Latest reviews of new albums:
Bears
  • Composed by George Fenton
  • Walt Disney Records / 2014 / 55m

I was pretty excited when Disney announced it had signed a deal with Alastair Fothergill to make films for its new Disneynature unit.  Fothergill is responsible for several of the outstanding BBC natural history series over the last couple of decades and I was hoping for some lavish cinematic documentaries in that style.  Instead the movies they have made together have been very different from that, inspired more by something like March of the Penguins; and Bears is the latest, imposing an anthropomorphic narrative onto its tale of an Alaskan bear and her two cubs over the course of a year, giving them all names and editing in false dramas.  Still, if its child-friendly nature helps to inspire a new generation to be awed by the natural world, I guess it’s hard to complain too much.

I’ve been surprised that Fothergill’s usual BBC collaborator George Fenton hasn’t worked on the last couple of films, African Cats and Chimpanzee; Nicholas Hooper’s scores for them have been good, but Fenton has set new standards in this arena and I’d have loved to have heard his take on that material.  But now harmony has been restored, with the composer teaming up once more with the director.  And Bears opens just as I hoped it would, with “The Den” starting as a lovely orchestral piece, though its twangy guitar coda is a preview of an unexpected side of the score to be further developed later on.

George Fenton

George Fenton

“Running” and “The Avalanche” present some solid action music, the orchestra here augmented by electronics and some surprising ethnic sounds; and indeed, this sounds more like a dramatic film score than Fenton’s previous wildlife scores (later on the album, “The Fight With Chinook” is a furious piece of action music which could easily come from an action blockbuster).  “Journey to the Coast” is a beautiful, warm, pastoral cue; then that unexpected sound returns in “Down on the Meadow”, with guitar, banjo, piano, bass and drums providing a light country/bluegrass feel which is very pleasant but somewhat at odds with the orchestral majesty of some of the music which surrounds it – and later in the cue it turns to all-out comedy with wah-wah trumpet and everything.  To be honest, those moments don’t take up a substantial part of the album’s running time, and they’re certainly well written, but sometimes their appearances are a little jarring.

It must be said though that at other times, the folksy sound (especially when it’s not so overtly comedic, with the exception of the brilliant “The Salmon Appear”) is done beautifully – “Playing in the Sand” is a charming, lovely piece.  Even with that, it’s no surprise that it’s when Fenton sticks to the beautiful orchestral sound which has become his trademark for these things that Bears most impresses.  There is a great warmth to some of it, aided no doubt by the anthropomorphism mentioned above; “Scot and Amber Reunited” in particular is very touching, likewise the soulful female wordless vocal solo of “Hitching a Ride” and “Discovering the Golden Pool”.  “Sky’s Lowest Moment” is, as its name suggests, tinged with deep sadness and emotion and is very moving.

George Fenton writing good music for natural history documentaries is one of film music’s surest things and, once you get used to its occasional lighter side, Bears doesn’t disappoint.  That lighter side only takes up a few minutes of the album anyway and, while the heights of the rest don’t quite reach those of The Blue Planet, Planet Earth or Frozen Planet, they still reach pretty high.  At its best the album, available only as a digital download, is magical and there is some superb music on offer here.

Rating: ****

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