I’m a sucker for movies that make me cry. I don’t force myself to hunt down sad movies, but I’m always on the lookout for that one cinematic onion potent enough to push me over the edge with emotion. It takes a very special movie to push my inner cynic to the verge of tears; if I can feel the waterworks coming, the movie’s an instant winner. But beyond the occasional exception of a motion picture masterpiece like Boyhood, live-action movies nowadays don’t do the trick. It’s animated pictures where real emotional engagement lies, largely due to their beautiful scores. Pixar’s Inside Out—whose emotional brilliance blurs the lines between “children’s movies” and “adult films”—is the most recent example of this trend. Even the most mediocre of animated pictures (How To Train Your Dragon 2, Cars 2) achieve a special type of emotional transcendence largely due to their music. Time and time again, studios such as Ghibli, Pixar, and Dreamworks have daringly put the “melo” back in “melodrama”, impressing and moving us with their mastery of motion-picture music.
This bridge between music and animated films is hardly new. Walt Disney’s 1940 masterpiece Fantasia firmly established the deep spiritual resonances of yesteryear’s greatest composers (Stravinsky, Beethoven, Strauss) with the then-new technology of animated motion pictures. The concept was taken even further by the crazy cartoonists working at Warner Brothers on the Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies films. In only six minutes, these directors (Chuck Jones, Frank Tashlin, Tex Avery, and Bob Clampett, to name the best of the lot) transformed cartoon soundtracks into crazily inventive soundscapes that captured the attention of children in the 50s and early 60s just as they capture children’s attention today in 2015. I know that as a kid I learned a ton about classical music from all the hilarious Looney Tunes antics of Bugs Bunny as opera hater (Rabbit of Seville ), opera character (What’s Opera Doc? ), and opera conductor (Long Haired Hare —all three directed by Chuck Jones). Those scores still hit raw nerves in me today, but not the emotionally devastating brand of a Pixar or a Studio Ghibli. They go in an opposite direction, hitting you with side-splitting laughter still unparalleled in today’s cruder live-action comedies. Blockbuster tripe like Vacation, Trainwreck, and Pitch Perfect 2 (to name just a few of this year’s biggest offenders) don’t even try to bridge the gap between high wit and lowbrow, between a funny script and an engaging visual look, or even between music and image. They’re content with being perfectly passable and neatly signed, sealed, and delivered to mass audiences. Such disregard for artistry was unacceptable to the Looney Tunes directors, who were never content with just funny; they went above and beyond the demands of their work, and showed that visual comedy doesn’t mean a total disregard for the subtle sonic aspects of the film medium. Looney Tunes was a different kind of commercial but artistic product that is hard to replicate today.
But in more recent years, animated film scores have moved away from the pointedly hilarious abstractions of Looney Tunes to something much more emotionally complex. Today’s animated-movie scores cut through all the cheapy-weepy bullshit of strings-laden sap we find in live-action features. The animated film score, by contrast, manages to affect us at a much more visceral level: right in our hearts. When we listen to a John Williams score, for example, we find ourselves facing a pure beauty that verges dangerously close on banal sentimentality. No matter how many times I watch the masterpieces E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial and A.I. Artificial Intelligence, whenever Spielberg falls back on his Williams strings, I feel manipulated. The emotions don’t feel truly genuine. It’s the the sound of a violin in the minor key that affects me, not the actual images. For a contrast, take a gander at “Married Life” from Up, the poetic four minutes that whisks us through the marriage of the film’s happy couple Ellie and Carl. Watch it with silence, and I wouldn’t blame you if you came out of that video cold-hearted. You can see the proper emotional beats on the cartoon-lovers’ faces, but without sound, it doesn’t move you. They get married, she cries a bit, they move on with their lives, she’s in a hospital, she’s gone, he’s alone—so what? We’ve seen the story told a million times before and, frankly, a million times better. (The snapshots of a happily married couple in the closing moments of John Cassavetes’s offbeat rom-com Minnie and Moskowitz say about as much as the Up scene in only a minute and a half.)
Ah, but add Michael Giacchino’s alternately whimsical and melancholic score, and we’re in a completely different realm of emotion. Suddenly, the saccharine silent montage doesn’t seem so saccharine—Giacchino’s delicate orchestration, reminiscent of a glorious gondola ride across Venetian canals, hits a series of remarkable ups-and-downs in less than five minutes. When people describe their amazement at how Up summarizes a life in its first ten minutes, they’re unconsciously attributing their astonishment to Giacchino’s genius compositions. He understands the artistic concept “less is more”—the most prominent instrument is a simple acoustic piano—and for the most part, what we remember long after the movie is over aren’t the action sequences or the cute moments with the boy-scout Russell; it’s the delirious Giacchino score that underpins every single scene in the film. And this score doesn’t feel as manipulative as the Williams score; Giacchino is more sedate, stealthily picking the moments when and when not to use his orchestra. As a result, the exuberant images and the sound work hand-in-hand to produce a wonderful cinematic experience analogous to a religious awakening.
But once again, if you compare it to other Giacchino scores for live-action movies (let’s say Jurassic World or Star Trek), I’d be hard-pressed if I could find even a single memorable musical leitmotif from any of them. What’s the big difference? Why does a Giacchino score for a Pixar film (Ratatouille, Up, Inside Out) become central to the film’s emotional DNA, while a Giacchino score for anything live-action is hardly essential? I suspect it’s because, with animated films, you have to go an extra mile to convince yourself of the cartoon’s verisimilitude. Suspension of disbelief works overtime with an animated film; the mind is subconsciously saying, “I believe these drawings are real people, I believe that these famous celebrity voices are not actors but actual people, and I believe that a talking dog can say more about my soul than a silent dinosaur.” As a result, the filmmakers of an animated movie must put in extra effort to convince you of the realness of their world and dazzle you with the nifty special effects that only animated films can accomplish. And it’s with the score that they find the important skeleton-key to the viewer’s heart. Film music in animated films has developed in such a sophisticated manner that you don’t feel the tug of your heartstrings (in sharp contrast to the manipulations one can feel in even the best live-action melodramas, like E.T. and A.I.). In the animated world, music accompanying one’s daily rituals seems like the most natural thing in the world. Music is the bridge between what our animated heroes between their spoken and unspoken desires, just like we turn to music to describe a romantic feeling or to shake a deep melancholia within us. It takes on an extra layer of significance when we find ourselves connecting with characters who are nothing more than pen and paper (or, as is the case nowadays, computers and equations). The music we hear subtly in the background, whether we consciously pick up on it or not, is part of the reason why these animated films reign supreme in the emotion department.
Nowhere is this principle more definitively proven than in the films of Hayao Miyazaki, among the greatest of all living directors. His films do not hide their constructed nature, inviting us to indulge their drunken imagery—a talking fireball, a Phil Hartman-voiced black-cat, sludge monsters, and historical aviators risen from the dead that speak to our heroes. Yet like Up, a Miyazaki film would not affect children and adults nearly as much were it not for another crucial auteur working in collaboration with Miyazaki: the Japanese composer Joe Hisaishi. His music launches Miyazaki’s films into a transcendent realm of beauty, perfectly expressing the wants and desires of the film’s heroes with music seemingly forged by an omnipresent being who’s been listening to a lot of Bernard Hermann and Beethoven. Take a listen to “One Summer’s Day”, the opening theme of Miyazaki’s greatest achievement, Spirited Away, and I dare you to tell me you don’t want to drop the P-set you’re working on right now and go check out the DVD from Green.
Once again, Hisaishi proves how much more emotionally powerful animated films typically are. With this dynamic theme, we’re taken through our hero Chihiro’s personal journey through adolescence: the idleness and the excitement, the daydreams and the nightmares, the joys and the fears. Hisaishi’s gentle piano score—again, proving less is more—gives way to a hectic anger that shakes things up just as soon as we’ve gotten used to the piece’s initially subdued melody. Indeed, these are the two tones between which the film switches—excitement and calm—and the reason why it’s so emotionally engaging. Without Hisaishi’s score, the film is almost unimaginable. Just think: would we feel a similar sense of unnerving sadness without the film’s most haunting piece, “The Sixth Station”?
What all of these films demonstrate is how attuned to music animated films are. They don’t denigrate music to the role of maudlin muzak; instead, they re-establish the importance of a sonic landscape in feature-films, serving as a guide for future artists on how to utilize music to ever greater heights of poignancy. And if there’s anything we can take away from watching Inside Out or Spirited Away or a Looney Tunes short, it’s the necessity of emotional turbulence while watching movies. Because if an audience goes to a movie to check themselves out, to numb their feelings and forget about melancholia and joy and humor, why bother going in the first place? That’s the real reason why we go to the movies and we listen to music; we need to take a hard, long look at ourselves and our emotional containers in order to better understand who we are, emotionally. I find it amazing that a movie like Inside Out can play in theaters today; it means children are being allowed to feel through the magical world of music, of movies, of drawing, and of painting all at once. Put it all together, and the results are nothing short of soul-stirring.
Photo courtesy of here.