May 2, 2010

Soundtracks: Animated Scores

Since I haven't touched upon soundtracks for a long while, I thought I'd return to them. Initially I'd wanted to do a review of 2009 scores. However sitting down to compose such a list, I realized just how terrible a year 2009 has been for soundtracks. I ended up acquiring and seeking out just as many 1980's albums as those from 2009 (probably more 80's!)...

So I decided to tackle one of my personal favourite subgenres of score music instead (the one from which nearly all my 2009 albums come), animated film music.

As the target audience is kids, a successful animated score should be movie music in its most pure form. Think of them as the beginner's guide to soundtracks. Listening to one of these scores anyone should immediately understand what emotion you are meant to be feeling. To achieve this effect, animated scores need simplify their musical construction while at the same time maximize their use of musical convention. This tends to render animated film music not very subtle or technically complex (in a sense), but extremely stylistic.

Often they are dismissed due to this simplicity, but I think this is a silly (if not snobbish) mistake. Animated scores are soundtrack music at its most streamlined and pure. This is what I really enjoy about them. If I want heroic music an animated hero theme doesn't beat around the bush, it is bravery and adventure straight up, if I want a sad theme similarly animated tragedy hits you straight up.

This does not make them superior to "normal" scores however. To achieve this purity of mood composers have sacrificed the subtle and complexity, meaning Animated scores run all over the emotional spectrum with no musical buffers to ease the segues. The more intense or fast paced the film attached to this music, the more of a varied ride you can be in for. Meaning you do have to be in the mood to listen to them and get enjoyment out of the whole album. However rocky the overall musical ride, I've personal found that every (good) animated score will have very enjoyable single tracks, that can be listened to anytime (even if just as part of a mix list).

If you enjoy film music, but haven't tried an animated here are some of my favourites... I seriously recommend you treat yourself to this rich and ever growing genre of soundtracks!

Immediately you might notice from my list, I'm a real fan of John Powell's animated efforts. He deserves this intro hat tip, as in the last decade he has become the real guru of animated music.

Antz by John Powell and Harry Gregson Williams.

This was the disc that got me paying attention and hooked on animated movie music. It would also be the debut ("solo") album of two of my favourite composers, John Powell and Henry Gregson Williams. Up until this point both Powell and Gregson Williams had been ghostwriters for Hans Zimmer (possibly explaining my love of Zimmer's music in the 90's, and my increasing disinterest with his stuff into the 2000's after the two departed... hmmm).

Antz is one of those animated efforts that is an extremely strong score beginning to end. Despite its strong style and varying themes, overall it is quite cohesive and never goes too far on any of its tangents.

The score is built to emphasise the small scale of the insect main characters and their world. This makes everything musical (and in the film) much grander and larger when it unfolds. So the action is bigger, the romance larger, and the villain's all encompassing.

Stylistically the score is defined by jazz pacing and a strong percussion. The jazz is the source of the fun in the score, and this is what simplifies the score for younger listeners. If Antz were stripped of this jazz it would be a pretty sheer epic album. The strong percussion under laying all the music is how the composers keep us in the small scale world of the bugs. The constant march interweaved throughout the score constantly reminds us where we are and how big we're supposed to be feeling. It is also through this constant marching the emotion of the film is conveyed. The strings take over the march for romantic scenes, the xylophone is employed for the villain's scheming, and the brass joins in for the heroic moments.

The highlights of the album for me are how the villain's ominous theme and Z's jazzy variation of the march steadily build up to a musical confrontation throughout the score into an excellent climax of the finale track. This has a excellent example of animated heroic music. Something I've grown to expect from John Powell in particular in his animated scores (though Gregson-Williams has shown he can come up with these on his own too).

Chicken Run by John Powell and Harry Gregson Williams.

The dynamic duo returned shortly after Antz, on one of my all time favourite soundtracks, Chicken Run. Despite my fondness for this disc, I must admit it is not as solid a listening experience as Antz overall, Chicken Run's strength is in about half its individual tracks. So despite some tracks being rather forgettable or worse annoying, the others when they get going man do they get going!

Chicken Run being a spoof of the Great Escape, has a score accented towards various classic WW2 films. Despite the homage of style most Chicken Run's main themes are original (just similar in instrumentation to the classic films), and to make them more kid friendly the composers have overclocked their epicness. This score can be quite the patriotic experience (despite not being tied into any one nation :P), and takes on a bigger than the individual dimension in the highlight tracks.

I also enjoy the villain theme alot. Despite it being aimed at kids, this theme is quite intense (just bordering on threatening). To keep it from crossing the true scary boundary the villain is given a flamboyant pacing (to capture the conflicting interplay of the films two farmer villains).

It is in the heroic themes I fell head over heels for this disc. There are few pieces of music with the energy of Chicken runs main hero theme, and it is incredibly infectious. You have probably heard it if you regularly check out my blogs, as this is the music I use for Traumador's vlogs.

This is a must own soundtrack if you ask me.

The Land Before Time by James Horner

This was an early prototype for the modern animated score, and predates them by a good decade. Land Before Time is a brilliant composition on Horner's part, that captures the sheer scope of emotions present in this story but waters them down for kids. You can tell it is an early effort at animated scoring though, as it verges on total sadness and depression at times and nearly crosses the line on these being too intense.

How Horner injects some optimism back into the score is awe music for the Prehistoric setting and the whimsy and playful theme of the five baby dinosaurs. Innocence is a commodity in this music however, as otherwise Horner captures the dying nature of the Dinosaurs' world.

Listening to it now as an adult, I find that the passing of Prehistory I was supposed to feel as a child (Land Before Time was one of the first films I ever saw in the cinema) now serves as a nostalgic musical memorial to the passing of my childhood. This is probably more to this long tie to this film and its music however.

Ice Age 3: Dawn of the Dinosaurs by John Powell

One of my latest animated acquisitions was this album, and it has quickly grown to be not only among my favourites, but is now my secondary music for Traumador.

John Powell is the defining composer for the Ice Age franchise now, but has only scored films 2 and 3. His Ice Age music has a very up bet slapstick pace, and all the themes have a nature of bouncing up and down while moving. Despite being thematically very solid (both scores sound like they are from the same movie), they are drastically different in mood and emotion.

Ice Age 3 is a none stop action ride, and is just fun to listen to. The music is adventurous and very fast paced. In a nutshell my kind of music. My one gripe is that there is no true villain or dread music in here, only hints at menace can be heard. Not that there isn't conflict constructs, but there is no prevailing counter to the hero's theme, which often leads to great moments in Powell music.

Where his themes collide are the overall Ice Age friendship theme suddenly becoming entwined in the new Ice Age 3 heroics theme. The new character Buck's music is worth the price of this disc alone, and you get treated to it in 1/4 of the tracks.

The best overall track of the disc is the end credits, as through its 7 minute length you get a sample of nearly every worth while element of the overall score. In fact if you want a great one off sample of animated music as a genre, buy this one track off Itunes or what not for the $1.99. You get a something of a mini score for that price, and it is VERY worth it!

This all said Ice Age 3 is a flawed score on its own, as it is majorly lacking sensitive emotion. However in a rare instant there is a perfect solution to this void...

Ice Age 2 The Meltdown by John Powell

When I bought Ice Age 2, I always wanted to like it a lot more then I ended up doing. Not that it was terrible. Ice Age 2 was a much more subdued effort than Ice Age 3, and lacks ANY sense of action or excitement. That said it shines in virtually every other area a score can. Ice Age 2 is the emotional heart of the Powell Ice Age's, and has many touching moments. What it lacks in tension or suspense, you can get out of Ice Age 3.

Basically what I'm saying is that Ice Age 2 and 3 taken independently are flawed works. However combine the two and you have one VERY solid animated score! Which is how I personally view them. If I had to take one removed from the other, I'd personally take 3, but this is due to my personal preference to fast paced action. Ice Age 2 is a very good (but not excellent) album on its own. However put the two together and you will be hard pressed to find many soundtracks as good.

Sinbad Legend of the Seven Seas by Harry Gregson Williams

Want swashbuckling and pirates in pure CD form? Then simply buy this disc. Sinbad is pure adventure and fun. It is a solid listen as there are no dull or filler tracks anywhere throughout it.

Gregson Williams modernizes the classic era pirate genre. It is really quite a treat, as every range of emotion you'd expect from a high sea adventure receives a modern revamp that still plays homage to the classic sound of the black and white films.

Action and heroics are the star of this music, but the romantic undertones, and explorational contemplation are just as satisfying. The only thing keeping this from becoming a more serious "proper" film score is accenting all this music with a sense of fun. To achieve this Gregson Williams overstates and plays every track. The orchestra are as much responsible for the quality of this music as the composer/conductor (Williams conducted this score himself).

I highly highly recommend this disc to anyone who like film music!

Happy Feet by John Powell

Of all John Powell's animated scores, I have to level with you, Happy Feet is my among least favourite (Robots is my least, and doesn't make this list...). Yet this isn't actually saying that much. A "bad" John Powell animated, is way better than say a good Andy Newman (I personally find Newman scores among the most bland and generic of soundtracks out there).

Happy Feet still has some real highlight moments, but their more varied then in the previous Powell projects I talked about earlier. As an overall album Happy Feet is a very disjointed entity and feels more like a mix tape of orchestral music. In Powell's defense this matches the nature of the film perfectly. I found Happy Feet the movie a very conflicted film that switches its overall purpose a few times throughout rather awkwardly (it is still worth watching... it just isn't the best film your going to see).

The most impressive technical aspect of Happy Feet's score is how Powell has gone out of his way to integrate the popular songs sung by the Penguins into the score that surrounds the song performances Though I personally don't care for the songs (I typically hate musicals) I have to admire the attention to detail that Powell put into the effort.

From a stand alone perspective (removed from the film I mean) Happy Feet's strength is mostly in a number of isolated, but loosely unified "Aliens" theme presents some very impressive awe moments. The leopard seal chase is another track of particular notice, being very exciting and introducing the Latino theme for the smaller penguin sidekicks.

Not my highest recommendation, but if you run out of John Powell material this will have a few tidbits to cover your cravings...

Bolt by John Powell

The music as heard in the film of Bolt was very cool, and probably my favourite thing about the film (I found the movie itself started strong and just got more mundane and boring as it progressed finishing with a real fiz). However purchasing it on disc I was very disappointed. Not by the music itself, but by how short an album this is (30 minutes!) and how much of the score remained simply in the film...

Bolt as heard on album is not as disjointed as Happy Feet, but it has a degree of multi personality too it. These basically stem from the dynamic of Bolt the real life boring dog (which he is increasingly pushed towards as the film goes on) and the fictional superhero dog (that he starts the film as). The mundane boring dog theme material is well, boring! I couldn't care for it one way or the other. Powell has done much better, and in fact this stuff sounds like the Ice Age theme with all the life sucked out of it.

Super hero Bolt on the other hand is awesome! It combines Powell's strong genres of animation with superhero, there is nothing to hate (especially if you love his X-Men 3 music like I do). Sadly this music (unlike the film... that unleashed it every 5 minutes. The only thing keeping me awake later in the film :P) is only present in 5 tracks. The best performance of all beings being the self contained satirical finale of the film, in which the main characters watch the TV show from which Bolt has left behind. If only the film had been oriented more towards this sort of action (like the similarly plotted, but in reverse order Galaxy Quest)...

Kung Fu Panda by John Powell and Hans Zimmer

As much as I love John Powell on his own, I'm personally finding over the years, that if you team him up with another talented composer you get true masterpieces of soundtracks. In Kung Fu we see Powell team up with his old boss Hans Zimmer, and the results are quite spectacular.

In Kung Fu Panda's music, much like the film's story, martial arts conventions get slightly westernized into a very epic but yet kid friendly spin. Perhaps the most appreciable thing about Powell and Zimmer is their arranging a score for traditional Asian instruments that plays along North American conventions. This may sound like a bastardization of what an ethnic score should be, but it is amazingly satisfying.

This score has everything from touching introspection (as per the main characters quest against every one's expectations of him), a sinister villain, and of course kung fu heroic action. At times this score could be for a proper kung fu movie, but reins it back in for kids with injections of the silly main theme for Po (perfecting mirroring the writers injecting Po in at the tense moments). Yet despite all these strengths and their westernization, it is the Asian stylized awe that knocks this score out of the ball park.

If you want an excellent, but very different style kids score Kung Fu Panda is very worth your attention.

Finding Nemo by Thomas Newman

Finding Nemo is probably my favourite animated film of all time (at least till I see a better one :P), but how does its score hold up. Frankly it is not my all time favourite animated score, BUT at the same time it makes this short list. This score is one of the key features of the film that transcends Nemo from a good movie to the great one it is.

If there were ever a "sophisticated" animated score than Thomas Newman's Nemo is it. In order to make the actions of a bunch of talking fish have substance the audience can take seriously Newman engages us with a very serious score. Nemo borderlines on proper classical music at times, and even the silly moments are done with a high degree of grace. However it is very clear cut music, and despite being very complex in its construction and execution, it is masterfully approachable for anyone. If you want your kids to gain a taste for proper classic music, Nemo is an excellent intro for them.

Nemo much like Land Before Time is fairly dark for an animated score, but this helps lend urgency to the fish characters plight of separation and discovering themselves. I think the only reservation I have about this score is the lack of coherent themes. They are in there, but buried in the clever construction, and used sparingly. This to me breaks the rules for an animated score, but otherwise it hits all the nails on the head.

Yet for one of the most "intellegent" animated scores out there you can't go wrong with Finding Nemo.

Bee Movie by Rupert Gregson-Williams

Film music seems to run in certain families, and there are several film scoring dynasties. The Goldsmiths, the Newmans, and the Gregson-Williams are some examples. Of these my favourite would have to be the Goldsmiths, but we're here to talk about the Gregson-Williams for this score.

As you've already seen in this list I'm a huge fan of Harry, but his brother Rupert has been an ever increasing entity in film music this decade too. For a long time though, I was sad to see Harry seemed to get all the talents I appreciate, while Rupert tended to work on subpar (animated) scores.

However Bee Movie fills me with hope this was just a series of bad luck for the younger Rupert. On his own, Rupert produces a score that rivals his brother and Powell's Antz. Taking a similar (only in concept) jazz under tone he creates a fantastic score for the Bees and their exploits.

Having never seen the film I can't comment on how effective it was in context with the picture, but on album this music is just fun. Mind you in only half its tracks. Perhaps showing why Harry's Antz was a solid album, as he had a cohort to fix the other half of the score :P

Bee Movie has some amazing hero style music, and this builds to energy levels on par with Chicken Run. Unlike Chicken Run and Antz though, Bee movie lacks any sense of darkness or dread, and thus this hero theme is more of an optimistic approach to life rather than one of struggle or suspense. This is a score one listens to in order to cheer up or stay in a good mood. Not one when trying to think of good vs. evil or such. I also find it very academic or insightful, so when studying I sometimes throw it on.

Hopefully Rupert continues on this route (and stays away from more Over the Hedge like efforts). To pick up evidence of a growing Gregson-Williams dynasty grab Bee Movie.

Wallace and Gromit The Curse of the Were-Rabbit by Julian Nott

Back in 2005, I didn't think I would find a score to properly rival Chicken Run. I'd picked up Chicken Run in 2004, yes a while after it was released, and was still in its total thrall a year later (it still holds major sway over me these days, but not as much as back then). When I went to see Wallace and Gromit in the theatre I left somewhat shocked. Yes the movie was fantastic, but the score was even better!

Placing my order at the CD store I was forced to wait (it seems all the best scores have to be special ordered in, and this takes months BOO!), and while waiting I had to be assured by several online reviews that Wallace and Gromit was of Chicken Run quality (the two were directly compared in two of the major reviews of the time!).

Recieving the disc I have to say Chicken Run's day as the stand alone animated score of all time was done. I still prefer Chicken Run's hero theme a tiny bit over Wallace and Gromit (partially as W and G's is very recognizable as their theme... not many people know Chicken Run), but overall Wallace and Gromit is a far superior album. It plays flawlessly from start to finish and every track has something to offer.

Wallace and Gromit combines the charming enthusiastic antics of Wallace with a borderline full-on horror score. The Wallace music is just good old classic animated music capturing everything from Wallace's silliness to his over the top heroics (and they are over the top!).

The horror while having everything needed to be scary, somehow never menaces you. I have been awe struck by how Nott achieves this balance. On the surface this horror music has everything from the instrumentation and timing of a perfect scary score, but yet you never feel fully threatened by it. Sure you're made uneasy and feel in suspense to an extent, but nothing compared to a proper horror score. If you listen carefully though, it is subtle extra instruments Nott adds to the underscore that slightly lightens it up, and reminds you that Gromit will somehow get Wallace out of this supernatural mess.

If I gave Chicken Run a whole heartened endorsement I must do so for this as well!


Albertonykus said...

Before I watched the Traumador videos, I didn't realize Chicken Run had such epic music. Now I keep humming that Building the Crate song at arbitrary intervals.

Anonymous said...

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