It's once again time for another countdown article. This week, we will be covering a topic that is very near to my heart and something that I relish in. But to explain it, I do have to go a bit into my personal life if you all will allow me the opportunity.
I grew up in a very traditional and conservative environment and was thus subjected to many aspects of masculinity that could quite frankly be described as toxic. Chief among these was an aspect perhaps quite familiar to many of my contemporaries in possession of a male identity.
The inability to have emotional catharsis through outbursts, especially crying.
Thankfully, I am no longer actively subjected or pressured by such an environment and have endeavored to remove much of the programming that was placed upon me as a child. However the scars of youth linger and I've always struggled to be able to cry, even for events that would normally elicit such a response.
As a result, I have often turned to the soundtracks of films for my emotional releases. Cinema soundtracks possess a powerful transformative capacity. Musical tracks are used by filmmakers to enhance the emotional timbre (to use a musical phrase) of a scene and the best musical tracks can even inspire beyond the scene in question.
Now I had initially desired to do a general countdown for both live-action and animation together, but it was suggested that animation might be better handled separately. Animated films have much more control over the timing and coordination of their soundtracks with their visuals and this can lead to some truly awe-inducing moments of cinema, alongside allowing composers the freedom to stretch their musical muscles.
So let's take a non-competitive look at 8 emotional animated film musical tracks.
To be included on this list, the accompanying film must be a majority animated. There can be live action prologues or epilogues but the narrative focus of the film must be animated.
I'm judging the selections by their capacity to instill goosebumps and tears. Music has a singular ability to touch the heartstrings and evoke power waves of emotions and I want to capture that with these selection.
I wish to ensure that we cover a variety of cinematic selections. As such, we will only select one song per film.
While I am not listing these selections in terms of best or worst, rather giving a generalized list for you readers to explore musical options on your own, I will highlight those tracks which, in my opinion, manage to stand independent of the scene that they are attached to.
Credit songs can be included.
1. Flying Dreams (Secret of NIMH)
I never really grew up with The Secret of NIMH. I of course remember watching it as a child, as I did most of Don Bluth's filmography. It just wasn't one of those films that I watched with great frequency or looked on as one of my favorites growing up.
As an adult and a professionally-trained film critic, I have a much deeper emotional connection and tie to this film. The Secret of NIMH really is one of Bluth's most iconic works and the musical accompaniment provided by the legendary Jerry Goldsmith is fundamental to that influence. The music of The Secret of NIMH is awe-inspiring and evokes a level of epicness that one might expect in a high fantasy film, rather than a very personal tale of personal sacrifice. The entire score is a fantastic emotional roller coaster and I initially struggled to figure out which piece best captured the emotional core of the film.
In hindsight, the choice was obvious. The credit song "Flying Dreams" is a perfect encapsulation of the heart of The Secret of NIMH. Mrs Brisby is a deeply loving character and this lullaby, performed by either Paul Williams or Sally Stevens depending on your preference, is a beautiful declaration of love. My personal preference is for the Paul Williams rendition because I love the interpretation that this is a song of love being sung to Mrs Brisby by her late husband, Jonathan. That is such a powerful image that I can't help but be induced to goosebumps by the charming orchestral accompaniment. If you prefer the Sally Stevens version, I imagine this is essentially Mrs Brisby's lullaby to her children (which is just a tearjerker in its own right).
"Flying Dreams" was, in my opinion, the perfect way to end Don Bluth's magnum opus.
2. Your Heart Will Lead You Home (The Tigger Movie)
And now we get into the first film song that really defined my cinematic childhood. I, like a lot of children, grew up on the adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends. I watched the Disney Channel reruns, the classic 70s anthology film, and the many, many direct-to-DVD sequels. And of all those sequels, the film which spoke to me on the most fundamental and emotional level ad leaves me a crying mess every time is The Tigger Movie.
I fully realize how silly that statement is. That The Tigger Movie leaves me in tears every time I watch it. But its very much true and I have to put a lot of blame not only on the deeply emotional story of found family but also upon Kenny Loggins' fantastic credit song, "Your Heart Will Lead You Home".
I actively listen to this song whenever I need to feel an emotional release. Structurally, this piece is very simple. At its heart its what Todd in the Shadows calls a "White Guy on Acoustic Guitar" song. But the power of Kenny Loggins' voice really does elevate this song into a beautiful declaration of familial love. I'm listening to this song as I write this article and I find myself singing along and truly desiring to allow myself to feel desirable. When paired with the actual movie, this song has the genuine ability to wreck you emotionally and I am absolutely here for it.
The Tigger Movie remains one of my childhood favorites and "Your Heart Will Lead You Home" is absolutely an essential part of that memory and enjoyment
3. When She Loved Me (Toy Story 2)
If you grew up in the 90s and 2000s, it is almost a certainty that you found yourself on the recieving end of a animal cruelty PSA that was sung by Sarah McLachlan. "In the Arms of an Angel" has become almost a gag with the sheer level of overplay that it has had. Despite that, the song still has, in my opinion, a powerful emotional resonance. I mention this only because it should come to no surprise that another Sarah McLachlan piece would reveal itself to be just as enduring as an emotional piece.
Playing during Jessie's backstory in Toy Story 2, "When Somebody Loved Me" is a departure from the rest of the soundtrack composed by Randy Newman. While Newman does amazing work in the film, McLachlan's piece remains the highlight of both the soundtrack and the film in my opinion.
A story of love and loss told from the perspective of a toy, that surface level read of the piece fails to capture the thematic implications of the series that transforms this song into a tragic tale of a parent losing touch with a child. Throughout the Toy Story franchise, there is a deep sense that the toys' see themselves as caretakers and guardians for their owners. And when taken to its logical conclusion, a theme of children outgrowing their parents and moving on reveals itself through our casts' tale in the four films.
With that read in mind, Jessie's story becomes deeply depressing. Both for the loss of opportunity and for the memories of when times were better. A song, powered by Sarah McLachlan's earnest tones, transforms into a tribute to younger days. A story of a mother desiring to remain a part of her daughter's life even as that child outgrows her parents.
A tale that I'm sure speaks to many parents out there and allows "When She Loved Me" to transcend its original film to become one of the most emotional tracks in animated cinematic history.
4. Heritage of the Wolf (Balto)
Balto is one of the films that doesn't really seem to get talked about all that much. If I'm entirely honest, the film doesn't really leave much of an impression upon viewing. The film is a very earnest and simple story of acceptance of oneself and the struggles to overcome persecution playing over the very real historical event that was the 1925 Nome diphtheria outbreak.
The film is...okay, but not exactly the most engaging or emotionally compelling stories, with one single moment representing an exception. Right at the lowest point in our heroes story, Balto is forced to come to terms with his own identity as a wolfdog (a breed of dog that is half-wolf). Throughout the film, he has attempted to repeatedly deny this aspect of his life and through the machinations of the films villain, Steele, Balto is trapped with the medicine and everything seems lost.
It is in this moment that "Heritage of the Wolf" begins. Composed by James Horner, one of the most prolific film composers to have ever lived, "Heritage of the Wolf" is in many ways a compilation of the emotional and thematic beats of the film put into a single 6 minute piece. Listening to the track, I am immediately brought into all of the best and most poignant moments of the film (which aren't a lot but they are stirring when they show up).
Ultimately the piece is a triumphant declaration of acceptance for oneself. It acts as essentially the entire Third Act "all is lost moment" and resolution. A mini-movie playing out in my own head that immediately brings me back to watching this film even after so many years.
That is a true sign of the power of a piece and shows that even a comparatively average film can deliver incredibly emotional moments through music.
5. Better Than I (Joseph: King of Dreams)
I knew when I came up with this article that I wanted to include a song from either The Prince of Egypt or its prequel direct-to-DVD film Joseph: King of Dreams. I ultimately chose from the latter as I felt it was also a good opportunity to bring some attention to what is my opinion a somewhat underrated animated film. While the latter film is most certainly a much smaller and simpler film (both narratively and in animation quality) than its grandiose predecessor, Joseph: King of Dreams is a moving story of triumph through adversity and the transformative power of faith.
Stylistically The Prince of Egypt and Joseph: King of Dreams feel very different and a key reason for that is down to the change in musical leadership. Where Hans Zimmer composed the score for The Prince of Egypt and delivered a level of enormity and significance that audiences have to expect from Zimmer's work, for Joseph: King of Dreams, Zimmer turned over leadership to his friend Danny Pelfrey and stayed mostly in an advisory capacity. As a result, the music of Joseph: King of Dreams has a much smaller and more personal edge to it. The music, like the story, focuses much more on character rather than scale, which I think helps the film to stand out from its sister film.
And no where is this sense of character more vividly felt than in the emotional crux of the film, "Better Than I". Performed by singer David Campbell, "Better Than I" is a moving declaration of humility in the face of faith. The character of Joseph throughout the film is a person deeply confident and proud of his achievements and abilities and the first half of the movie spends a great deal of time bringing him down to his lowest point. "Better Than I" is the culmination of that struggle, where Joseph finally comes to accept his own powerlessness and accept life for its ups and its downs.
The song is a very openly religious song and for many people uncomfortable with discussions of faith, the song (and the film as a whole) could easily come off as preachy. However, I grew up in an environment deeply rooted in the Christian faith and though I am not a particularly faithful person anymore, my memories of the feeling of being filled with grace are still very intoxicating. It's a feeling that I still back to fondly, in spite of my issues with the Church in the present day. And "Better Than I", moreso than perhaps any other song is able to bring me back quickly and earnestly in touch with those feelings.
To me, that is definition of an emotional piece. When a piece of religious-oriented music is able to make agnostic recall the sensations of grace that they experienced as a child in the faith, what else can we call that song but an emotional masterpiece.
Simple, earnest, and powerful, "Better Than I" might very well be the best religious song ever written, as far as I am concerned.
6. Stoick's Ship (How to Train Your Dragon 2)
Looking back, I cannot help but notice that How to Train Your Dragon 2 is something of an oddball on this list. The rest of the films on this list are all on here in one way or another because of the nostalgic emotional power that those songs were able to make me feel then and have carried on into the present.
But How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a comparatively recent film, one I first saw in my adulthood and thus lacks the emotional nostalgia of the others. So why do I still so comfortable and certain that "Stoick's Ship", the song which plays during the funeral of Stoick the Vast, Hiccup's father, belongs on this list?
The key to understanding my reasoning comes from what I might call thematic resonance. "Stoick's Ship" is a beautifully orchestrated song on its own, filled with the Celtic-inspired sounds and the most beautifier bagpipes I've ever heard. On its own, it is a wonderful example of composers John Powell's work which overlays the entire film. The song perfectly emphasizes the visual moment at play and does the necessary work of propelling the audience through the harrowing experience of Hiccup losing his father to prepare them for the final confrontation with the film's villain.
What helps me relate to the song on an individual emotional level is the realization that thematically, the song is a perfect encapsulation of the character of Stoick. At the heart of the piece, "Stoick's Ship" is a remix of an earlier song in the soundtrack "Of Dancing and Dreaming". This song is the only song sung by any character in the franchise and it is specifically a declaration of love from Stoick to his estranged wife.
"Stoick's Ship" takes this beautiful declaration and transforms it into a tragic summation of Stoick's life. An individual who lost so much and yet endeavored to sacrifice everything he had for his family. The character of Stoick the Vast is treated as deeply complex, yet well-meaning, throughout most of the first two films. And nowhere is that emotion more perfectly captured than in the character's final farewell dirge.
How Powell managed to transform a love song into a powerful funeral hymn while maintaining the dignity and gravitas of the visuals is what enables "Stoick's Ship" to stand on the same level of my more nostalgic selections".
7. Mother Earth and Father Time (Charlotte's Web)
If I'm honest, I was conflicted on putting this selection on here. Not because "Mother Earth and Father Time" from Charlotte's Web doesn't belong here, it absolutely devastates me every time I hear it. But because I had to choose between this song and "Goodbye May Seem Forever" from The Fox and the Hound.
I ultimately went with "Mother Earth and Father Time" because the other choice is both from a more well-known film and a little more spoken word poetry than direct lyrical music. When I release a sequel countdown with more options, you can be certain that the tear-jerking ditty from The Fox and the Hound will make an appearance. Today however, "Goodbye May Seem Forever" must bow it head in awe at the most heartbreaking song from a childhood classic I can possibly imagine.
When I told my parents that I was putting this list together and mentioned Charlotte's Web, there was an immediate visceral reaction; which makes a lot of sense. Composed by the powerhouse team of the Sherman Brothers and performed by the legendary Debbie Reynolds, "Mother Earth and Father Time" is an anthem to the joys and beauty of life, particularly because of its impermanence. The titular character of Charlotte is preparing her friend Wilbur to learn one final lesson about the world and she does through a song about how wonderful the world is even in its short moments.
Charlotte's song is styled almost like a lullaby, intended to both sooth and teach and as a child I was enthralled, even as I knew how painful what was coming would be. And sure enough, Charlotte's death hits my nostalgia on a level similar to that of Mufasa's death and Bambi's mom, which I think is extraordinary for a film that seems to have largely been forgotten by many.
Hopefully my mention of this film will bring more people to look into this admittedly average film with a beautiful message of love and loss. With any luck, "Mother Earth and Father Time" will bring many more people to tears.
8. Whispering Winds (The Land Before Time)
Death is a natural part of life and therefore it is essential to explore it through cinema, especially children's cinema. Growing up in the 90s in the age of VHS, I was able to bear witness to some truly powerful deaths in my childhood classics.
Of course we had the death of Bambi's mom, but also I was particularly impacted, as shown by the previous selection, by Charlotte's death in Charlotte's Web. We also can't forget about Mufasa's death in The Lion King as that was likely many 90s kids first introduction to a death on screen (I know it was mine). But of course, for many children of the 80s and 90s, the death of Littlefoot's mom from the first The Land Before Time probably fucked them up in a way that few cinematic deaths ever have.
The Land Before Time was, in retrospect, a really dark film. Don Bluth is once quoted as saying that kids can handle anything in a film as long as you put a happy end on it; but holy shit is this film incredibly depressing at points.
And that is almost certainly a result of "Whispering Winds", the track that plays over the death, the talk with Rutter, and Littlefoot's hallucination of his mom's directions to the Great Valley. Once again James Horner brings us to tears so prevalent that Don Bluth actually had to alter the original scene to not only include Rutter in the film just to tell children that everything was going to be okay but also include a comedic segment of children dinosaurs fighting over a cherry. When you listen to the piece, you will likely be able to tell exactly when these sections of the film occur and that shows the power of Horner's score to reach onto your heartstrings and just rip them to hell and back.
I adore listening to this piece and it very much makes me want to go back and watch The Land Before Time. It's been years since I last saw the film and perhaps its time to go and have a good cry.
Music has an extraordinary ability to drive our emotions in a way that few other sensory feelings do. A simple jingle has the power to send our memories reeling to moments of both ecstatic joy and crippling sorrow and the use of this powerful force in music has created deep-seated feelings that propel many scenes in film to legendary heights in the cultural zeitgeist.
We remember with equal parts fondness and sadness at memories of childhood. Through music, we were taught lessons of both beauty and tragedy in ways that were simple and yet remain impactful decades afterwards. This list is filled songs that, even on repeat listens, exemplifies the virtues of transformative music in a way that I'm not sure any list I have made thus far can.
So now that I have helped you all start what may very well be the saddest playlist you've ever created, I would love to hear from you all.
Are there any songs from animated films that just leave you in tears or goosebumps every time you take a listen? Anything I missed on my list or should absolutely put on a sequel list at some point down the line? I'm trying to engage more with my readership from here on out, so let's take a shot with the comment section.
Next week, we go from a countdown list to yet another literary review. Until then, I hope you all enjoy listening to some tear-inducing nostalgic ditties.
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