Over 21 years and 15 feature films, Pixar have taken us from small bedrooms to big cities, from Toy Barns to the depths of the ocean, deepest forests to outer space – and now, fantastically, inside the mind of a young girl. With Inside Out, Pixar have scored another already-beloved hit – or, to be more specific, Michael Giacchino has scored another big Pixar hit. The studio’s offbeat, jazzy stylings – usually with some lovely orchestral work and a sizeable sprinkling of heartfelt emotional cues – are as iconic in musical form as they are visually. How could quirksome films about toys, rats, robots, cars and fish work otherwise? So without further ado, we invite you on a tour of the music of Pixar!
1. The Early Years (1994-2001)
For the world’s first feature-length CGI feature, John Lasseter’s pitch to the overlords at Disney was simple: it’s not a musical. Toy Story was to be a buddy comedy, one that happened to be animated – and, with occasional (usually decades-old) exceptions, comedic buddies don’t randomly burst into song. Lasseter’s brilliant lateral move was to recruit his musical hero, sardonic New York composer and songwriter Randy Newman, to create a score with a few non-diegetic songs, showing us roughly what the characters felt instead of spelling it all out. The Toy Story score is to this day a minor artistic triumph, transforming both the Disney animation canon and Newman’s own work (which included, by this point, several famous and Oscar-nominated film scores), filtering all these sensibilities into a new and unique sound – one that, frankly, has defined Pixar ever since.
The Toy Story score doesn’t necessarily hang together; it instead goes for varied styles and ideas tailored to each moment, with a steady abruptness that serves the film well. Depending on the mood of a given scene, Newman will go mysterious, funny, epic, terrifying or heroic (sometimes all in one song, as with ‘Mutants’) – the richness of each track communicating a fantastic sense of scope far greater than the film’s mostly cramped interior surroundings. The scale of Newman’s wonderful work here reflects perfectly the hopes, fears and dreams of his small, yet emotionally rather complex, protagonists and in certain tracks aims, along with the toys, for nothing less than the stars themselves (cf. ‘Infinity and Beyond’). It is a score of great warmth, wit and limitless possibility – a perfect introduction to the world of Pixar.
This and the Toy Story 2 soundtracks are, on the whole, more memorable now for the nostalgia lurking therein. The latter, in particular, is one of Newman’s more forgettable scores – though its “hero” cues for Buzz are refined, adding thrilling texture to key sequences and proving important to the next instalment, 11 years later. Newman keeps the themes pacy, reflecting the cowboy/spaceman dynamic which, as in the script, is heightened in the sequel. Toy Story 2 shows Woody and Buzz reuniting with old casts and fighting old foes; furthermore, the cowboy confronts the idea of becoming a literal relic, in a Japanese museum, while the Space Ranger once again faces, through an entire Buzz aisle, the horror of his own futuristic homogeneity. Accordingly, this deeper dichotomy can be heard through quasi-recognisable music cues: ‘Use Your Head’, for a rescue scene, is modelled appropriately on classical Western scores while the interstellar ‘Zurg’s Planet’ actually features a nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey.
So too are the A Bug’s Life (1998) and Monsters, Inc. (2001) scores clever pastiches, drawing on various collective cultural memories. Each soundtrack goes for broke on jazz orchestra; ‘The City’ and ‘Walk to Work’ are both tremendously brassy numbers and, thanks to decades of cinema, sound just like big metropolises even without the images. These scores also achieve an even more epic evocation of “the world beyond”, gaining steadily in more classical orchestral styles as they go along, and as the characters discover more about the universe, and themselves (A Bug’s Life is one of the best Pixar scores – its closing credits suite not only shows just how clever its themes and progressions are, but is also eminently listenable).
As with later soundtracks, though, the ultimate emphasis is not so much on jazzy elation as a well of more complex emotional realms. Monsters, Inc.‘s piano-led theme is rightly beloved, so quietly unobtrusive we barely even read it as a manipulation; ‘Flik Leaves’, meanwhile, lollops along with languid grace, seamlessly fusing disappointment and hope. Then have another listen to ‘You’ve Got a Friend in Me’ and note that none of these are character themes per se: Newman’s early work emphasises relationships rather than individuals. The themes across these four films are for Mike and Sulley, Sulley and Boo, Woody and Buzz, Woody and Andy, Flik and the circus bugs. As was ever the case with Pixar, friendship is key.
From the beginning, Pixar music has traded in a fairly specific set of concerns: quirky yet classical, arch yet heartfelt. Newman’s scores of this era featured blatant pastiches while retaining a clear originality so welded to the productions’ unique qualities that each cue becomes inextricable from not only specific sequences, but an entire universe of feelings contained within the films. For viewers who grew up alongside Pixar’s late-’90s ascent, these are nostalgic treasure boxes – both on their own terms, and as a whole four-film canon, a kind of “Pixar sound” developed through the jazz-country-ragtime sonics that permeate the action. Through this, everything comes together; entire memories are made and, in the subsequent films, referred to over and over again. Pixar may have made their name on quality storytelling and cutting-edge animation, but their identity to this day is nothing without the strange and heroic efforts of Randy Newman.
2. The “Golden Age” (2003-2010)
It is understandable, after four films based around the distinct stylings of a warbling Newman, that Finding Nemo director Andrew Stanton wanted something a little different for his own, less wacky, film. In recruiting Randy’s cousin Thomas – to this day defined by offbeat offerings like his 1999 American Beauty score – Stanton ushered in a new era of experimentation for a studio that had finally found its feet.
Nemo is often considered the official starting-point for Pixar’s noughties “Golden Age”, and amongst the various justifications for this is surely that music. Newman’s affinity for unorthodox instruments and dissonances is clear as ever; as with Randy’s work, the music of Nemo pretty much creates the world, a vital element to all those wonderfully-rendered shots of the ocean. ‘Nemo Egg’ and ‘First Day’ are ethereal and colourful, directing us through unfamiliar and beautiful aquascape; ‘The Divers’ and, especially, the incredible ‘Lost’ introduce dissonances that are not only menacing but remind us how scary this vastness can be. At no point does Newman (jr.) lose sight of the intimacy, though. The orchestra grows more classically soaring as the film develops, yet serenity still reigns throughout (‘The Turtle Lope’ is lovely) before, at the end, giving us the final word on the characters’ epic personal journeys. Calm, mystic and content. Who needs a sequel after that?
Thomas Newman was a master choice – imagine Randy’s attempts at “soothing ocean music” – but in paying lip-service to Pixar’s existing soundscapes, the composer all but eschewed his own personality and constructed, once again, a score we can recognise as part of a canon. Brad Bird, in creating 2004’s The Incredibles, went for an even less likely composer – though Michael Giacchino, former video game and TV composer making his major film debut, brought similar things to the table.
Giacchino’s two scores for Bird, The Incredibles and Ratatouille (2007), show off his clear love of nostalgic pastiche. Many thought ‘The Glory Days’, his now-iconic opening gambit, was actually a recycled John Barry piece from the 1960s. The rest of the Incredibles score is just as bracing, though a little long. Throughout are sprinklings of swinging ’60s cues from Mission: Impossible to The Man From U.N.C.L.E. to, yes, lots and lots of Bond. ‘Lava in the Afternoon’ is all slinky mystery; ‘Life’s Incredible Again’ is an authentic studio big-band piece, almost like an airline advert; ‘Off to Work’, too, is bossa nova, suave and high-flying. At no point does this winking sensibility clash with the film: as with Randy’s best moments, Giacchino’s music simply projects its characters’ self-images, much of the first half playing out the sexy themes inside Mr. Incredible’s showboating, self-regarding head (see also Kronk, from The Emperor’s New Groove). When the music becomes bombastic, it makes so much sense as a character trait in addition to more tried-and-tested functions such as “sense of danger and/or adventure”. The best example (and best piece) is ‘100 Mile Dash’, which all at once is another nod to The Incredibles‘ ’60s parody-world, a rip-roaring bit of classic audience excitement, and a fantastic, glorious, Pixar-ian representation of its character’s adrenaline and glee as Dash finally gets to break out his power and go for broke. The music is as electric as the direction; between all that action-adventure chaos stuff, the kid is visibly joyful, and we’re all smiling with him.
The gorgeous instrumentation here is possibly one-upped in Ratatouille, which does all the same things as The Incredibles‘ score but in a completely different register. Again, it is parodic; the opening, ‘Welcome to Gusteau’s’, rejigs its predecessor’s often-hilarious OTT-ness to present knowing French-music archetypes. Throughout, accordions and jazz guitars drench the film in a recognisable style that’s usually knowing, yet never skimps on the romance. ‘Special Order’ and the theme song, ‘Le festin’, are solid examples of Giacchino’s ability to turn spoofs into genuinely evocative, exciting music.
The films either side of Ratatouille, Cars (2006) and WALL-E (2008), share these artistic concerns. The former flits between pre-existing pop/rock/country songs (a Pixar first) and Randy Newman’s own drawling country-folk score. Louder “pop” moments belong to protagonist Lightning McQueen, and are for the kids; original cues such as ‘McQueen and Sally’ pull us deeper into the wistful heart beating at the centre of this otherwise somewhat over-juvenile movie. The grand, sweeping vistas and carefully-realised small-town sets are welded perfectly to an underrated score. Even when Pixar threaten to become DreamWorks (an irritatingly obvious song choice, seemingly from a lesser movie, is Bobby Troup’s ‘Route 66’), there is much creativity and care in even the most generic aspects of the craft.
WALL-E, meanwhile, revels in its sheer Thomas Newman-ness just as much as Nemo. The (inter)stellar score is, again, both recognisable and original, intimate and soaring, and completely Pixarian. WALL-E may have a 700-year-old body, but his oft-replaced eyes are those of a naïf, and as with the almost stupid sense of childlike wonder created by the music of Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Monsters, Inc., The Incredibles and Ratatouille, Newman quietly shows us an entirely new world through his delicate work. ‘Define Dancing’ is, on the surface, stylistically rather removed from the more insane and pastiche-y tinkerings of the other films, yet captures the same sense of romance and adventure; this virtuoso piece, and others such as ‘2815 A.D.’ and ‘Foreign Containment’, are quintessentially Pixar simply for their ability to conjure new depths of feeling from otherwise fairly tried-and-tested sounds.
And then we get to Up. Giacchino’s 2009 masterwork won the studio its first Original Score Oscar after five previous bids (plus five Original Song nominations including a win for Monsters, Inc.‘s ‘If I Didn’t Have You’). There is subtle brilliance in the way 15 years’ worth of scores are seemingly crammed together here, an approach that for a seasoned influence-refractor like Giacchino may well be deliberate. The famous ‘Married Life’ is composed of Toy Story-esque old-timeyness with sprinklings of the quiet piano work that was so effective in Monsters, Inc. ‘Carl Goes Up’ uses the same themes but in a grander context while ‘Giving Muntz the Bird’ does it with pizzicato strings and glockenspiel. Throughout is the familiar sense of epic cartoonishness that defines these films – at times, Giacchino even returns to his Incredibles instrumentations. No matter the film, with Pixar we will always hear the same comforting audial blends.
Musically, Pixar’s final “Golden Age” film, Toy Story 3 (2010), is something of a denouement. Allegedly a temporary track that Randy Newman intended to re-record, the score feels pretty recycled. Yet one can see why director Lee Unkrich would go for such an approach: this familiarity is what drives the film’s impact. When Newman does new tracks in his signature style – ‘Sunnyside’ is a highlight – it feels like the studio have come full-circle. There are jazzy tracks, electric guitar tracks, soft and sad tracks, and ‘So Long’ even nicks a motif from Monsters, Inc. Here we are, then: two films that show Pixar at their most affecting, all through using ideas we recognise and are therefore automatically emotionally attuned to.
3. Late Pixar (2011-2015)
Though the studio’s overall quality dipped after the high of Toy Story 3, it is interesting to note that the scores for Cars 2, Brave and Monsters University lost nothing of the care that always went into their music. The former, Pixar’s lowest-regarded to date, benefits greatly from a Giacchino score that spiritually reflects The Incredibles‘ John Barry-aping sounds. All driving beats and ringing surf guitars, tracks such as ‘Turbo Transmission’ and ‘Towkyo Takeout’ belie the film’s fun sense of parody and, really, speak to the filmmakers’ continued investment in high-level craft. The script may fall down (largely on the fundamental misconception that Mater can carry a whole film), and jokes and characters may pander to the kiddies, but listen to this fine score and remind yourself of the ingenious production design and the sheer sleekness of this, the industry’s absolute top-top-tier computer animation.
Similarly, no expenses are spared in the sound of Brave, even with the film’s notorious production difficulties. Key crew replacements and rewrites may have harmed the film’s cohesion, but at every technical level of production the boat has clearly been pushed further and further out. Echoing Ratatouille‘s blend of French musical archetypes with Pixar’s Hollywood-ish aural sensibilities, Brave‘s score heaves with Celtic sounds of bagpipes, flutes and drums; studio newcomer Patrick Doyle more than matches Giacchino beat for beat, his compositions (most notably ‘The Games’) stretching those recognisable “Pixar sounds” into all sorts of uncharted shapes and styles.
Perhaps this is where the bubble briefly burst, however. By the time we attended Monsters University in 2013, the “parody scores” were becoming all too much. Even Randy, returning to the world of Mike and Sulley, sounded more than ever like his own plagiarist. ‘Young Michael’ is, in itself, a lovely track, but place it within the wider Pixar canon and it becomes near-indistinguishable – save the mid-track segue into an oddly typical “college theme” – even including a subsequent jolt into SUDDEN SCARINESS that could have come straight from Sid’s room (and indeed is all over the Toy Story franchise).
Inside Out, on the other hand, is not only Pixar’s best film in years but one of its all-time great scores. As always, the elements are all there – Giacchino pushes the “house style” like crazy, blending both Newmans on opening piece ‘Bundle of Joy’ before delving into his own absurdism with ‘Team Building’‘s hilarious tuba, ‘Imagination Land’‘s carnival leanings and ‘We Can Still Stop Her’‘s apparent Exorcist reference. As the fifteenth Pixar feature, Inside Out is steeped in what we’ve come to know and love: faithful world-building, warm emotion, bizarre parody. All of which descriptions apply both to the film’s visuals and its music. No viewer yet has quite the same long-forged connection with this recent release as they do the older films; yet already, to listen to this score, it feels like an old friend. To reflect on the latest Pixar soundtrack is to realise that for years, the studio’s music has been one of the definitive key ingredients, always buzzing at the back of the mind, making everything not just seem but feel real, and plugging us directly into the remarkable depths of these beloved works.
Have we piqued, or indeed re-piqued, your interest in Pixar’s delicious musical history? Have a listen to our Pixar playlist below, and let us know what we missed out!