What is ‘Pinocchio’ without “When You Wish Upon a Star,” or “The Lion King” without “Circle of Life”?
Endearing characters, affirming life lessons and skillful artwork are all important, but since Disney set the template with “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” an animated movie needs killer songs.
“You don’t have a lot of time to have characters talk about their emotions,” said Tom McDougall, senior vice president of music at Disney, who helps choose the music for the company’s animated films, including its Pixar features. “Songs are a way to fast-forward. Tonally, we can establish what a character is feeling.”
In the age of computer animation, the go-to tunester is Owl City, the name chosen by singer-songwriter Adam Young when he got his start in his parents’ basement in Owatonna, Minn., an hour south of Minneapolis.
In 2010, Mr. Young wrote “To the Sky,” a song for “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole,” an animated movie released by Warner Bros. about a young owl abducted by an evil owl army. The studio contacted him after hearing Owl City’s pop song, “Fireflies,” which was Mr. Young’s first No. 1 hit single after he was discovered on Myspace.
“They said, ‘It’s ironic that your name has to do with owls, but would you write a song for us?’ ” Mr. Young recalled. “They gave me a set of parameters, moods and aesthetics. They were looking for something upbeat and optimistic.” (Mr. Young, 26, said the name Owl City “doesn’t mean anything” and has nothing to do with the nocturnal birds.)
Last summer, with the Owl City song “Good Time,” featuring Carly Rae Jepsen, getting lots of radio airtime, Disney asked Mr. Young to contribute a song to its fall hit “Wreck-It Ralph.” The result was “When Can I See You Again?” which plays over the movie’s end credits, and suggests a future life for the main characters, Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly does the voice) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), who meet when two separate videogame universes connect through a glitch.
Mr. McDougall said he chose Owl City because Mr. Young’s sound felt very much in sync with videogames. “His music has a homespun vibe,” explained Mr. McDougall. “It feels lightly electronic, but grounded in an acoustic nature. There’s an accessibility to his songwriting that’s also welcoming and joyous and perfect for animation. We want this music to play around the world.”
For “The Croods,” a new DreamWorks Animation film about a family of cavemen which Fox is releasing Friday, Mr. Young collaborated on yet another song, called “Shine Your Way,” featuring the additional vocals of the Malaysian singer-songwriter Yuna. The song incorporates a major theme of the film: following the direction of the sun, as well as your heart.
In postproduction, Kirk DeMicco and Chris Sanders, the co-writers and directors of “The Croods,” made a playlist to evoke the feeling they wanted. Several tracks on that playlist were by Owl City.
A positive, optimistic song like “Shine Your Way” playing over the end credits, added Mr. Sanders, can “extend the aspirational vibe of the movie.” Owl City’s music, he explained, provides “just the right weight and the right lift you need.”
Mr. Young started making music in 2007, just out of high school, because he had “hit rock bottom. I was going to college for nothing in particular, I was getting bad grades, I had no friends,” he said. He had never traveled on an airplane.
Using a sequencing program called Reason, he wrote some songs and put them up on Myspace. Eventually, fans began to connect with them, and record labels started to get in touch. He’s now with Republic Records. In 2012, Owl City released its fourth full-length album, entitled “The Midsummer Station.” This year, Mr. Young and a four-person touring band have been opening for the pop act Maroon 5.
Mr. Young, who still lives in Owatonna, though no longer in his parents’ basement, said he set out to create an “idealist” sound. “I wanted to make uplifting, dreamy music,” he explained. Always a fan of Disney and Pixar, he’s pleased his music has found a home there.
“It’s sort of a happy accident,” Mr. Young said. “But I guess it wouldn’t fit into a Lars von Trier film.”
Owl City and Yuna stopped by The Tonight Show with Jay Leno last week for a one time only live performance of “Shine Your Way,” check out the clip below