* SPOILER ALERT *
Music is an essential ingredient to making a good film, and in animated films in particular, a good soundtrack can add a lot of weight to the whole experience. We all have favourite songs that we’ve memorised all the words to (especially Disney songs – there are so many great ones!), but there’s more to a strong soundtrack than just the songs. For this article, I want to take a look at a selection of what I consider to be the best scores for animated films, because I feel like they’re often overlooked by fans and they really deserve some love. (Don’t worry; I’ll definitely be getting around to songs later!)
I’ll admit I do have a bit of a bias towards more modern films – that’s not necessarily because older films don’t have good scores; it’s just a matter of taste. I like the scores for Bambi and The Rescuers as much as the next person, but they don’t really stand out to me as examples of great music. There are a host of incredibly talented composers working in cinema today, so before I get into the list itself, a few honourable mentions:
Randy Newman – Toy Story franchise (1995, 1999, 2010), Monsters Inc. (2001), The Princess and the Frog (2009)
Alan Silvestri – Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992), Lilo & Stitch (2002), The Polar Express (2004)
Hans Zimmer – The Lion King (1994), The Road to El Dorado (2000), Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (2002), Kung Fu Panda (2008)
Alan Menken – Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), Pocahontas (1995)
John Powell – How To Train Your Dragon (2010), Rio (2011), Chicken Run (2000, with Harry Gregson-Williams)
Jerry Goldsmith – The Secret of NIMH (1982), Mulan (1998, with Matthew Wilder)
Michael Giacchino – The Incredibles (2004), Up (2009)
Jim Lang – Hey Arnold!: The Movie (2002) (Not his best work I know, but he is a good composer with a flair for smooth jazz)
I also want to make a special case for Fantasia and Fantasia 2000 – since these two are scored entirely with classical music, featuring works by such illustrious names as Bach, Tchaikovsky, Dukas, Stravinsky, Beethoven, Ponchielli, Mussorgsky, Shubert, Respighi, Gershwin, Elgar, Shostakovich and Saint-Saëns, it wouldn’t really be fair to include them on the main list. We know their scores are amazing, but the music wasn’t written for the films – so they don’t count.
Oh, one last thing: John Williams, though he is a fantastic film composer, has only scored one animated film: Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin (2011). This really isn’t some of his best work, so I decided against including it. Now, let’s get started!
- Finding Nemo (2003) – Thomas Newman
At number ten, we have my favourite Pixar score, from Finding Nemo. When people think of this film, the music isn’t usually the first thing that comes to mind, which I think is a shame as it really fits the tone of the film perfectly. At times, it’s bright and jaunty, such as on Nemo’s first day of school, but at others it is calm and soothing, with lots of gentle piano and synth echoing the rhythms of the tide. During the film’s darker moments, such as the barracuda attack, these calm periods grow unsettled, interrupted with violent bursts of percussion to give you a physical jolt. Woodwind is also used to great effect throughout the score to emphasise the emotions of the characters at particular moments. The angler fish scene is a great moment for the score, building from a quiet, unassuming start to a brassy chase with lots of simmering strings. Nemo’s theme is the highlight of the whole thing, though, woven throughout the score and often resurfacing during the more emotionally powerful moments, with a string background swelling beautifully against a light piano undertone. Look out for a brief use of the famous Psycho theme when Darla arrives, too!
Thomas Newman’s career dates back to the 1980s and he has scored a vast array of beloved classics, both animated and live-action, including The Shawshank Redemption (1994), American Beauty (1999) and Pay It Forward (2000). His distinctive use of piano makes his work quite easy to recognise and he has done a number of Pixar scores, including the one for WALL-E (2008). Check out a piece of his Nemo work below:
- Tangled (2010) – Alan Menken
Next up, it’s good old Alan Menken with his score for Tangled. What animation fan doesn’t love this guy? He’s scored a whole slew of popular Disney films, as well as other works, but I think his work for Tangled is some of his absolute best. The whole score is infused with what you might call “Disney magic,” with lots of bright percussion and cheerful strings, as well as some more interesting touches like the Spanish guitar, which lends the film a “folksy” European feeling. At times, the music almost has a festive feeling to it, putting me in mind of Christmas with the bells and “sparkles.” One of the best moments for the score comes when Gothel first realises Rapunzel is missing; the building intensity of the strings punctuated with horns reflect her increasing anxiety, coming to a dramatic crescendo before collapsing into light percussion, which then blends slowly into a darker theme as she resolves to set out after her – it adds a great deal of power to the scene. Menken was apparently inspired by 1960s folk rock and medieval music, and you can really hear these influences in sections like Kingdom Dance, with the breezy string and woodwind melodies whisking you straight back to the pageantry of the fifteenth century.
My favourite section is Waiting for the Lights, which plays over Rapunzel and Eugene’s moment on the lake and continues through the lighting of the lanterns. During their conversation, we get just a gentle background of guitar and percussion, but when we see the King and Queen, an incredibly tender piano is added, adding immense emotional weight to the animation of their expressions. It then breaks out into a rapturous, romantic section as the lanterns go up, filled with triumphant horns and backed by a choir, it’s just amazing. Hear for yourself!
- Rise of the Guardians (2012) – Alexandre Desplat
At number eight, we have Alexandre Desplat’s score for Rise of the Guardians. My god, this film is underrated, it’s such a shame. Desplat began his career in the late 1990s and has done a lot of work for French cinema as well as English; his work includes the final two instalments in the Harry Potter franchise and The Danish Girl (2015). Here, he creates a dramatic and cinematically appealing score, filled with bombastic brass and lots of festive percussion (it is a film about various holidays after all). The mood can change rapidly within a single track; listen out for the gradual key change and dissonance in the percussion during Dreamsand to Nightmares, as Pitch infects the dreams of the sleeping children. If you’ve seen the film, you probably remember the Fanfare of the Elves (and Jack’s blunt interruption of it) – you can hear it in full on the soundtrack, sounding very much like the over-the-top brass call of the Twentieth Century Fox opener, but the interrupted version is included too, and it’s really funny to hear all the bellowing trumpets suddenly stuttering to a halt! Then we have the fight between Pitch, Sandy and Jack, where the mood is perfectly expressed with the changing key of the strings as Sandy is overcome, followed by short, staccato bursts as Jack’s powers break free.
The score is at its best, though, during the quieter moments, such as when North discusses his idea of having a “centre” with Jack, and especially when Jamie finally sees Jack for the first time. The piano at that point is minimal but very moving, with the Still Dream motif woven into it, gradually becoming accompanied by delicate woodwind and strings. It perfectly captures Jack’s childlike joy at being seen, after a lifetime of invisibility – have a listen to see what I mean.
- The Land Before Time (1988) – James Horner
At number seven it’s James Horner – rest in peace, mate – with The Land Before Time, the oldest score on my list. Horner was another well-known film composer, with a career dating back to the 1970s and award-winning hits like Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009) under his belt, but my favourite score of his will always be this one. The key to the emotional power of it is the song If We Hold On Together, which serves as a repeated motif that crops up all over the score, from the happier moments to the sad ones. It’s covered beautifully by Diana Ross over the end credits, symbolising the completion of the children’s journey – the theme stays with them for the whole film. Elsewhere, we get a sort of “bantering” between the piano and the other instruments in one of the film’s more recognisable motifs, used frequently to signal oncoming danger. The strings play with each other a lot, too, with the richer and darker ones contrasted against a lighter, more “innocent” overtone representing the children and the trials they face. Heavy drums and deep brass are used in places such as during the earthquake, lending an earthier tone to these moments – in fact, there’s a sense almost of inevitability, of the hopelessness of the situation, as the children struggle with the elements (and the predators) on their way to their salvation.
My favourite moment, though, has to be the final piece before the credits – this is the moment that shines in the memory of a whole generation’s childhoods. As Littlefoot comes to the brink of despair, a soothing choir with very minimal string accompaniment follows him through to the brink of the cliff, where he first sees the Great Valley. The power of this moment, as the cymbals clash and the strings kick in, cannot be underestimated – after such a long struggle, the score knows how to deliver the film’s reward in this climactic scene. In light of Horner’s recent death (not to mention poor little Judith Barsi’s – don’t listen to this while reading about her, I warn you), the music takes on another layer of poignancy. Here’s a sample:
- The Iron Giant (1999) – Michael Kamen
At number six, I’ve got The Iron Giant score from Michael Kamen, who is also, sadly, no longer with us. Before his passing in 2003, he enjoyed a career dating back to the 1970s (much like James Horner), featuring collaborations with Pink Floyd and Eric Clapton and a whole series of Die Hard films. His work here was his first and only for an animated feature, and was inspired by the likes of famed Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Hermann, taking cues from 1950s and 1960s films. The Czech Philharmonic was eventually used, chosen by Kamen for their “old-fashioned” sound, and you can really feel the Eastern European influences in the finished film. I love the lingering, tremulous strings featured throughout the score here – they sometimes convey a sense of loneliness, reflecting both the Giant’s and Hogarth’s situations. Hogarth’s motif features the bright, wide-eyed percussion and jaunty strings which so perfectly represent youth in film scores. There are also several sections where a military-themed drum beat can be heard in the underscore, fitting in with the strong army presence throughout the film. The final section before the credits features a dainty, music-box version of the film’s main theme, which gradually builds and builds with strings, drums and brass coming in as we fly across an Icelandic glacier to the Giant’s resting place – he’s alive!
The best moment comes towards the finale, when the Giant decides to sacrifice himself to save the townsfolk. The moment before his take-off is punctuated with a desolate string chord, as Hogarth says his last goodbye, then a rich swell of brass comes in to symbolise the Giant’s heroism – it really shakes you. Here’s the moment:
- Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) – Joe Hisaishi
Joe Hisaishi and Alan Menken are the only composers to feature twice on my list, and for very good reason. Beginning his career in 1981, Hisaishi’s decades-long collaboration with director Hayao Miyazaki has become legendary in the world of animation, with his refined and graceful scores setting a high bar for quality film music which few have been able to surpass. One of my two favourite scores of his is for Howl’s Moving Castle.
The score features a lot of superb piano melodies, complimented by romantic, waltzing strings, evoking a sort of Renaissance atmosphere and putting you in mind of cotillions and warm summer evenings. (It would actually make great dance music, for any ballroom fans out there!) It’s truly astonishing how many different emotions Hisaishi is able to inspire with his dynamic use of the piano – at times thoughtful or gleeful, it can also be melancholic or even angry, blending seamlessly into the rest of the film and cementing it in your mind long after the credits have ended. Hisaishi also had some foreign influences, such as the Bulgarian folk tune Trendafilchitu / Trendafilceto, which is featured in the scene where Suliman is attempting to strip Howl of his powers – it’s an ominous chant which adds greatly to the unsettling atmosphere of the scene, accentuated as it is with violent strings.
The central theme is The Merry-Go-Round of Life, which I’ve linked to below – it’s a grand, sweeping tune which crops up all over the score, but stands just as strongly by itself.
- Spirited Away (2001)– Joe Hisaishi
At number four we have another excellent Hisaishi score, this time for Spirited Away. Overall, this one is more minimalistic than the more pompous score for Howl, with the standout theme being One Summer’s Day, a gorgeously delicate piano piece which seems to tell the story of childhood in its notes. There is a bittersweet nostalgia expressed in the tentative, hopeful chords, mirroring Chihiro’s position at the start of the film – about to start at a new school in a new home, then suddenly thrust unwillingly into an adventure which will force her to grow up. I mean no offence when I say that this score has a more, well – Asian feeling to it than Howl’s, with its use of Japanese percussion and rhythms in sections like No Face’s motif (think of those moments when Chihiro passes him on the bridge) and the song Itsumo Nando Demo sung in Japanese over the end (thank goodness they didn’t shoehorn in an English cover in the dubbed version).
I think it’s fair to say that the highlight here is The Sixth Station (or The Sixth Stop), played over Chihiro’s train ride to see Zeniba. This is pure poetry, with darker tones mixing with lighter ones to create an almost eerie atmosphere, hinting at the kind of loneliness Chihiro is feeling, trapped in a strange world without her parents and her friend Haku in trouble. The music beautifully compliments the lush visuals which it accompanies; the shot of a single cottage, isolated by the floodwaters, gliding past the window of the train is truly sublime. And then there’s that little shadow girl, all alone on the platform, as the train pulls away… the score seems to dwell on her fate as the station vanishes into the distance, a few ripples the only trace of the train as it continues on its one-way journey. I can’t properly describe it, you have to hear it:
- The Prince of Egypt (1998) – Hans Zimmer
To open our top three, we have a fantastic score from Hans Zimmer, well-known to all for his work on films like the Dark Knight trilogy, Inception and Interstellar. Beginning his career in the 1980s, his first animated film work was for The Lion King in 1994, and he followed it with this masterpiece four years later. The score for The Prince of Egypt is rich, dark and almost “masculine” at times, with powerful character motifs running through it and plenty of atmospheric percussion to help set the mood. The use of vocals in this one is perhaps more significant than with any other score on the list; the haunting choral backing in some of the more unsettling moments (such as Moses’s dream sequence and the aftermath) adds a lot of urgency to the scenes, and of particular note is Israeli artist Ofra Haza (tragically, a victim of AIDS complicated by pneumonia just two years later), whose ethereal vocals can be heard in Deliver Us and even more so in parts of The Burning Bush and Goodbye Brother, where Moses is wandering in the desert. There is more effective vocal work in The Plagues, with deliberately harsh chanting contrasted with Moses and Rameses’s lyrical battle – just hearing the bellowing cries of “Thus saith the Lord” as the piece builds to its crescendo is enough to make your skin prickle.
The score is filled with highlights, including Burning Bush and Red Sea, both filled with uplifting swells of choir song and strings to beautifully support the themes of religious persecution, but the best piece is probably When You Believe (I know that it features a song, but it does have an excellent underscore to it). The interplay of Michelle Pfeiffer and Sally Dworsky’s voices is beautiful, but the emotional turning point in the song, from grief to new hope, comes when the little girl begins singing a Hebrew prayer, Ashira L’Adonai. The rest of the score is almost muted at this point, emphasising the purity of the girl’s voice and heightening the intensity of the imagery on screen, as an elderly slave woman is led out of the gates of Egypt by another little girl (perhaps it is supposed to be her voice we’re hearing). This part of the score, much like Discovery of the Great Valley in The Land Before Time, functions as the emotional payoff after the hardships the film characters have suffered, and it’s a wonderful reward.
- The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) – Alan Menken
In second place, we have another outstanding score from Alan Menken, for The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Right from the opening moments of the film, as the old 1990s Disney castle logo appears, we know this is going to be a great score, as a Latin choir is heard chanting softly with the ringing of church bells behind them – then, out of nowhere, the bells and choir kick it up a notch and break out in a dramatic minor-key fanfare, as we sweep over the clouds towards the spires of Notre Dame. Things only get better from there, as we delve into one of Disney’s most infamous films, with controversial themes of religious corruption and psychological abuse that are not typically seen in animation.
Quasimodo’s theme features simple, elegant strings and bright, happy brass backing, while Frollo’s tends to feature a lot of Latin chanting, including parts of the Tridentine form of the Confiteor in Hellfire. The motifs of the characters recur throughout the score but in different timbres, depending on the mood of the scene they feature in – during The Bell Tower for instance, we hear a more romantic E major reprise of God Help the Outcasts playing under the main score, with a delicate sprinkling of percussion for added sweetness. Listen for some twisted elements of Out There during Humiliation – this has to be one of the most disturbing pieces of music in any Disney film, playing over the scene of Quasi’s torture at the hands of the Paris crowds. It features the Agnus Dei, an invocation of the Lamb of God, as Quasimodo is calling to Frollo for help, then finishes with a light, sympathetic choral backing as Esmeralda comes to his rescue. Parts of Dies Irae can also be heard when And He Shall Smite the Wicked and Paris Burning play, too – the choice to include all these Latin hymns and chants was an inspired one, to be sure.
My favourite segment is definitely Sanctuary!, which plays over Esmeralda’s mock “trial” and Quasi’s subsequent rescue of her. It’s filled with (accurately used) Latin, including parts of the Kyrie eleison, and the effect is jaw-dropping when combined with the blaring brass, the ominous thundering of drums and some organ backing. Give it a listen; it’ll give you chills.
And my number one choice is…
- Dinosaur (2000) – James Newton Howard
James Newton Howard is probably my all-time favourite film composer. After first finding success with his score for Pretty Woman, he went on to compose some killer music for films such as The Sixth Sense (1999), Peter Pan (2003), The Village (2004), King Kong (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008) (that last one was a collaborative effort with Hans Zimmer). In animation, he would later score Disney’s features Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) and Treasure Planet (2002), but Dinosaur was his first, and arguably, his best.
For this score, he collaborated with famed Lion King artist Lebo M, lending Dinosaur an African vibe with Lebo’s distinctive choral arrangements. The music is grand and adventurous, particularly during the more triumphant moments in the story, such as the famous scene near the start where the Pteranodon soars over the fields of dinosaurs with Aladar’s egg in its grasp, which was used in the trailers. Several of the pieces in the score serve as a kind of lesson on how to really get the most out of percussion when composing music; just listen to The Courtship to see what I mean. The drumbeats and choral vocals really take centre stage here, setting the spirits soaring as a tropical romance unfolds onscreen. As the evening winds down, the soothing strings and brass take over, lulling the audience into a false sense of security before the dreaded meteorite arrives. As The End Of Our Island progresses, the strings shrink away ominously, before returning in horrified crescendo as the disaster begins to unfold. There is a silence as the shock sinks in, then the panicked strings enter a dramatic battle with the drums as Aladar flees with his family. Other standout pieces include The Carnotaur Attack and Breakout, the latter creating what is perhaps the most moving moment in the film – definitely worth looking up.
There’s plenty more like that to discover in the score, but I would recommend listening to End Titles, which includes excerpts from all the best parts of the score. The Egg Travels is not only one of the most well-known pieces from it, but has become a sort of signature theme of the Disney Company itself, played at the parks and in adverts (I remember the flood of nostalgia it induced when I heard it at Disneyland Paris).
Well, I hope you enjoyed this trip through the best music of animated cinema – I certainly did. Film scores really deserve more appreciation; they’re a huge part of the magic of the movies and no film would be the same without its music to support it. As I said in my Fantasia review, however, I’m no virtuoso – research for this article largely consisted of browsing the YouTube comments below the videos for information provided by the more musically knowledgeable fans! These are just my opinions, a layman’s impression of the music; I’d be happy to hear from you in the comments if you agree or disagree with my choices! What’s your favourite animated film score?
I’ll be doing more of these music-themed lists in coming weeks, so look out for those if you’re a fan of the music of animation. My next one will be on the songs played over the end credits, which are also too often overlooked. See you again soon!
https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11175196 – credit for Dinosaur
https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3828854 – credit for The Hunchback of Notre Dame
By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9870096 – credit for The Prince of Egypt
By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1415032 – credit for Spirited Away
By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7596766 – credit for Howl’s Moving Castle
By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1190458 – credit for The Iron Giant
By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28430357 – credit for The Land Before Time
By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34080083 – credit for Rise of the Guardians
By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32570983 – credit for Tangled
By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34252717 – credit for Finding Nemo