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Surprisingly substantial animation score is one of Powell's finest to date
A review by JAMES SOUTHALL
Music composed by
* * * * 1/2
Album running time
Album cover copyright (c) 2006 Warner Bros.; review copyright (c) 2007 James Southall
George Miller's Happy Feet is a very entertaining animated feature, featuring (as you'd expect) cute characters, an amiable plot and wonderful animation. With the integration of pre-existing songs given new arrangements absolutely key to the film, it's frequently been described as a kind of kids' Moulin Rouge (which is a little off the mark, but I see where it comes from). Despite its qualitites, the film ends up being less than the sum of its parts, especially let down by a weak ending, and while I applaud the film's environmental message, it's a little disingenuous since emperor penguin populations are actually increasing, not being wiped out as the film suggests. Miller was inspired to make it after seeing an episode of the magnificent David Attenborough natural history series Life in the Series (the same episode inspired March of the Penguins, which managed to give less substance in its feature-length running time than Attenborough did in 25 minutes).
Responsibility for the songs lay in the hands of John Powell, whose star continues to rise and rise, and he did a wonderful job. Surprisingly, he found time to weave a lengthy score (over an hour) around the songs, and Warner Sunset has now released that as well as the song album. This is one of those rare occasions when mixing the songs and score might have worked very well (even if it had resulted in a 2-CD set) - but I'm not going to object to being given the opportunity to purchase one, or both (or indeed neither).
Powell's score opens with "The Huddle", a piece of granstanding which, I venture to suggest, is gently parodying the composer's one-time mentor's music for The Last Samurai, with its choral punches and overinflated sense of drama. It's wonderful! "Wives Ho!" introduces the kind of eclectic music Powell has delivered so well in his best music for animation, though it develops into a surprisingly heartfelt and subtle piece for orchestra. What's notable about this score is that even though it features a number of short cues, it isn't really your typical music for animation - a fair amount of the music is rather serious, painted in broad strokes, and this makes it more coherent than these things can be. The Danny Elfman-style chorus in "Singing Lessons" is exceptionally beautiful, soaring away in the grantest of ways - but impressively, despite the obvious Elfman model, it is Powell's own musical personality which very much dominates.
To that end, Powell was obviously extremely drawn in by the film, because there is an extremely personal touch running through everything, even in something like the ceremonial "Graduation" or the action music "Fish!". The action is uniformly fine, with the thunderous "Leopard Seal" one highlight; and "Bob's LED" is impossibly manic, but entirely coherent, and completely thrilling (complete with its wonderful hispanic tinge). These two pieces sandwich the brilliant little 60s swing pastiche "Adelieland", and precede the epic-sounding "Finding Aliens", another of the score's standout pieces.
There is humour here too, particularly in the Barry White pastiche "Lovelace's Pile", full of funky 70s sex appeal; and delightful arrangements of a couple of songs which didn't make the song CD, with Brian Wilson's "In My Room" given a performance by the Sydney Children's Choir which is impossible not to love, and the surprisingly pathos-filled "Leader of the Pack" sung by Dan Navarro. That sense comes through in some genuinely touching dramatic cues too, like the beautiful "Finding Lovelace", a piece with a great big heart. The most colourful action cue is "Killer Whales", featuring some outlandish brass and even a Hammond organ - it takes a confident composer to pull that sort of thing off, and Powell does it with apparent ease.
A far more serious action piece follows, "The Alien Ships", featuring clever use of synthetic percussion alongside some fresh-sounding orchestration highlighting the Sydney musicians's wind sections and, later, what is almost an elegy for strings and choir. It's impressive how Powell is able to move from one idea to another so easily without losing his musical integrity - it's been a long time since an animated movie featured a cue like "In the Zoo", which seems to have something to say, actually add something to the movie rather than just provide accompaniment to it. It's a particularly strong, almost harrowing piece (though the percussion hits as it reaches its climax have a disappointing mid-90s Media Ventures air to them).
The film ends on a disappointingly soppy note, but even for that Powell doesn't go particularly overboard, his finale cues somehow managing to avoid the syrupy feel that one might expect. "Mumble Returns" is where one might expect everything to swell up and rot everyone's teeth, but instead Powell delivers swirling string arpeggios and subtle chorus which is tremendously effective. He follows this with the eclectic "Tap Versus Chant", which pretty much does what it says in the title (frantic percussion almost seems to be fighting a battle with the choral outbursts) and then after the brief "The Helicopters" comes the album's finale, "Communication", and the only really disappointing note, which is that because in the film it leads into a song, there is no chance for Powell to actually provide a meaningful, sensible ending to his music and it just fizzles out - it's a shame there wasn't the time or money (or inclination?) to just record a brief coda to make the album more satisfying. Despite that, Happy Feet is the most impressive of Powell's excellent bunch of 2006 scores, and indeed must go down as one of his finest to date. He continues to write music far more imaginative and personal than anyone else to have emerged from under Hans Zimmer's wing, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see him one day eclipse Zimmer himself on the A-list (he's already eclipsed him in terms of quality if 2006 is anything to go by). There are few composers around who have a real buzz about them, a sense of excitement about what they might bring in the years to come - but Powell is somewhere right around the top of that list.