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Soul of Pixar movies is in their soundtracks

In the peerless pantheon of Pixar flicks — the new Up makes it an even 10 gems — A Bug's Life always seems to get ranked last. It's not that the 1998 movie is bad; it's just not Finding Nemo, Monsters, Inc., the two Toys, etc.

But if you revisit A Bug's Life — and you really should — pay attention to Randy Newman's score. The harrumphy satirist has worked five Pixar jobs, and his marching music for Flik & Co. is nothing short of magnificent. It's Fanfare for the Common Ant, and it nods not just to Americana composer Aaron Copland and Manifest Destiny, but to the magic of Marceline, Mo.'s famous son: Walter Elias Disney, a guy who knew about patriotism, pluck and talking insects.

A Bug's Life Suite is presented in its entirety on the new Disney Pixar Greatest, a compilation of nine songs and 16 orchestral pieces. Pixar genius, and my personal hero, John Lasseter writes the liner-note intro, saying, "Music can help bring out the underlying emotion of a scene." He's right, of course, but more than that, Pixar's music — some of cinema's best in the past 14 years — humanizes and makes visceral digital 'toons created on emotionless machines.

Thomas Newman, Randy's cousin, has scored two Pixar movies, and both of his soundtracks — Finding Nemo and WALL*E — are masterworks of minimalism, each one slyly evoking its movie's theme: the soothing undulations of the big blue sea, the starry weightlessness of space. I have both on my iPod, and routinely use them to (1) chill out, and (2) chase the crud from a bad day.

Michael Giacchino is the third composer in the Pixar bullpen, and his score for Up is an appropriately buoyant homage to the flying music of both John Williams and the Sherman Brothers, Uncle Walt's songwriters for Mary Poppins, Jungle Book and so on. By slyly referencing Disney movies of old, Giacchino reminds adult viewers (subconsciously and otherwise) of when we were young, thus making Up, a movie about the brutal passage of time, even more heartbreaking.

Speaking of sobbing like a giant ninny: The first half of Disney Pixar Greatest is made up of vocal tracks, and Sarah McLachlan's When She Loved Me, from Toy Story 2, is just waiting to tear your heart out — again. Also devastating is James Taylor's Cars weeper Our Town, about the dissolution of a once-gleaming burg. Randy Newman wrote both of those songs, and I blame him for my snozzling loudly into movie-theater napkins. The best Pixar music never settles for bouncy and disposable — it often longs to move you to tears.

I'm obviously a big drooling fanboy, but I'll admit that Disney Pixar Greatest isn't perfect: Rascal Flatts' cover of Life Is a Highway is a stinkeroo. Giacchino's Ratatouille Francophilia is tedious. And I never liked Peter Gabriel's cloying Down to Earth from WALL*E. Plus there are glaring omissions: Where's Strange Things from Toy Story? Or Robbie Williams' cheeky take on Beyond the Sea from Nemo? It also would have been cool to have the Randy Newman-Lyle Lovett duet of You've Got a Friend in Me.

Still, there's a reason Pixar songs and scores have been nominated for, and won, scads of Grammys and Oscars. The music is rousing, multifaceted, endlessly seductive. Kudos for including Randy Newman's The Cleaner from Toy Story 2, which is played when that gentle old man puts poor Woody back together again. The music borrows from the elfin whimsy of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite and Klezmer. Crossing continents and generations, Giacchino's score for The Incredibles swings with '60s jazzbo velocity and cop-show swagger. Both are smart, vibrant lessons in history — Pixar's, popular music's and ours.

Sean Daly can be reached at sdaly@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.

.REVIEW

Randy Newman, Thomas Newman, Michael Giacchino

Album: Disney Pixar Greatest (Walt Disney)

In stores: Now

Reminds us of: "First of all, it's cretin. If you're going to threaten me, do it properly."

Download this: Randy Newman's A Bug's Life Suite and McQueen and Sally; Thomas Newman's Nemo Egg; Michael Giacchino's Carl Goes Up

Grade: A-

Soul of Pixar movies is in their soundtracks 06/20/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 20, 2009 5:30am]

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