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Disney In Depth: The 20 Best Disney Film Scores Of The Past 20 Years (Part 1)
Brett Nachman   |  @   |  

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Score! More appropriately, instrumental score. Disney music, we geeks listen to it on a weekly or even daily basis. The songs tell our stories and inspirations, and we cannot forget the touch the musicians’ instrumental work offers. This two-part edition of Disney In Depth recognizes the 20 best Disney scores from the past 20 years (1993-2012).

The influence of an effective musical score cannot be denied. Strings may lend sadness, whereas horns could share soul. Orchestration is an essential element to any film. In many ways the instrumental arrangements remain in our minds long after the closing credits scroll up the screen. Themes define the tone of the film, and the collective tracks classify the type of movie we remember.

Continue below to check out the first half of the list!

Note: Only films featuring the Disney label, thus no Touchstone Pictures or Marvel Studios movies and so on were considered eligible for my list.

#20 – Atlantis: The Lost Empire, 2001 (James Newton Howard)

Impressive scale and momentum characterize Disney’s sci-fi adventure flick, and who better to bring feelings of grandeur to an epic than James Newton Howard? The man, known for such magnificent melodies in the M. Knight Shyamalan films, provided powerful movement to Atlantis. Ethereal, teasing, imposing and splendid are words that come to mind when I think of the cues he lent to Atlantis, a fun and magnificent ride.

Download these tracks: “The Submarine;” “The City of Atlantis;” and “The Secret Swim”

#19 – National Treasure, 2004 (Trevor Rabin)

Rabin brings mystery, ceaseless drive and beguiling enthusiasm to the fast-paced movie starring Nicolas Cage. This unexpected hit drove Disney to produce a 2007 sequel with additional catchy themes, including a beautiful strings piece echoing the 1860s. But the original, with its tense force mixed with carefree spirit, perfectly complemented the American-themed adventure, taking viewers to breathtaking new vistas around every puzzling corner. Rabin’s other collaborations with Jerry Bruckheimer feature similar stamina, but none compete with the instrumental treasures found in this 2004 movie.

Download these tracks: “Ben;” “The Chase;” “National Treasure Suite”; and “Treasure”

#18 – The Princess Diaries, 2001 (John Debney)

John Debney brought syrupy sweetness with magnificence and class to Diaries, one of Disney’s funniest and most special movies of the last two decades. How often do you quote this film? “Thank you for being here today.” One, check. Debney knows how to balance the more amusing pieces, featuring mischievous musical moments, with the more regal ones requiring all the grandness one would expect with a film of this nature. Oh, and how I love that waltz. Debney’s arrangement makes you want to don your best attire and head out to the dance floor. Never sappy, though relentlessly amiable, the score can stand apart from the film as delightfully agreeable to the ears. There is nothing wrong with that.

Download these tracks: “The Princess Diaries Waltz” (featured below); “The Kiss;” “Mia’s Decision”; and “Can I Call You Joe?”

#17 – Iron Will, 1994 (Joel McNeely)

The exhilarating feelings of competing in a daring dog-sled race are captured in McNeely’s brilliant soundtrack for the fondly-remembered Iron Will. The pompous and stirring score, reminiscent of Far and Away and The Rocketeer in tone, showcase McNeely’s ability to exude a multitude of emotions through the genius of his arrangements. Several trailers, including that of Toy Story, have even used Iron Will themes due to its splendor. The nostalgic softy in me recognizes that many individuals may have overlooked this score, but those who value grand music fitting the right film know this makes the list for a reason. Listen for yourself in the medley below.

Download these tracks: “Main Titles;” “Gus Rescues Will;” and “The Race Begins”

#16 – Disney’s The Kid, 2000 (Marc Shaiman)

How many of you recall this movie? It was a modest hit for the studio, but never seemed to become a cult hit or stand the test of time. Why? I have no clue, because the touching Bruce Willis dramedy where he meets a younger version of himself, is pure charm. Shaiman’s jazzy, big band-like orchestration matched the cool energy of this movie. His most memorable theme, found at the beginning of this track featured below, carries weight and bravado. I cannot locate the soundtrack online, so my recommendation is to purchase an old DVD of the film and enjoy Shaiman’s score within. You won’t be disappointed.

#15 – 101 Dalmatians, 1996 (Michael Kamen)

The live-action remake of Disney’s spot-filled animated classic is one of my favorite adaptations, and without hesitation I credit Kamen’s good-humored score that showed his range of abilities. The late Kamen, who sadly never garnered an Oscar win, lent heart and inspiration to Dalmatians. His playful, pumping rhythms and sweeping turns made Dalmatians a delightful movie in the Disney library. I can hum these melodies, especially the title track found below, without listening. Now that’s a testament to his influence.

Download these tracks: “Main Titles;” “The House of de Vil;” and “Woof on the Roof”

#14 – Eight Below, 2006 (Mark Isham)

The dog theme continues with Isham’s breathtaking addition to one of my favorite live-action Disney films in recent memory. Isham provided uplifting arrangements to this survival film set in Antarctica, where danger lurks both above and under the surface. The prolific musician, who often implements electronic elements into his music, knows how to play to the scene. Clearly Isham’s many tracks, including “The Journey Begins/The Crevasse,” featured below, indicate that facility. He has a knack to heighten the scale of the traumatic moments on one end, and on the other, can soften the emotional blows.

Download these tracks: “The Journey Begins/The Crevasse;” “The Rescue;” and “Bird Doggin'”

#13 – Monsters, Inc., 2001 (Randy Newman)

Let’s head to Monstropolis, because that world boasts a stylish score we all know and love. Newman’s a Pixar fixture, and justly so, because he arranges his blues and jazz tones to the context of the film. Monsters, more mechanistic, illustrates Newman’s suave flair, perhaps most in “The Scare Floor” track featured below. Everything is on center stage here, and it almost feels like Newman just wants to shout “ta-da,” because this screams genius. Yet Monsters possesses a quiet and tender flavor thanks to Boo, and Newman crafts those cues with delicacy. Go Randy.

Download these tracks: “The Scare Floor;” “Walk to Work;” “The Ride of the Doors;” and “Kitty”

#12 – WALL-E, 2008 (Thomas Newman)

The musical stroke runs in the Newman family, as Randy’s cousin Thomas, an accomplished force in his own right, joined the Pixar family, too. With WALL-E, containing more ominous and dejected undertones, Newman reached into his handbook of musical knowledge to carry some imposing and stately rhythms. But included among those types of tracks are jocular tunes like “First Date” and inspired gems like “Define Dancing” (featured below). Thomas Newman has yet to win an Academy Award, even with eleven nominations as of 2013. Let’s hope Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur could score him an Oscar.

Download these tracks: “2815 A.D.;” “First Date;” “The Axiom” and “Define Dancing”

#11 – James and the Giant Peach, 1996 (Randy Newman)

Take a bite into the peach and you’ll enjoy the juicy vibe our friend Randy Newman soaked into the Henry Selick feature. Newman’s sweet, keen touch made James all the more magical, an Oscar-nominated score that enchants with its orchestration of strings and horns signature to his themes. Yes, one could easily confuse parts of this score with that of Monsters, Inc., for instance, because certain pieces sound alike, but Newman has a way of making adjustments that work to tell the story. “Into the Peach” (found below) expresses that natural curiosity the boy experiences. In this case it was to convey the family comfort James seeks and the daring escapades that follow his way on that flying piece of fruit.

Download these tracks: “Magic Man;” “Into the Peach;” “Lullaby;” and “New York City”

This is Brett Nachman, signing off. Return back to Disney In Depth next Thursday for the second part to this countdown of the 20 best Disney film scores from the past 20 years.

What do you foresee being in my top 10? What are some of your favorite Disney film scores of recent years? Share your thoughts and be sure to follow me on Twitter!

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