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An American Tail
  • Composed by James Horner
  • MCA Records / 1986 / 50m

James Horner worked on a succession of animations during the late 1980s and early 90s (curiously, given his stature even then, never for Disney, always for “lesser” animation studios) – the one that started it all was An American Tail, Don Bluth’s engaging story of mice escaping from the evil Commie East to the promised land of America.  It did good business at the box office (being backed by Steven Spielberg probably didn’t hurt) and launched Horner’s sideline in animation, one which sadly seems to have come to an end.

Horner has never been shy to plunder from the great Russian composers in any score, so for one with a Russian element, he must have been foaming at the mouth, and so Messrs Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky are rather well served, but as usual Horner does it with such aplomb it’s hard to take much offence.  In truth as well, perhaps the most striking elements of the score owe a larger debt to that well-known Russian composer, Maurice Jarre, Dr Zhivago the inevitable model.

James Horner

James Horner

Actually there’s a host of wonderful music here.  The fifty minutes of music on the album boast a large number of great, memorable themes.  Of course, the most well-known is the melody from the song “Somewhere Out There”, which despite the obvious nod to The Wizard of Oz is a gem of a song, the most lovely ballad Horner’s ever written.  The film version is so pretty but the children’s voices may be too cloying for some, and those people will prefer the pop version (sung by Linda Ronstadt and James Ingram) which is also very good, despite the cheesy 80s production.  Fortunately, the songs from adult performers are wonderful – the witty, delightful “There are No Cats in America”; the cheery “Never Say Never”, which creates the same mood as the classic Disney songs of old; and “A Duo”, while the most minor of the songs, still manages to raise a smile and feature a pleasant tune.  Horner co-wrote the songs with Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, and it’s a great pity that he moved on to Will Jennings for his later songs – talk about loweing standards.

The underscore is really something worth writing home about, too – this was 1986 and Horner was in a rich vein of form when it came to full-bodied, exciting music, and there’s some of his very best here.  “The Storm” is a quite magnificent piece, grand and vibrant, recalling the finest moments of Willow and Krull; “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor” impossibly dramatic and enthralling.  There’s a softer side too, of course, with a lovely little theme in “The Market Place” making for vintage Horner.  The composer shows a rarely-heard witty side, too, in the delightful “Releasing the Secret Weapon”, where he lays everything on with a spade, and does it with a massive grin on his face.  It goes without saying that there’s a sweet finale, and “Reunited” is as sweet as they come, and quite gorgeous, reprising the grand main theme from the opening title piece.  There’s even more beyond that, with the sweeping, beautiful end title piece, a marvelous way to finish proceedings.

What makes Horner’s scores for animations so good is that they really don’t sound like scores for animations. That may seem a curious thing to say, but he genuinely takes the best aspects of animation music – memorable tunes, a great sense of fun, strong drama – but instead of the usual Mickey Mousing, he paints in broad dramatic strokes, just as he does in his other scores, and ends up with music that flows beautifully, moves dramatically from one point to another, and – most remarkably of all – still comes in reasonably lengthy tracks which feel like complete pieces of music in their own right. This is what makes it such a pity that he doesn’t do animation any more; but still, at least we’ve still got the likes of An American Tail to savour.  A great score, great songs – what more could you want?

Rating: **** 1/2 | |

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