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Expansive Americana betrays its roots, but entertains from start to end
A review by JAMES SOUTHALL
Music composed by
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Album running time
Album cover copyright (c) 1994 The Walt Disney Company; review copyright (c) 2006 James Southall
This 1994 live-action Disney family adventure is about a young boy left to take care of his mother after his father dies, who joins a dogsled race to try to raise some money. Despite featuring a strong cast (Kevin Spacey, Brian Cox, David Ogden Stiers) it didn't attract much attention, though reviews were somewhat positive. The film was the most high-profile to date scored by young composer Joel McNeely, fresh from the success of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.
In that series, McNeely (for obvious reasons) lent heavily on the music of John Williams, and he very much continues that tradition here, as evidenced by the scherzo which opens the main title, quite blatantly inspired by Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but from there a grant, expansive theme emerges which is full of life and adventure, and actually sounds far more like something Bruce Broughton might have written than Williams (Broughton is, curiously, listed in the "Special Thanks" section of the album credits). This is a score chock-full of wonderful themes, and it's not long before "Jack's Death" introduces the next one, which presents some strained (and deliciously over-the-top) material from which a beautiful theme emerges.
"Leaving Birch Ridge" presents an even more expansive version of the main theme than was heard over the titles, presenting it first for solo trumpet before the melody is taken up by the strings and the listener is swept away. It's vintage Americana whose roots may be obvious, but can't disguise the quality and enthusiasm. Another theme, an action-orientated one (with echoes of Broughton's music again, particularly things like Homeward Bound) appears in "The Race Begins", a piece with an occasional martial feel which once again is quite beautiful.
McNeely slows the pace slightly in "Pushing Onward", for the first time on the album suggesting that it's not all fun and games and that the film's protagonist has to go through some pretty rough territory on his adventure. "Gus Rescues Will" is a beautiful piece, but again one which must lead me to mention its anticedents, this time John Williams's scores for Oliver Stone, particularly Born on the Fourth of July - it's a strained string piece, quite moving and heartfelt in its way. "Devil's Slide" is a fine piece of action music with the brass and percussion sections of the orchestra being given quite a workout - for the most part, it's distinctly McNeely, with a style that would become very familiar in his later works, but then out of nowhere in the middle of the piece comes the Nazi music from Raiders of the Lost Ark, though it disappears as suddenly as it arrives.
"The Final Day" offers a reprise of the strained, emotional music from "Gus Rescues Will" earlier in the score, but as he develops the piece McNeely manages to inject a touch more warmth into it before closing it with some furiously-exciting action music. Action continues in "Race to the Finish", every bit as thrilling as a piece with a name like that should be. A finale as rousing as they come is next, with "Crossing the Line" ending the score in such a portentous way, one can only assume that the Son of God appears or something. It brings the score to such a natural conclusion, it is somewhat disconcerting that there is still the end title piece to come, but McNeely just uses that as an excuse to write a second rousing finale!
This is wonderful music, emotionally simple and direct, composed very well, which does everything you could want a great action/adventure score to do - but with the obvious reservation that so much of it has rather obvious origins in music by others, particularly Williams and Broughton. Personally I find that it's done with such love, and the music is so delightful, I don't particularly mind; others might have stronger views! I'd still recommend it to all.