Matthew Wilder and David Zippel’s lousy songs for MULAN kept Jerry Goldsmith’s stunning score from being on the list.
To pare down the list was heartbreaking. While I tried to be subjective and keep the haze of memory out of it, it still affected the list somewhat. But I guess that’s why the word “favorite” in the post title is there in the first place. While it’s too early to tell if recent animated favorites like HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON will have staying power (I bet it will), here are nine animated scores that will draw you in.
9. THE ARISTOCATS (1970)
While not top-tier Disney, half of the joy of THE ARISTOCATS is watching how the Disney animators convert the jazz music of George Bruns’ infectious score into their animation. The songs by the Sherman Brothers, Terry Gilkinson et al define early ’70s Disney fun. The studio was still in transition following the death of Uncle Walt a few years earlier and, as such, the film is missing some of the sparkle of earlier and later Disney efforts. But it’s hard to resist songs like “Everybody Wants To Be a Cat” and the Gallic and jazz inflections of Bruns’ music, with the sly feline portamenti in the strings.
8. THE LITTLE MERMAID (1989)
For those of us who had stopped going to see animated films because of subpar Disney efforts like OLIVER & CO., THE LITTLE MERMAID was a revelation and a return to that Disney magic that had been missing from the studio (and animated films in general) for so long. Alan Menken and especially lyricist Howard Ashman revitalized a moribund genre and gave it a classic Broadway musical formula that defined animated films for a decade. MERMAID was Menken’s first background score and he was still learning the ropes. If it’s missing some of the sophistication of his later scores, it’s still a worthy first effort, supported by a handful of marvelous songs, especially the moving “Part of Your World.”
7. DUMBO (1941)
I have a very special place in my heart for this Disney classic. A good shrink could probably read a lot into my connection with Dumbo’s outsider status and his relationship with his mother. For years I identified with the pachyderm’s big ears and shyness. But forgetting all those foolish psychological trappings, Frank Churchill and Oliver Wallace’s Oscar-winning big-top score is a melodic delight. Add in the calliope oom-pah-pah‘s of Edward Plumb’s sparkling orchestrations and Ned Washington’s sweet and witty lyrics and you’ve got a three-ring winner. I love the honest emotion of “Baby Mine,” the drug-induced fright of “Pink Elephants on Parade” and the jazzy riffs of “When I See An Elephant Fly.” I don’t understand the appeal of circuses, but the appeal of this charming score never dims.
6. PINOCCHIO (1940)
I cannot tell a lie. I tear up every time I hear “When You Wish Upon a Star.” That melody is so ingrained in my psyche that it’s a direct route to the innocence of childhood. While I find PINOCCHIO to be a little slow-going as a film, the music shows the early Disney style at its finest. From the pizzicato strings and staccato woodwinds of “Little Wooden Head” to the shimmering magic of “The Blue Fairy,” Leigh Harline and Paul J. Smith’s score is a beauty. Classic songs like “Give a Little Whistle” and “I’ve Got No Strings” add to the perennial appeal of this Oscar-winner.
5. CHICKEN RUN (2000)
I’m a big fan of the WALLACE & GROMIT shorts and Aardman Animation in general. While CHICKEN RUN doesn’t quite match the sheer visual wit of the best of the W&G series, it’s still an entertaining film, thanks in no small part to the score by Harry Gregson-Williams and John Powell. With more than a slight nod to THE GREAT ESCAPE, Gregson-Williams and Powell score the film with humor, energy and musical chutzpah. With an infectious main theme and the brilliant use of kazoos, this one is guaranteed to put a smile on your face. I’ve yet to meet a film music fan who doesn’t like this score.
4. HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE (2004)
I’m not a fan of Japanese anime. And watching American dubbed versions of it is almost as bad as watching dubbed live action foreign films. But by ignoring the genre, it took me years before I discovered the pleasures of Joe Hisaishi’s music. Sweeping and melodic, Hisaishi’s anime scores are far from what I expected. Even with stories firmly planted in Asian soil, Hisaishi’s music is written and scored in a classical Hollywood tradition. The whirling “merry-go-round of life” waltz from HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE swept me into the world of this great composer and I’ve never looked back.
3. UP (2009)
If you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time, you know of my love for UP and Michael Giacchino’s score. The music hit me emotionally right in the gut from the very first listen. Giacchino’s music is sweet, charming, thrilling and moving in the most unlikely of places. As much as I admired THE INCREDIBLES and loved RATATOUILLE, UP made me a Giacchino fan. I literally got tears in my eyes when he walked onstage to accept his very worthy Oscar. In the last 12 months, the score has only risen in my estimation.
2. FINDING NEMO (2003)
If you read my 9 Favorite Scores of Thomas Newman post, then the inclusion of FINDING NEMO will come as no surprise. Newman’s masterful score was a welcome break from the more pedestrian scoring stylings of Randy Newman’s earlier Pixar efforts. His exotic orchestrations were not what I was expecting and it took me many listens to accept his sonic world for an animated score. Like a lot of Newman’s work, priceless musical moments fly by in the space of a few bars. Yet Newman never loses sight of the characters, emotion and overall arc of the story. The film has one of the gentlest, most satisfying endings of any animated score I’ve ever heard. Even today, the music unearths fresh new musical gems the deeper I dive into the score.
1. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1991)
For me, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is the pinnacle of Disney animation–the perfect combination of story, songs and score. The sadness surrounding Howard Ashman’s death of AIDS prior to the film’s release lends Alan Menken’s gorgeous melodies added weight and poignancy. But I think the score shows off Menken’s underrated scoring abilities to its fullest, and his innate talent sets this particular score above the rest. Containing arguably the finest set of songs of any animated film, Menken weaves those priceless melodies through his delightful background score. Only the most rigorous Menken basher would deny the worthiness of this fantastic Oscar-winning score.