VOICE OVER: Emily Brayton WRITTEN BY: Matthew Geiger
These animated movie scores transport us to different realms. For this list, we'll be looking at animated films that feature the most exciting and sonically satisfying musical accompaniment. Our countdown includes "Spirited Away," "Shrek," "Toy Story," and more!
Top 10 Animated Movies with the Best Scores
Welcome to MsMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 Animated Movies with the Best Score.
For this list, we’ll be looking at animated films that feature the most exciting and sonically satisfying musical accompaniment. We won’t be including live-action/animation hybrids like “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” and we’ll be doing our best to focus on original scores only. Sorry “Fantasia” fans, but that’s a list for another day.
What’s your favorite score from an animated movie? Let us know in the comments down below!
#10: “Brave” (2012)
If Scottish composer Patrick Doyle seemed like an obvious choice to score this Pixar fairytale set in the Middle Ages of his home country, it’s because he was. Doyle broke through as a composer for period pieces before making his way to fantasy with his work on “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.” Suffice it to say he was well suited to bringing Merida and Queen Elinor’s journey of understanding to life with Celtic flair. Doyle specifically incorporates native Scottish instruments like the bagpipes, cimbalom, dulcimer, and bodhrán into the score in order to emphasize the genuineness of the story. The results speak for themselves, and it’s hard not to appreciate just how much Doyle’s music drives the film forward to its sunny conclusion.
#9: “Spirited Away” (2001)
There’s rarely a moment in this Hayao Miyazaki masterpiece when Joe Hisaishi’s mesmerizing score isn’t featured, and if that’s not an indicator of its power, then not much else is. From the moment the film’s quaint, piano-based opening movement, “One Summer’s Day,” begins, we’re in for an introspective journey. Following ten-year-old Chihiro as she navigates a world of spirits and strange creatures to save her parents from an awful curse, “Spirited Away” is a universal story about childhood wonder and the loneliness of growing up. It’s that vast emotional spectrum that Hisaishi attempts to convey in his carefully constructed music. His contributions are as complex as the film itself, and are part of the reason why it’s one of Studio Ghibli’s greatest achievements.
#8: “Shrek” (2001)
Harry Gregson-Williams & John Powell
This DreamWorks classic would not be the game-changer it is today without its eclectic soundtrack of modern pop hits sprinkled into the off-kilter fantasy. However, the rousing score by Harry Gregson-Williams and John Powell fills in quite a few spaces along the way. The duo keep “Shrek” in line with the fairytales it gleefully parodies through a booming marriage of brass, string, and percussion. Underscoring many of the film’s most enthralling scenes, the instrumentals inspire notions of adventure and romance, making it the perfect inclusion to the titular ogre’s journey of self-discovery and his blossoming relationship with Princess Fiona. The studio must have felt the same way because “Shrek’s” main “Fairytale” theme has since become synonymous with the DreamWorks logo.
#7: “Kung Fu Panda” (2008)
Hans Zimmer & John Powell
With a catalog that also includes the likes of “Gladiator,” “Inception,” and “Dune,” Hans Zimmer has proven himself as one of the most diverse film composers working today… Which makes it all the more surprising that his score for “Kung Fu Panda” still feels slept on in comparison. John Powell once again steps in to offer his own touch and, together, the two deliver a score that embraces Chinese culture and mythology. Zimmer and Powell effectively balance the movie’s physical comedy and its deep-seated respect for martial arts. Their dominant use of the erhu and percussive elements ultimately grounds the film as Po learns the value of staying true to himself while becoming the mighty warrior we always knew he was.
#6: “The Incredibles” (2004)
Writer-director Brad Bird made a gamble hiring an up-and-coming Michael Giacchino to score this smash hit; but, then again, making the film was a gamble itself. Superheroes weren't always the box office force they are today, but “The Incredibles” made a strong case for their cultural value, thanks in no small part to Giacchino’s stunning arrangements. It feels like the composer brings several genres back to life, with his brass-heavy score fitting the retrofuturistic aesthetic of the film almost too well. Giacchino’s affinity for jazz recalls the best of old school spy films and makes the superpowered action sequences all the more heart-racing. It’s as soaring as it is intimate, making it the perfect match for a loving family of larger-than-life heroes.
#5: “Finding Nemo” (2003)
For being composer Thomas Newman’s first foray into animation, “Finding Nemo” may be one of Pixar’s less bombastic films in terms of its soundtrack, but Newman’s experience composing subdued yet hopeful music for films like “The Shawshank Redemption” and “Road to Perdition” made him just the right man for the job. Vegetarian sharks, surfing turtles, and the forgetful Dory all get their moment to shine as Newman helps set the adventurous tone of Marlin’s journey across the ocean to find his son. Combining the best of string, woodwind, and a melodic piano, the score walks a fine line between warmth and heartbreak, capturing the expanse of underwater life as gracefully as it mirrors the bittersweet father-son story at the heart of the film.
#4: “Toy Story” (1995)
While Thomas Newman took Pixar in a more progressive direction, his cousin, Randy, played a pivotal role in giving the studio an identity by scoring their inaugural feature, “Toy Story.” Considering the rivalry between Woody and Buzz Lightyear at the center of this groundbreaking hit, Randy Newman delivers a score that fittingly takes inspiration from classic westerns and contemporary space operas. Newman never loses sight of how grand and transformative the duo’s escapades are, tying his score intrinsically to their development and ultimate reconciliation. It’s the kind of music that tells us what the characters are thinking without having to say a word, and, with the help of Newman’s anthemic “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” “Toy Story” was catapulted to instant success.
#3: “Pocahontas” (1995)
To his credit, any of Alan Menken’s Oscar-winning scores from the Disney Renaissance could’ve made their way onto this list. “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin” are both perennial favorites, but it’s Menken’s work on “Pocahontas” that is perhaps his most dynamic. As is the composer’s tradition, his score provides an undercurrent of orchestral gravitas to the musical numbers featured in the film. But, what distinguishes “Pocahontas” is the way the score sticks to the singular purpose of defining the titular character’s beauty, dignity, and perseverance. The film itself may not offer much in the way of historical accuracy, but what it does offer is stirring, almost dreamlike music to compliment its inspiring visuals.
#2: “The Prince of Egypt” (1998)
If there’s one thing that composer Hans Zimmer understands, it’s the importance of replicating a film’s scope and ambition in his music. While “The Road to El Dorado” is yet another evident example of that, Zimmer completely outdid himself with “The Prince of Egypt.” True to the film’s setting, Zimmer draws upon both Egyptian and Hebraic influences as he provides the backdrop to Moses’ quest to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt. Both Stephen Schwartz’s songs and Zimmer’s score encapsulate the tragedy and spiritual triumph of the timeless story to a T. What results is such a moving suite that it’s hard not to feel as if we’re in the presence of a power much greater than ourselves.
Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.
“Ratatouille” (2007), Michael Giacchino
It’s a Feast For Our Eyes & Our Ears!
“How to Train Your Dragon” (2010), John Powell
Talk About a Score That Really Takes Flight!
“WALL-E” (2008), Thomas Newman
This Thomas Newman Effort Is Out of This World
“Coco” (2017), Michael Giacchino
The Land of the Dead Has Never Sounded More Alive
“Moana” (2016), Mark Mancina
It’s Safe to Say That This Score “Knows the Way”
#1: “The Lion King” (1994)
Whether he’s operating on a biblical scale or a Shakespearean one, Hans Zimmer clearly knows how to provide an animated feature with sweeping musical accompaniment. Transporting the listener to the Pride Lands as young lion Simba comes of age, Zimmer supplements the music and lyrics of Tim Rice and Elton John with an epic score that only enhances the film’s emotional punch. Taking several cues from African choral standards, the Oscar-winning music matches each of “The Lion King’s” tonal shifts perfectly. Capturing the natural beauty of the savanna, the horror of a wildebeest stampede, and the promise of a new tomorrow as Simba claims his throne, it’s enough to make anyone want to find their place in the circle of life.