Disney‘s latest animated feature, “Wish” explores a kingdom where a self-centered ruler (Chris Pine) keeps wishes and dreams captive so that they cannot be fully realized. It’s a theme that spoke to the film‘s composer, Dave Metzger, who himself fulfilled a lifelong dream when he came on board to score “Wish” — his first major theatrical feature after decades of work as an orchestrator and arranger. “My dream since I was 16 years old was to be the composer on a major film,” Metzger told IndieWire. “At this point, I thought it wasn’t going to happen. I really thought that the ship had sailed and I was never going to have that opportunity.”

When the film’s music producer, Matt Walker, called Metzger to tell him he was being considered for the job, Metzger was delighted but taken aback. “I was just shocked,” he said. “Though I’ve composed a lot of music over my career as far as additional music and things like that, so it’s not like I’ve never done it before. I just think that with my Disney animation pedigree, they were willing to take a chance.” That animation pedigree is considerable, as Metzger has worked in various capacities on the scores and songs for Disney films going back to 1999’s “Tarzan.” That’s where he met “Wish” co-director Chris Buck, who continued to collaborate with Metzger on other Disney classics like “Frozen” and was thrilled to give him his first shot on a major score.

“He had done the orchestrations for the songs, not the score itself,” Buck told IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast. For “Wish,” that background came in handy as Metzger closely collaborated with songwriters Julia Michaels and Benjamin Rice to make sure the songs were as seamlessly integrated with the score as possible. “He worked with Julia and Ben on the songs, but then when it came to the score he also wanted to incorporate ideas that they had been using in the songs to make sure it all felt like part of the same fabric.” Co-director Fawn Veerasunthorn noted that the integration of Metzger and the songwriters’ styles is key to the film’s sound. “They come from such a different world, the contemporary pop world,” she told IndieWire. “The combination of that with the orchestra…I loved to sit inside the scoring stage and feel all that.”

Though he also has writing and music arrangement credits on live-action films like “Training Day” and “Captain America: The First Avenger,” Metzger clearly has a special affinity for the important role music plays in animation. “I do think there is a difference,” Metzger said. “In live-action films, there’s so much more editing. The picture changes much more frequently, and so I think, almost as a self-protective thing, you tend to not write as expansively because you know that you’re probably going to have to chase an edit. It’s harder to be free to just write and let linear action happen musically. With animation, it’s a little harder to make those changes, so you have a more set picture.” Metzger also feels that no matter how gorgeous the animation is, it can always be brought more fully to life with music. “As beautiful as it is, and Disney is the best, the music can still, if you find the right key, really open up and unlock it by giving just a little bit more humanity to what you’re seeing on screen.”

DANCING CHICKENS – In Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Wish,” Asha’s pajama-wearing goat Valentino makes the most of the magic that accompanies a little ball of boundless energy called Star. And if that means orchestrating a performance of dancing chickens, he’s all in. Featuring the Alan Tudyk as the voice of Valentino, the epic animated musical opens only in theaters on Nov. 22, 2023. © 2023 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

Metzger’s score for “Wish” does exactly that, giving a musical voice to the aspirations of the human characters as well as to characters that don’t speak, from various animals to a pulsing star. One of the best examples of Metzger’s collaboration with Michaels and Rice comes in “I’m a Star,” a rousing and emotional musical number that also grounds the film’s more fantastical elements. “There was a big question for all of us working on this,” Veerasunthorn said. “How did this happen? Why does a star come down and grant wishes? So we did research on the science of stars; we talked to physicists, and we learned that we’re all made of stardust. We all have this magic that sparkles within us, and the magic in your hopes and dreams is what connects to the actual star. It’s that gravitational pull that each has to the other.” In the songwriters’ hands, and with Metzger’s input, that concept led to a musical number that Buck referred to as “Disney to the max.”

“Wish” contains one of the most varied and lush Disney scores in recent memory, with a variety and depth that are partly attributable to Metzger getting his big shot; he clearly put everything he ever thought and felt about film scoring into this, and it yields a big emotional payoff. It’s not just the maximalism of Metzger’s score that makes it special but the sense of film history, as Metzger weaves in themes and motifs from classic Disney films. “‘Wish’ is an homage to the history of Disney animation, because we’re celebrating its 100th anniversary,” Metzger said, “and there are things throughout that the directors and I wanted to allude to. Fortunately, I’m a lover of music history, film music history in particular, so I have copies of all the scores from ‘Snow White’ in 1937 and I have the ‘Cinderella’ score and the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ score and the ‘Peter Pan’ score. I study those scores even when I’m not working on a project, so they’re a part of me. I’ve kind of absorbed them into my DNA, so when Chris and Fawn wanted to allude to certain historical periods of Disney animation, because of my interest and experience, I knew how to do that. One of the things I’ve loved about this score is the chance it gave me to really build on my knowledge of classic film scores.”

As a film music enthusiast, Metzger got an added thrill when he stepped onto the Newman stage on the Fox lot to record his score surrounded by posters of classics that had been recorded there like “Jaws,” “The King and I,” “The Sound of Music,” and “The Towering Inferno.” “When I come to a stage like that I think about what musicians have sat in the chairs and what conductors and composers have been there, and it means a tremendous amount to me,” Metzger said. “I think my first studio gig was at Sony, and I remember walking in there and thinking about all the music that had happened there. And it’s a continuum. It was going on 50 years ago, and it’s going on now, and knock on wood, it’s going to keep going with incredible music and incredible musicians. And that means a lot to me.”

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