The Film with the Best Score Day 5: 30 Days of Animated Films

(I’m doubling up this week to make up for lost time! So, here’s day 5 a few days late! As always, disclaimer: my opinions are mine and nobody else’s)

I really love movie soundtracks — In a way, a film’s score is like a movie itself, art born out of limitation and requirement. The music serves a very specific purpose, and has to walk a fine line between accentuating the action on-screen and not overpowering it.

Great soundtracks fit their movies perfectly.

The best soundtracks fit their movies, but also exist as a standalone work of art, able to be enjoyed and sustained without the images on a screen.

Animated films have a rich history of great scores, and the CG films of the last two decades are no different. The question for today is:

What film has the best musical score?

Some Runners Up: Dreamworks

The Dreamworks animated films have almost left zero impression on my brain. They aren’t bad per se, but they’ve just managed to escape my attention. There are two notable exceptions, however – the first is a score by John Powell and Harry Gregson Williams, for the film Antz.


I think this will be Antz‘s only mention on this month’s list, which is a shame because I really love this movie. The score, in particular, is a wonderful and eclectic mix of big-band ostentation and a large, often-whistling choir. If there were ever a soundtrack to the life of a colony of ants, this would be it. The slower moments of the score are nice, but not particularly memorable. On the whole, Antz is a quirky film, with a quirky score to match.

The Powell/Williams team went on to also score Shrek

I would recognize the Shrek theme if I heard it, but I would be hard-pressed to hum it for you — I think in part this is because of the extremely pop-heavy track list crowding out the orchestral score.

While Williams continued to work on the Shrek series, Powell worked on one of my favorite Dreamworks scores, from How to Train your Dragon


This track, “Forbidden Friendship” is the perfect counterpoint to the film’s pivotal montage at the first act break. I think the key here is self-limitation – the track builds on itself very slowly, not using more than six or seven instruments at a time until the emotional high point, where the film’s signature flute, a choir, and a string section carry the theme. Crucially, the score never overpowers the important character building happening on-screen. I especially like the bass clarinet texture that sits at the bottom of the ensemble until the choir kicks in — it feels a bit like quick breathing. It’s a really lovely track.

Some Runners-Up: Pixar and Thomas Newman

Thomas Newman has a real talent for making scores that fit their movies perfectly. It’s hard to imagine Meet Joe Black or the Shawshank Redemption or Road to Perdition without Newman’s contribution. At Pixar, Newman worked on two films – Finding Nemo and Wall-E

True to form, both of these scores fit their movies like a glove. My only qualm with Newman’s work is that inevitably, at least one track from each score he does is practically indistinguishable from another on a completely different film’s. He has a very particular style and set of chord resolutions that he loves to use. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing — after all, he serves his specific niche of emotionally-swelling strings better than anyone.

This is my particular favorite from Nemo, which shows a little of the quirky Newman and the swelling-strings Newman:


Some Runners-Up: Pixar and Randy Newman

Like a lot of people my age, my only exposure to Randy Newman (cousin of Thomas Newman, if you were curious) growing up was his happy-go-lucky tunes from Pixar — and maybe that one sketch from Family Guy.

If you’re not familiar with his work outside of films, I highly recommend giving him a shot. He’s a seriously complex musician — a lot of his songs have major social commentary, but he provides something really rare for a songwriter: an unreliable narrator. His songs can drip with cynicism while being amazingly upbeat. Look up “rednecks” some time (NSFW warning. Yes, I’m still talking about THAT Randy Newman.)

Newman provided the score and lyrics for all three Toy Story films.

In the first film, Newman provided almost a Greek Chorus for the film’s action, with echoes of Disney classic Peter Pan which also had a non-character chorus.


I think “sail no more” is my personal favorite of the lyrical pieces, but the whole score is just wonderful.

In Toy Story 2 Newman’s chorus is replaced with just one song, performed by Sarah McLachlan. This song was the first time I cried during a Pixar film. It certainly wouldn’t be the last, either, those tearjerks.


Randy Newman’s uncanny ability to produce an earworm combined with McLachlan’s raw emotionality provided in two minutes an entire movie’s worth of depth for Jessie, who otherwise wouldn’t have had enough screen time for us to really feel much for her. That’s the power of music.

By the third film, the lyrical songs were pretty much tokens and callbacks, but the score was still excellent.

Some Runners-Up: Pixar and Michael Giacchino

Where Thomas Newman is really, really good at his one thing, Michael Giacchino seems to be pretty darn good at everything else. Not only does Giacchino do work for video games, TV, and films, but he seems to be able to move between genre and style without a hiccup — from huge James Bond-style ensemble homages in the Incredibles to surprisingly restrained waltzes in Up, Giacchino has provided my personal favorite scores of the animated CG lineup. All that remains, really, is to pick a favorite. Here are some runners-up.

Originally I was going to do a breakdown of each, but I kept saying the same thing every time… Giacchino brings so much joy and love to his work that you can’t help but get swept up by it. For all that, there is a delicacy and intimacy to the quiet moments of his scores that invites you to join the fun of the more bombastic parts.


And the Winner Is…

That pretty much leaves Ratatouille — a film that will receive a lot more attention later in the month, I promise. For now, this is one of my favorite tracks from the film. I tried to find a clip with the animation so that you can see how deftly the music fits with the image:


The score also has wonderful hints of jazz and more than a little Gallic influence without pushing the accordian TOO much. What really puts Ratatouille over the top for me is Giacchino’s collaboration with French singer/songwriter Camille, le Festin, which is the absolutely perfect piece for a movie all about the joy of creativity.

Here’s the song with a translation — the joyful song is surprisingly sober, but totally in line with the message of the film.


Later: The most quotable film

Speak Your Mind