Friday, May 29, 2020

Green Phoenix - 8 Amazing Non-Disney Animated Film Tracks

Let's be completely honest. When you think of animated music, it is almost a guarantee that the first song you will think of is likely produced by the Walt Disney Company. Ever since the Disney Renaissance of the 1980s and 1990s, the company has had a nearly undefeated stranglehold on the cultural zeitgeist when it comes to animated musicals. So prevalent is this perception that many of the non-Disney animated films from that period, like Fox Animation's Anastasia, are often thought of as Disney films by audiences.

So this got me thinking. Why don't I spend an article going over some of my personal favorite non-Disney animated musical scores? I can give some attention to some songs or movies that maybe don't get thought about as much as they should, and it gives me a chance to geek out about some of my favorite film tracks.

A win-win if ever I've heard it.

So after the break and a quick overview of the rules for this countdown, we will take a look at 8 incredible non-Disney animated film tracks.

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COUNTDOWN RULES

  1. The tracks in question were selected from my own personal opinion and do not represent any particular arrangement.
  2. Only a single track has been selected from any single soundtrack.
  3. I have limited my picks to one soundtrack from one property.
  4. Trailer music can't be used unless it also appears in the game's soundtrack.

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INTRODUCTION

1. Dreams to Dream (An American Tail: Fievel Goes West)

While the 1991 sequel to Steven Spielberg's animated classic, An American Tail, is something of a silent cult classic among those who know it, the key musical number of the piece "Dreams to Dream", performed by Tanya's voice actress Cathy Cavadini and Linda Ronstadt in the credits version, is absolutely stunning.

The film follows the Mousekewitz family, including their children Fievel and Tanya, as they decide to move west from their home in New York to the town of Green River, Utah. Along the way, Fievel is drawn into a conspiracy involving the town's mouse residents and their "friendly" cat partners in the settlement venture, led by the enjoyably evil Cat R. Waul (played by John Cleese). While Fievel's story features the lion share of the action and drama, it is Tanya's role in the film that, even as a child, always managed to instill a sense of surprise in me.

Tanya's story-line involves her desire to become a professional singer, a dream her family humors at best. When the family makes it to Green River, Tanya manages to catch the ears and attention of Cat R. Waul through a stirring rendition of "Dreams to Dream". This song essentially jump-starts her career as a saloon singer and a strange relationship with Cat R. Waul, who becomes attached to the young mouse and aims to save her from the fate he has planned for her fellow mice.

The song forms the emotional core of the film and is the song that was selected to be repeated in the credits, in the vein of many Disney soundtracks. Of the two versions, I would have to say that I enjoy Cathy Cavadini's movie version significantly more. The piece is just so much more impactful when it is matched by the vibrant and sharp animations which are so notable in Amblimation productions and the powerfully orchestral score.

At first glance, the lyrics and tone might seem an incredibly simple declaration of hope on the part of Tanya, but I think it is in that simplicity and innocence that the fundamental charm of the piece shines through. This is the song that helps to, in some ways, complicate the villainous Cat R. Waul in the mind of the viewer, whilst at the same time place Tanya in a position that will ultimately harm Fievel's efforts to stop the villain. It is a joyously hopeful song which underplays a great deal of dramatic tension and narrative complexity at the heart of what is ostensibly a bright and colorful children's movie.

2. Here I Am (Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron)

Growing up, I also had a deep seated love for Dreamworks' 2002 adventure film, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. A tribute not only to the best and worst of the American West, but also a moving piece on how powerful the drive for freedom and independence can really be. In this film, Dreamworks created a stirring and quietly patriotic American piece, which is all the more potent in that it makes the United States cavalry the antagonists. A film that is patriotic to the spirit of America rather than the nation itself.

With this feeling in mind, it was no surprise to me that a track of the movie would make this list. And through the incredible instrumental composition of Hans Zimmer and the lyrical talents of Bryan Adams, I certainly had the pick of the litter. I could've gone for "Get Off of My Back", which is a heck of a lot of fun, or maybe the complex shifting feelings of "The Long Road Back". In truth, I think that any of these songs would've been a fine choice for this list and, if I ever make a sequel list, I may go into further detail for their inclusion. But, in my mind, there is only one song that I feel truly captures the entire thematic tone of not only the story but our main character as well, which given his lack of actual dialog was so important to capture for audience understanding.

"Here I Am", which acts as our introduction to the character of Spirit in the film and was, by far, its most popular piece and is still highly regarded by many fans of Bryan Adams as one of his best pieces. It really is a shame that Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron was almost criminally underrated at the time of its release as "Here I Am" is almost distractingly catchy and joyous. It presents a sense of childlike wonder and pleasure which matches wonderfully with the imagery of Spirit's foalhood that I swear will leave goosebumps and immediately endear both our lead and his herd in the mind of the viewer.

The song, like much of the soundtrack, has a sort of country-rock edge to it that I enjoyed as a child due to my conservative background and absolute love of all things country. However, even as my taste for country sounds has waned as I got older, the genius collaboration of Zimmer and Adams still enriches the ears with this triumphant piece of childhood nostalgia.

This film has always held something of a cult classic quality to it in terms of animation and I feel like it was pieces like "Here I Am" that really go a long way in justifying that. It is exactly a complex or deeply narrative piece, but it does so much to capture the feelings of what is ultimately a predominantly emotional movie, crafting something that is both a criticism of and tribute to the idea of the Old West. In all its beauty and its horrors, all told from the perspective of a free-spirited mustang.

3. In the Dark of the Night (Anastasia)

At the start of this article, I made a mention that Disney animated musicals were so ubiquitous that oftentimes non-Disney movies would get lumped in with them. I was mostly referring to films like Fox Animation's 1997 film, Anastasia. Directed and produced by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman during that unfortunate period of the careers in the late 90s when they were trying desperately to catch up to the powerhouse that was Renaissance-era Disney, Anastasia has always been something of an oddball in the world of animation. I've heard it referred to sometimes as the most Disney non-Disney film ever made, and I am somewhat inclined to agree. From the goofy sidekicks, villain songs, and romantic pieces, Anastasia almost goes out its way to tick every box on the "Disney formula" sheet, despite covering what is actually a deeply tragic and troubling period in Russian history.

It is in this environment that Anastasia throws its hat into the ring with some rather incredible pieces of music. "Once Upon a December" is utterly haunting given its understated performance by Liz Callaway and "Journey to the Past" could give any Disney 'I Want' song a serious run for its money. But if I had to say which song tends to stick in my mind the most, it would have to be the high energy rock tune sung by the films lead villain Rasputin, "In the Dark of the Night".

Performed by Jim Cummings, this piece is incredibly high octane and really goes a long way to highlight the mania and rage of Rasputin, who sold his soul in order to a fulfill a revenge that, due to Anastasia's survival, has remained unfulfilled, leaving him a shambling corpse. The song is filled with haunting choruses that, avoid of visuals, sound like demons but are actually insects and instrumentation that I think wouldn't be all that misplaced in a Meatloaf album. The entire performance is stellar, with many subtle and, upon further consideration, incredibly dark for a family film. Throughout the song, Rasputin's references to the Romanovs are almost always counterpointed musically by a sudden loud noise that I've finally figured out is supposed to be a gunshot, in reference to how the Romanov family was historically killed by Soviet forces. Which I just think is absolutely incredible that composer David Newman could introduce something so dark. I love it.

Lyrically, the song is up there with some of the best of Disney's villain songs, with perhaps only a single line that is unfortunately rather rough. And if you know anything about this song, you know which lyric I am referring to.

"Tie my sash and a dash of cologne for that smell."

God that line just does not read write and it really slows down an otherwise high energy villain song very much in the style of "Be Prepared" in its tone. But thankfully it is only a single line and the song almost immediately picks back up into a chilling finale that I love so goddamn much.

"In the Dark of the Night" easily ranks as one of the best villain songs of all time and Jim Cummings lyrical work is a big part in making what is, for the most part, a rather forgettable villain so much fun for about three and a half minutes.

4. Deliver Us (The Prince of Egypt)

I have already spoken long and hard about just how amazing The Prince of Egypt is in past reviews or countdowns and I very well may do a review of the film, released by Dreamworks Animation in 1998, in the future and the music by Stephen Schwartz is absolutely quintessential to this incredible achievement of animation.

Released right on the tail end of the Disney Renaissance, this film managed to capture the story of Exodus and presented a film with all the scale of The Ten Commandments without sacrificing the underlying human story of Moses and Ramses which lies at the heart of the story. I could've picked songs like "The Plagues" or "Through Heaven's Eyes", as I earnestly believe that, much like Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, any one of these songs could and should be talked about in greater detail, I ultimately think that "Deliver Us" the desperate prayer from the Israelites that opens up this film must be talked about more.

The orchestral composition utilizes a stunning mix of Hebrew prayers and classic orchestration to create something that in some ways sounds almost like a work song, which given the thematic presence of slavery as a subject matter was likely very intentional. But the piece also goes out of its way to exposit in the viewers' mind the plight of the Israelites and their pleas to God to save them. Almost from the moment that first beat is dropped, you are forced to bear witness to the cruelties of Pharaoh and, when the song shifts tone from work song to pleading lullaby with the escape from Pharaoh's men by Moses mother, the hints towards the future salvation of the Jewish people is always kept just slightly understated.

The song needed to introduce viewers not only into the world of the film and the underlying struggle which forms the basis of this incredibly famous story in Western culture, but also needed to sympathize with the Israelites plight and realize just how much pressure is being placed on the shoulders of Moses, who isn't even aware of it for the majority of the film.

A mix of sombre and stirring which ultimately ends with a triumphant plea for hope and salvation, "Deliver Us" manages to capture the entire tonal spirit of the film in microcosm.

5. Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now (Cats Don't Dance)

When looking up this song online, it is important to not get it confused with the song by the same name by the band Starship, which is also an amazing song in its own right from its own relatively unknown film soundtrack. This "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" that I'm going to speak on is from the 1997 film Cats Don't Dance, produced by Warner Bros Animation.

If you remember this film at all, it is likely for either this song, which forms the climax of the film, or the Shirley Temple-esque villain of Darla Dimple, who is just so much goddamn fun to watch. Starring Scott Bakula of Quantum Leap fame and Jasime Guy from School Daze, Cats Don't Dance is a largely forgettable film from the Warner Bros lineup. The story isn't all the incredible from a narrative standpoint, but is an absolute powerhouse in terms of theming and subtextual narrative; as the film is an open criticism of the lack of diversity and minority presentation in Hollywood culture of the Golden Age. To those who are aware of the history of this period in Hollywood, Cats Don't Dance is something of a damning exploration of the racism and privilege at play during that time period, and something that, unfortunately, still really hasn't gone away.

But as this is a family film and needs a happy ending, Cats Don't Dance grants the audience a surpeme sense of catharsis with its climax, "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now", where every single animal cast member perform a high energy, no-holds-bar singing extravaganza for the Hollywood elite to show off their talents. All the while, Darla Dimple tries, in vain, to halt their progress, only making things bigger and louder.

With music produced by Steve Goldstein and performed by entire crew, including actor Scott Bakula as the lead, "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" is just so much goddamn fun. It feels so good to see these characters that have gotten beaten down throughout this entire film get a chance to shine, all while Darla Dimple just eats it throughout the entire piece. The song has a manic and desperate edge to the entire thing, as it really is the last shot that our characters have at making a name for themselves and it really gives a sense of joy and tension as we watch them just throw everything at the wall and it all work to create a stunningly entertaining piece of sheer fun.

Even though the film itself is rather forgettable and bland, beyond its wildly important subtextual story, the soundtrack is nothing to be forgotten.


6. Open Up Your Eyes (My Little Pony: The Movie)

Alright let's be honest.

You knew I was going to put something from My Little Pony: The Movie on here. I knew I was going to put something from My Little Pony: The Movie on here. We all knew it and I will not be ashamed of my decision here.

Because this soundtrack, with one single massive exception, just absolutely kills it. With the sole exclusion of the song by Sia, which I think makes her sound like she is gargling marbles, every single track in this Hasbro animated production from 2017 is charming and wonderful. From "Time to Be Awesome" to "One Small Thing", Daniel Ingram, whose was the main composer behind the songs in the My Little Pony g4 show as well, does an amazing job at creating fun and catchy songs that can enchant both adults and children.

Throughout the movie, I was waiting for a kickass villain song, as the character of Tempest Shadow was just oozing all the contextual clues that she was going to get one. And as the third act begins, Ingram made sure to not disappoint.

"Open Up Your Eyes" is, in many ways, your classic expositional villain song. Performed hauntingly by Tempest's voice actress Emily Blunt, it explains the story of Tempest Shadow and the reason she thematically opposes our antagonist. It makes a point of showing the underlying tragedy of the character and plants the seeds of redemption that are so essential to the overall theme of forgiveness and kindness which underlies the entire theme of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.

There isn't a whole lot to say beyond that to be honest. I just really wanted a chance to talk about some great music from a film that, outside of its fandom, didn't make all that much of an impact. And the beautiful instrumentation and lyrical prowess of actress Emily Blunt does so much to expand upon the character and add a layer of complexity that the actual villain of the movie just completely lacks, much to my chagrin.

"Open Up Your Eyes" is a lot of fun and one amazing song on a soundtrack filled with earworms.


7. Main Title (The Secret of N.I.M.H.)

I have to admit something. I never really grew up watching The Secret of N.I.M.H.. That is not to say that I had never seen it, just that I never really had ready access to it that would've made a key aspect of my childhood. My family just, for some reason, never bought the VHS or DVD of the movie.

The being said, I did love this movie a lot, really appreciating its dark tone and mature themes, which would come to characterize much of Don Bluth's work. And a key aspect of my love for this film and the few memories I do have all center around the opening title track of the film.

Lacking any official name, this track really is the oddball of this list, in no small part due to its relatively quietness and pure instrumentation. Honestly for about two of the three minutes of this song, the film just steadily builds in volume, adding more and more musical elements until the pounding and mystical trumpet section begins which I think perfectly captures the sense of adventure and love which forms the thematic crux of The Secret of N.I.M.H..

Despite the brevity of the piece, being barely over three minutes long, the piece is iconic and instantly brings you into the spirit of the film. Composer Jerry Goldsmith and the National Philharmonic Orchestra performed an extraordinary job and I find myself listening to this subtle and moving piece quite often.


8. Other Friends (Steven Universe: The Movie)

For our last track on this list, I decided to honor the film based on the show that has become almost legendary for its high quality music. Steven Universe: The Movie is the direct sequel to the original Steven Universe show and shows our protagonist not on the cusp of adulthood. Having succeeded in saving the galaxy and bringing peace to the Gem Empire, Steven is ready for peace and a normal life on Earth. But when one last ghost from his mother's past rears its head, Steven is put on the defensive.

The film is essentially a loving tribute to the show for fans and does a great deal to capture the spirit of the show while adding in a larger and more personal scale. Yes, the planet is at risk, but the heart of the Steven Universe franchise has always been the interpersonal relationships between characters. And the character of Spinel, the main antagonist of the film, is introduced to us through a truly incredible, if brief musical piece known as "Other Friends".

Each character in Steven Universe is introduced and recognized by a specific music motif.  Steven is identified by chip-tunes, Pearl by violins, etc.. For Spinel, to symbolize her relative obsolescence compared to her fellow gems, Steven Universe creator and composer Rebecca Sugar gave her an aesthetic matching that of the rubber-hose animations of the 1920s and 30s. This aesthetic pushes into her musical debut as Spinel, voiced by Broadway actress Sarah Stiles, performs "Other Friends" as a manic and high energy jazz piece that wouldn't be out of fashion in a game like Cuphead. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the creators of the show took a bit of inspiration from Cuphead in the creation of Spinel.

Lyrically, "Other Friends" is chocked full of minor clues as to the identity and history of Spinel, who sings as if the characters should automatically know who she is just by the force of her name alone. The lack of identification on their part only succeeding in infuriating her further, leading up to the chilling finale of the song, where Spinel manages to defeat the Crystal Gems in a single attack.

"Other Friends" is a great way to introduce a manic, yet tragic, character that both builds up her mystery and threat whilst keeping her somewhat fun and goofy. It is a balance that is incredibly hard to do well and Sugar's team did wonderfully, granting us a wonderful antagonist song (not a villain song for narrative reasons) and the perfect song to end this countdown on.

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CONCLUSION

I had a heck of a lot of fun making this list and it is by no means comprehensive. The sheer amount of animated musicals that exist out there means that I will almost certainly create a sequel countdown to this list in the future.

But I would actually like to hear from you for a change, especially as I prepare for the next few months of articles. Is there a non-Disney animated song that you especially enjoy? Or if there is a movie or TV show that you really want me to review, you guys can tweet me @TheBronyCritic. I love to hear from you all and will gladly take recommendations for more reviewable content.

So I want everyone to know that I will be taking the next four weeks off in order to mentally refresh myself, as well as prepare for whatever is left of the convention season. During this time, I hope to build up a nice stockpile of reviews for your pleasure.

Thanks for joining me on this incredible journey, and I will be back on July 3rd with a very special editorial subject to discuss.

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