Inside Out (Michael Giacchino)

Cover

2015 saw Pixar, once the king of computer animated films, struggling to emerge from a creative slump that had seen it produce mostly mediocre spinoffs of existing properties like Cars 2 or Monsters University. Its summer 2015 entry, Inside Out, managed to break that streak with a dazzling return to form, positing what the inside of a preteen’s head would look like as acted out by a handful of anthropomorphized emotions. While not the most original idea (Herman’s Head had mined the same territory decades earlier, as had Disney’s own Cranium Command), Inside Out nevertheless nailed the execution, producing the potent mix of laughter and pathos that distinguished Pixar’s very best and becoming a hit with critics and audiences.

Though Pixar had seem some diversification in its use of composers with Patrick Doyle and Mychael Danna in recent years, Michael Giacchino remained one of the studio’s top names, and he reunited with director Pete Doctor for Inside Out. This meant that the shadow of their previous collaboration, 2009’s Up, would loom large over the project’s music: after all, that aerial adventure had produced one of Giacchino’s most affecting scores and rewarded him with an Oscar statuette. Inside Out also came out during an abnormally productive year for Giacchino, with three other scores out at around the same time, including Jurassic World, which went head to head with the animation and gave Giacchino the Remote Control-like achievement of scoring the number one and number two films at the box office for weeks in a row.

Unlike the fully orchestral Up, Giacchino chose to tackle Inside Out with, by and large, a smaller ensemble. Though some tracks like “Rainbow Flyer” employ the full weight of the orchestra for key moments, by and large Giacchino relies on piano, ukelele, glassy synth textures, and a handful of rhythm and brass instruments for the overall sound. One can understand his decision in terms of the film’s very intimate story, taking place in a tween girl’s head, calling for a more intimate sound.

Giacchino’s centerpiece for Inside Out is a theme for the emotion Joy, which debuts on solo piano in “Bundle of Joy” and forms the lion’s share of the albums opening and closing segments, from “Nomanisone Island/National Movers” to “The Joy of Credits.” Giacchino presents a interesting downbeat variations in places like “Tears of Joy” but for the most part the Joy melody is flitting and beautiful, instantly memorable, and lights up the album whenever it appears. It’s definitely one of the composer’s strongest themes, able to go toe-to-toe with any other melody he’s conjured in recent years.

The middle of the album–and the film–largely neglects that theme, though, in favor of a number of smaller and more fragmented motifs. There’s a bouncy theme for Bing Bong the imaginary friend in places like “Chasing the Pink Elephant” and “Imagination Land,” for instance, though it’s strangely missing from “Rainbow Flyer” in favor of a sweeping, bittersweet original piece (which one wishes there was more of, honestly, with only a brief end credits reprise!). The character of Sadness gets a downer of a motif on tuba in “Team Building” and elsewhere, though the connection between it and other tracks like “Joy Turns to Sadness” where the character is prominent is rather tenuous. There’s also a David Newman-like piece for the tween girl as she turns runaway in the film’s later reels, though its impact is minimal at best.

The real problem is that the middle portions of Giacchino’s music ignore his best melody in favor of short cues that have little narrative thrust and little to connect them aside from the composer’s style and a few glassy textures. The Elliot Goldenthal tribute “Abstract Thought,” for instance, is fun but doesn’t seem to be in the same sonic universe as the brilliant Joy material. The end result is an album that is frontloaded and rearloaded with excellent material yet hobbled by a big memory dump in the middle, which is rather disappointing given how well Giacchino was able to pull his central themes through a similar set of challenges in Up.

An album for he film was, unlike Up, issued as a CD and a digital download alongside the film; the CD includes the music from the lovely but geophysically inaccurate short Pixar short Lava as a bonus track. For Inside Out,, Giacchino produced an outstanding theme that ultimately makes for a flawed but fun experience on album. It’s nowhere near the powerhouse that his score for Up was, or even the contemporaneous Tomorrowland, but it’s worth committing to long-term memory if only for its moments of intense Joy.

Rating: starstarstar

Advertisements

The Brave Little Toaster (David Newman and Van Dyke Parks)

Cover

Featuring a stellar voice cast, an excellent script, a team of ex-Disney animators, and many crew mambers (including John Lasseter) who would go on to impressive careers with Pixar, The Brave Little Toaster was a delightful animated film that fell through the cracks during its initial release, but found its audience and a comfortable cult following on cable TV. In many ways a prototype for the Pixar and Disney Renaissance films that followed, it presented a winning voice cast, humor accessible to multiple generations, and a quasi-musical format with several songs.

Composer David Newman had just begun his scoring career by 1987, entering the profession several years after his brother Thomas and cousin Randy after a career as a conductor and session musician, but quickly amassed an impressive resume for low-budget films like Critters and The Kindred. Newman would be asked to compose the film’s original score as well as orchestrate veteran songwriter Van Dyke Park’s contributions, and he went on to produce an impressively varied work.

The Brave Little Toaster is not a thematic score, although Newman does occasionally reference the refrain to Parks’ “City of Light” in the underscore. Rather, the score is far more impressionistic, converying emotions through complex and layered harmonies. The music is surprisingly dark and tragic at times, with swirling piano and strings lending power to some of the more tragic cues (such as “Toaster’s Dream”), but is also bight and energetic when need be, with whirlwind action cues such as “They All Wake Up,” and the rousing “End Title.”

In fact, several cues run the full gamut of emotions, from joyous and liting to dark and moody. Chief among these are “The Pond,” which builds from an inventive use of sound effects as instruments to a level of magnificent orchestral tragedy, and the penultimate “Finale,” which moves from pounding menace to upbeat catharsis in a seven-minute powerhouse of a cue. The delightful “End Credits” offer a much-needed dose of joy to end the album, with Newman using the orchestral colors of the previous tracks to compose a delightful new theme in conversation with Parks’ “City of Light.”

Van Dyke Parks’ songs are treats, hold up well compared to many dated ballads from around the same time period, and are performed with gusto by the movie’s cast. Parks was no stranger to film music himself, having arranged music for films as varied as The Jungle Book and Popeye and composed the occasional original score like Follow that Bird and worked closely with Newman to orchestrate his songs. The upbeat “City of Light” is the film’s centerpiece melody, while the impressively twisted villain ballads “It’s a B-Movie” (including Phil Hartman doing his best Peter Lorre) and “Cutting Edge” impress as much through their witty lyrics as their melodies. But the downbeat ballad “Worthless” is perhaps the most impressive, laid out as an impassioned song by junked cars in their last moments of life and with strong echoes of themes that Pixar would later tackle in their Toy Story series, films which owe more than a little to Toaster.

But there is one major drawback to the album: two cues, including the magnificently melancholy “Blanket’s Dream” are interrupted by sound effects. Apparently, those portions of the master tapes were too badly damaged to be of any use, and record label Percepto placed the effects-laden tracks in as a substitute for completeness’ sake. Those tracks do sadly break up the album’s flow, and it’s unfortunate that “Blanket’s Dream” in particular is essentially unlistenable. Percepto, never more than a very small boutique to begin with, eventually folded quietly several years after the limited edition pressing of The Brave Little Toaster, meaning that copies can be difficult and costly to find.

Still, despite all that, The Brave Little Toaster is a magnificent album, and one of the very finest works from the underrated David Newman and Van Dyke Parks. If you’re interested in hearing a score full of boundless energy and inventiveness, one of the forgotten gems of animation scoring, and can overlook the fact that several tracks are distorted by sound effects, buy with confidence. The film, easily available on DVD and on-demand, comes with the highest recommendation as well.

* * * * *