Animation Films Hit a High Note Courtesy of ‘Coco,’ ‘Ferdinand’ and Mariah Carey

Animation Films Hit a High Note Thanks to Mariah Carey, 'Coco'
carey: Kevin Estrada; Ferdinand: Bret Hartman/Blue Sky Studios; danna: Cassandra Church

With the heat that “Coco” has generated, “Remember Me” may look like the song to beat, as tunes from ‘toons go. But there are formidable contenders in the music categories from other animated films, too, as seen in the Golden Globe nominations for Nick Jonas’ and Mariah Carey’s songs from “Ferdinand” and “The Star,” respectively. In addition, veteran composers soundtrack the year’s illustrated standouts.

“The Star,” from “The Star”
Written by Mariah Carey, Marc Shaiman, Thom Fennessey

Carey’s fans have long liked to call her “the queen of Christmas.” That’s all to say that her holiday bona fides were sufficient for the producers of the Nativity-themed “The Star” to come to her for a key power ballad that would play out over Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem. She in turn called up Shaiman (“Hairspray”), who’d worked with her on two songs on her second Christmas album. For this new song, she says, “We wrote to picture at Marc’s studio, which was awesome, and an experience I had never had before.”

Some fans have heard the song as a return to her inspirational “Hero” days, but she’s insistent that side never went away. “I do put a spiritual song on pretty much every album that I do, but unless someone is actually an avid fan of mine, they probably wouldn’t have heard (them) before,” Carey says. With “The Star,” she didn’t want it to overemphasize the single’s stand-alone appeal. “We were very aware of the spiritualty and trying to keep that there, but I would hope that it accentuates or punctuates the moment where the song plays during the movie.”

Carey also picked up a cameo voice role as a hen in the movie. And what if a little birdy told her she might pick up an Oscar nomination to go with her Globes nod? “Come on!” she protests. “You don’t even want to say that.” She knocks on wood. “Don’t speak! To quote ‘Bullets Over Broadway.’ which Marc and I both love and bonded over as well.”

“Home,” from “Ferdinand”
Written by Nick Jonas, Justin Tranter, Nick Monson

Ever since he performed on Broadway in “Beauty and the Beast” at age 9, pop star Nick Jonas had counted composer Alan Menken as a hero. “Cinematic storytelling through music been such a big inspiration to me in my creative life, even separate from the songs I’ve done for movies,” Jonas says. He put out word to his label that he was looking to write his first original song for a film — “It’s been a dream of mine for a long time” — and within weeks a call came in from Fox inviting him to meet with “Ferdinand” director Carlos Saldanha, who charged him to come up with a number that would play over a montage of Ferdinand’s wonder years.

Jonas went in the studio with a few collaborators and, he admits, came up short before getting in the room with one of pop’s top current writers, Tranter. “In the scene, you see Ferdinand as a young bull, growing up in a loving home. A huge theme in the film is feeling accepted and loved and being authentic to who you are, and Justin and I started talking about how we both always felt like we were most able to be our authentic selves at home with our loved ones.” Voila — a song that’s bullish on functional families.

“Home” found two homes on the soundtrack — “my version, which is sort of a pop-rock-soul thing, and then there’s the film version as well. The production John Powell did for the version in the movie, infusing the Spanish sounds, was really just incredible, and a dream to see an orchestra playing a song I had written in that way.”

“Ferdinand” (score)
Composed by John Powell

Powell loved the idea of a movie about “a pacifist bull” and knew that he would need to evoke Spanish musical colors. “Classical Spanish guitar was perfect,” says the composer, adding, “I’ve always loved flamenco; it’s very passionate music and also very connected with bullfighting.”

The complexity of the score required three weeks of recording: one for guitars, a second for percussion, bass and other rhythm players, and one for the orchestra, all conducted by Powell on the Fox scoring stage. “I loved the whole nature of the story; the Spanish part of it was a little extra feast that I could enjoy.”

The Breadwinner” (score)
Composed by Mychael Danna and Jeff Danna

For the story of an 11-year-old girl who masquerades as a boy in Taliban-oppressed Afghanistan, director Nora Twomey sought out Hollywood’s best-known ethnomusicologists, Mychael Danna (who won an Oscar for his multi-cultural score for “Life of Pi”) and his brother Jeff (who recently collaborated with Mychael on Disney’s “The Good Dinosaur”).

They had originally planned to fly to Kabul to record Afghan musicians, but security issues precluded it. So, seeking an authentic sound for their evocative score, they scoured the world for musicians who could play the stringed rabab and wooden tula flute, both Afghan instruments; plus other regional folk instruments ranging from the Indian esraj to the Eurasian zurna, and recorded them in various locations via Skype.

Most significantly, they contacted the Afghanistan National Institute of Music and recorded its girls choir, also via Skype. “They’re about the same age and live in the same town as Parvana, the main character,” says Mychael Danna, “so there’s a real spiritual connection between their voices and the characters.”

As the film takes place in both the “real world” and an imaginary “story world,” the score moves in two directions. “We had a more prosaic, stripped-down sound for the somber world of Kabul,” says Jeff Danna. “The story world is fantastical and colorful, so we were able to reflect that musically as well.”

“Coco” (score)
Composed by Michael Giacchino

For Giacchino, Disney/Pixar’s “Coco” turned out to be “an incredible master class in what Mexico has to offer, musically.” His partner in creating an authentic sound was Mexican-American composer Germaine Franco, who arranged all the traditional Mexican material, supervised the Mexico City song recordings and later served as co-orchestrator on Giacchino’s score.

His 84-piece orchestra included many Latin American musicians who added their own colors, from bamboo flutes to Aztec percussion and every imaginable guitar variation from guitarron to vihuela. “We really wanted it to come from a place of home: Mexico,” Giacchino says. The composer even makes an animated appearance in the movie as the orchestra conductor in the Land of the Dead (the glasses and hat are a “dead” giveaway).