CHICKEN LITTLE – John Debney
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
It pains me to write this, but the quality of Disney’s annual animated features seem to be decreasing in quality with each passing year. It’s a truly depressing thought to realise that having gone from such legendary fare as Pinocchio, Snow White and Bambi, to modern classics such as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, we are now reduced to watching twaddle like last year’s Home on the Range, and this year’s lacklustre effort, Chicken Little.
The story is a simplistic fable variation on “the boy who cried wolf”, aimed firmly at kids, with little in the way of the subtle subversiveness which makes this kind of fare palatable for adults. Young Chicken Little (Zach Braff) causes a mass panic in his small hometown of Oakey Oaks when he claims that “the sky is falling” (it turns out to be an acorn), and is scorned as a dumb kid, and treated as a social pariah. A year later, having tried hard to make things right with his father, Buck Cluck (Garry Marshall), Chicken Little has a real close encounter of the third kind and discovers an invisible spaceship parked above the town hall, heralding an imminent alien invasion. However, when Chicken Little and his three best friends Abby Mallard (Joan Cusack), Runt of the Litter (Steve Zahn), and Fish Out of Water (Dan Molina), tries to alert the residents to the threat, no-one believes him – he is “the bird who cried wolf”, and it turns to the young friends to save the day. The film is directed by Mark Dindal, the director of The Emperor’s New Groove, and features Patrick Stewart, Amy Sedaris and Wallace Shawn in supporting vocal roles.
The first nine tracks on this CD are almost completely redundant. Patti Labelle’s “Stir It Up” was fine when it first appeared on the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack in 1984, but almost 22 years have passed since then and times have moved on. We’ve heard Diana Ross singing “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and REM singing “It’s The End of The World as We Know It” as dozen times, while the original cast recordings of Queen’s “We Are the Champions”, The Spice Girls’ “Wannabe” and Elton John’s “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” are as pointless as they are stupid. They have nothing to do with the movie. Most of them don’t even feature IN the movie. It’s simply mass marketing for the common denominator, and it stinks. What happened to the days when talented Broadway composers like Alan Menken, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice would write appropriate, musically literate NEW material for Disney animated films, and win deserved Oscars for their troubles? If I wanted an album of pointless cover versions of old songs, I’d buy an album of pointless cover versions – not a soundtrack for a film they have nothing to do with.
Thank goodness for the six John Debney cues tacked on to the end of the CD, almost as an afterthought, but which almost completely redeem the entire project and just – just – make it a worthwhile purchase. A rollicking roller-coaster orchestral score, Debney’s musical influences are wide, varied, and blatantly obvious, but such is the infectious good nature and sheer buoyancy and enthusiasm in the orchestral performances, you’re more than willing to pass them off as loving homages rather than shameless rip-offs.
The opening “The Sky is Falling” is a large-scale action cue which, somewhat bizarrely, combines a large orchestra with a choir chanting portentously in mock-German (at one point they sing what sounds like “hilfe, durchfall!”, which I’m sure is German for “help, diarrhoea!”) and the theremin orchestrations straight out of Bernard Herrmann’s The Day the Earth Stood Still. It sounds bizarre, but it actually works in an offbeat kind of way. “The Big Game” begins with a reprisal of some of David Arnold’s thematic material from Independence Day before developing into a broad-stroke Elmer Bernstein theme obviously inspired by the Magnificent Seven, replete with flashy trumpets and the unashamedly heroic attitude of the old west.
“Dad Apologizes” is a more introspective cue for playful woodwinds and strings, underpinned by some buckwheat comedy orchestrations – guitars and twangy fiddles – to capture the bluegrass sound of Chicken Little’s home town. “Chase to the Cornfield” restates some of the thematic material from “The Sky Is Falling”, with the choir still calling out to be helped by the Germans, but the pace is faster and more propulsive, and has an engaging electronic undercurrent to drive it along. The final two cues are short and to the point – the former an amusing saxophone jive, the latter a poignant woodwind and guitar duet to bring things to a gentle close.
It’s a shame that Debney’s contribution to Chicken Little has been reduced to little more than a postscript, as his work is by far the standout musical element of the project. The sense of fun and life, the loving parodies, and the sheer energy Debney injects into his score makes it a delight to listen to, especially for listeners with a sense of humour and some knowledge of film score classics. More of Debney’s score will undoubtedly surface as an Oscar promo at some time in the future – until then we’ll just have to be content to enjoy the scant 15 minutes presented here. Just remember to skip the first nine tracks.
Rating: **** (for Debney’s score) ** (for the album overall)
- Stir It Up (written by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, performed by Patti LaBelle and Joss Stone) (3:43)
- One Little Slip (written by Adam Duritz, Charles Gillingham, Jim Bogios, David Immergluck, Matthew Mallery, David Bryson and Daniel Vickrey, performed by Barenaked Ladies) (2:53)
- Shake a Tail Feather (written by Otha Hayes, Verlie Rice and Andre Williams, performed by The Cheetah Girls) (3:05)
- All I Know (written by Ed Robertson and Steven Page, performed by Five For Fighting) (3:25)
- Ain’t No Mountain High Enough (written by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, performed by Diana Ross) (3:28)
- It’s The End of the World As We Know It (written by Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mille, performed by R.E.M.) (4:05)
- We Are the Champions (written by Freddie Mercury performed by Zach Braff as ‘Chicken Little’) (0:38)
- Wannabe (written by Richard Stannard, Matt Rowe, Victoria Adams, Emma Bunton, Melanie Chisholm, Melanie Brown, and Geri Halliwell, performed by Joan Cusack as ‘Abby Mallard’ and Steve Zahn as ‘Runt of the Litter’) (0:50)
- Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin, performed by The Chicken Little Cast) (1:53)
- The Sky is Falling (2:49)
- The Big Game (4:05)
- Dad Apologizes (3:15)
- Chase to Cornfield (2:00)
- Dodgeball (1:15)
- Driving with Dad (1:45)
Running Time: 39 minutes 17 seconds
Walt Disney Records 61372-7 (2005)
Music composed and conducted by John Debney. Orchestrations by Brad Dechter, Frank Bennett, Mike Watts, Don Nemitz, Jeff Atmajian, Kevin Kaska and Andrew Kinney. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Jim Harrison and Jeff Carson. Album produced by Chris Montan.