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The Music of Animation


By Nathaniel Thompson of ScoreLogue

Even more than most live action movies, successful animation depends as much on music and sound effects as the visuals on the screen. Where would Pepe LePew be without quasi-French accordian music in the background? Would the seven dwarfs be half as charming if they couldn't sing? From the most basic Saturday morning cartoon to big budget studio epics, music brings drawn images to life a way unlike any other form of film scoring.

Walt Disney brought feature-length animation to prominence at the dawn of sound; Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) featured as many memorable songs and an underscore as evocative as its contemporary, The Wizard of Oz. Disney's films were always unusually sensitive to the function of music, most notably in the controversial Fantasia. Say what you will about the liberties taken with the music, but that movie did more for bringing classical composers into the mainstream than the efforts of hundreds of music appreciation courses (though it's hard to imagine Tchaikovsky thinking about dancing toadstools and pixies when he wrote "The Nutcracker Suite"). Tchaikovsky appeared again in Disney's magnificent widescreen treatment of Sleeping Beauty, this time with song adaptations, and Disney began using regular modern composers and songwriters for his films. Most notably, the Sherman Brothers took pen to paper for such animation/live action hybrids as Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks, not to mention the popular Jungle Book. While the scores never really lived up to the huge impact of the songs themselves, at least the music was well above average.

Around the same time at rival studio Warner Brothers, Carl Stalling was making music of a very different kind of the classic series of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoon shorts featuring Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and the rest of the gang. Stalling's revolutionary combination of musical sound effects (slide whistles, bizarre percussion, and twanging strings) as an integral part of his score created an entirely new kind of sound. Also, while Disney was attempting to unite highbrow and lowbrow with his fusion of classical and popular new pieces, Stalling managed to work old popular songs into his scores for comic effect. Just watch Chuck Jones' classic "Feed the Kitty" and note Stalling's perfect use of the standard "Ain't She Sweet" as a commentary on the kitten protagonist. And as for the singing, dancing frog of Jones' "One Froggy Evening," well, no more needs to be said.

In the '70s, both Disney and Warner severely cut back their film output as the animation industry in general began to flounder. While the occasional Academy Awards recognition of The Rescuers and Pete's Dragon kept the musical front going, the lack of support after Uncle Walt's death threatened to sink the animation tradition altogether. Nevertheless, a few gems of film scoring managed to struggle through, notably Elmer Bernstein's haunting work for Disney's The Black Cauldron, Henry Mancini's whimsical The Great Mouse Detective, and most significantly, Jerry Goldsmith's The Secret of NIMH, the strongest animation score of the early '80s.

However, everything turned around in 1989. After noting the success of a little Broadway musical called Little Shop of Horrors, an outrageous adaptation of the Roger Corman cult favorite and almost a live action cartoon in itself, Disney brought along the show's composer and lyricist, Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, to pen the music for the studio's adaptation of The Little Mermaid. Simply put, the rest is history. The film nabbed Academy Awards for both Best Original Score and Best Song ("Under the Sea"), setting off a head-spinning chain of hits for Disney that included Beauty and the Beast (a double winner again, as well as the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture), Aladdin (a double win, with Tim Rice brought on to finish the lyrics after the tragic death of Ashman), and The Lion King, which featured a powerful collaboration between Rice, Elton John, and Hans Zimmer. While all of these films tend to be strung together as a sort of thematic exploration by Disney of coming of age themes, the contrast between Lion King and Menken's work is striking. Menken opts for delicate underscore which subtly echoes the melodies of the songs while spinning off a few memorable themes of its own (note the village travel montage from Little Mermaid for a good example), while Zimmer composes in ethnic, mock-operatic suites which propel the action along as forcefully as possible and only feature fleeing nods to the songs surrounding them. Both approaches work perfectly within their respective films, but the flavor is entirely different.

While Menken dabbled in live action films (Life with Mikey), he remains best known as an animation composer. His subsequent efforts, such as Hunchback of Notre Dame and Hercules, continue to display his deft grasp on the use of music as a tool of both drama and humor, and his influence on the current wave of studio animation cannot be overemphasized. He paved the way for such composers as Randy Newman (Toy Story, A Bug's Life, James and the Giant Peach) and the rollicking John Powell/Harry Gregson-Williams teaming on Antz; however, Zimmer has remained in the ring with the recent Prince of Egypt, a stirring achievement that will hopefully continue to push animation into more mature and emotionally rich territory.



Nathaniel Thompson of ScoreLogue
This animation feature has been republished from ScoreLogue, and used with their permission.

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