Pharrell Feels ‘Happy’ in Animated Score Field Packed With Pros

Despicable Me 2

Animated scores include fresh work from veteran toon composers

This year’s prominent animated films yielded a varied lot of musical scores from mostly veteran composers. Randy Newman, Mark Mothersbaugh, Alan Silvestri and Joe Hisaishi all each loaned their tune talents to toon tales of monsters, mutant cheeseburgers, cavemen and Japanese airplanes. Rounding out their ranks was one of 2013’s biggest hitmakers: Pharrell.

Pixar regular Newman revisited Monstropolis for “Monsters University” — a prequel to 2001’s “Monsters, Inc.” — but backed off his usual approach of on-the-nose animation scoring. “When they were creeping across an expansive ground, to bump ’em along just didn’t look right, so I didn’t do it,” he says. “Could be that some of them didn’t have legs.”

To evoke the film’s collegial setting, Newman wrote an original alma mater (complete with monster-y text), sung by Pixar animators. His score, which employed the Blue Devils drum line along with a traditional orchestra, bounced the song around like an intramural football.

“It was an odd amalgam of college styles,” Newman says. The alma mater “was a tune you could do as kind of a ‘Hail to the Victor,’ or as a brass chorale. It just was useful.”

Coincidentally, the score for DreamWorks Animation’s “The Croods” also featured a collegial flavor. Silvestri took the scene where the title family athletically drives down the field for breakfast and wrote a gridiron piece for the combined efforts of a London orchestra and the USC marching band.

He also co-wrote the song “Shine Your Way” (with directors Chris Sanders and Kirk De Micco, and lyricist Glen Ballard), performed on the soundtrack by electronica artist Owl City (i.e., Adam Young). “Adam ‘Owl City-fied’ the song,” says Silvestri, “and made it his own.” Silvestri incorporated the tune throughout his score. “There’s something about those gol dang themes that work once in a while,” he quips.

For the tale of sentient food run amok, as told in Sony Pictures Animation’s “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2,” Mothersbaugh returned to the island of Swallow Falls with a hybrid orchestral-electronic score that drew from the thematic well of the original 2009 film as well as his roots as a member of Devo.

“I’m a collector, so I still have old equipment from those days I used with early Devo music,” Mothersbaugh says. “As much as I’m trying to feel comfortable with all the sequencers and music composition tools, they’re still not transparent to me. It always feels good to go back and pull old analog Oberheims or Moogs out of the basement and patch them together.”

Japanese composer Hisaishi scored longtime collaborator Hayao Miyazaki’s final feature, “The Wind Rises,” inventing a similarly throwback score for a small orchestra. Its melodic construction and lovingly exposed instrumentation made fitting co-pilots for the film’s analog, humanly detailed animation.

By contrast, pop artist Pharrell brought the hip factor to Illumination Entertainment’s “Despicable Me 2,” 2013’s top-grossing animated feature. He wrote and produced three new songs, including the hit “Happy.”
“I was up to eight or 10 different songs for that one particular scene alone, and nothing was working out,” he says. “But when your ego is out of ideas, that’s when the good stuff comes in.”

Pharrell sang and performed all the instruments on the track himself. “I wanted that late ’60s, early ’70s feeling of how Curtis Mayfield would affect me. I wanted to deliver it in that frequency, and just make something that was uplifting for once. Everyone’s so mad all the time, so I thought, ‘What’s wrong with being happy?’ ”

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