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FANTASTIC MR. FOX – Alexandre Desplat

November 13, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

I grew up reading and loving Roald Dahl’s stories; everything from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Witches and The Twits to The BFG, James and the Giant Peach and Matilda, his words (as well as Quentin Blake’s incomparable illustrations) were an indelible part of my childhood, and remain beloved to this day. Strangely, the one Roald Dahl story I don’t think I ever read was Fantastic Mr. Fox, written by Dahl in 1970 and which has now been turned into an animated feature film by directed Wes Anderson with a voice cast that includes such luminaries as George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Bill Murray, Michael Gambon, Owen Wilson, Willem Dafoe, and Jarvis Cocker from the English rock band Pulp. The story – as is always the case with Dahl’s work – is a dark morality tale dressed up as an innocent children’s story. The plot concerns Mr. and Mrs. Fox, a pair of wily and cunning animals who feed their family by stealing chickens, ducks and cider from under the noses of three despicable farmers named Boggis, Bunce and Bean.

The music for Fantastic Mr. Fox is a wild amalgam of styles and influences that places songs by everyone from The Beach Boys and The Rolling Stones to Burl Ives, two old Georges Delerue pieces, and a new score from French composer Alexandre Desplat, writing music for his second animated film after Le Château des Singes in 1999. In many ways, Fantastic Mr. Fox is the perfect response to those who criticize Desplat for being a one-trick pony, who can only write pretty little waltzes and clinical orchestral lines with no heart and soul. Fantastic Mr. Fox is about as zany as mainstream film music gets, and will certainly surprise those whose opinion of Desplat’s is based only around his work on his more successful Hollywood scores – Lust Caution, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Painted Veil, and so on. Rather than being a restrained and romantic, Fantastic Mr. Fox is raucous and ebullient, and takes a great deal of inspiration from Ennio Morricone’s more offbeat works.

Once again, the thing that stands out of Desplat’s work here is the attention to detail, the orchestration, and the compositional technique. Time and again, Desplat impresses with his interesting use of unexpected instrumental combinations, and this score of no exception; the difference here, however, is the instruments themselves: rather than a traditional orchestral complement, Desplat uses banjos, guitars, fiddles, and all manner of unusual percussion to create a child-like atmosphere of fun and innocence, while rooting the film in a kind of mixed-up aural location that seems to span the American west, the Deep South, ad the English countryside. It’s a very, very peculiar jumble, but one which works despite itself, mainly because of Desplat’s brilliance at bringing all these elements together into an enjoyable whole.

The opening cue, “Mr. Fox in the Fields”, establishes the general conventions of the score, with bouncy country rhythms, picked banjos, pizzicato strings and glockenspiels overlaying an unexpectedly lovely orchestral melody led by a cello. Later, “Boggis, Bunce and Bean” is a pompous, self-important march, while the “Jimmy Squirrel and Co.” and “High-Speed French Train” feature dainty, flighty woodwind themes and elegant little chimes, while “Whack-Bat Majorette” is a perfect pastiche of a John Philip Sousa march played by a high school football band, all pomp and pageantry. This is the most un-Desplat music imaginable, filled as it is with child-like inquisitiveness, playful melodies, and a charming innocent that is immediately beguiling. Anyone with an aversion to whimsical orchestrations or scores which could be construed as being painfully cute will find themselves retching immediately upon hearing these cues, but I found them to be wonderfully appealing and a refreshing change from the seriousness Desplat’s work has contained of late.

Ennio Morricone is a clear influence on “Bean’s Secret Cider Cellar”, which sees Desplat combining bold snare and timpani rhythms with a twanging Jew’s harp, elaborate acoustic guitars, fluttering bass flutes, and even a few moments in which Desplat himself whistles in a manner that would have made Alessandro Alessandroni proud. It’s not quite action music, but it’s certainly uniquely dramatic, and would have been quite at home in a Sergio Leone spaghetti western, Clint Eastwood squinting into the sun, rather than scoring the kleptomaniac antics of an animated fox. This cue also features the first appearance of the Farmer’s theme, albeit in a deconstructed form, that features heavily in the score’s second half. The style is revisited in the wonderfully named “Just Another Dead Rat in a Garbage Pail Behind a Chinese Restaurant”, albeit with a little bittersweet touch in the cue’s second half, with the Farmer’s theme played somberly on a glockenspiel accompanied by emotional, funereal string chords.

After a brooding opening minute, “Great Harrowsford Square” takes the thematic fragment first introduced in “Bean’s Secret Cider Cellar” and finally fleshes it out into a full-fledged theme for the nefarious farmers, complete with lyrics (“Boggis, Bunce and Bean/One fat, one short, one lean/These horrible crooks/So different in looks/Were none the less equally mean”) taken directly from the book and sung by a vivacious children’s chorus. It’s this kind of enthusiasm and expressiveness which makes this score such a delight to experience; Desplat really got into the film’s character. The orchestral recapitulation of the Farmer’s march, and subsequent restatement of the choral version in “Stunt Expo 2004”, is simply delightful. The finale, “Canis Lupus”, is an unexpectedly beautiful piece for a boy soprano of the farmer’s fragmented theme, and is nothing short of sublime.

Unless you’re a fan of the Beach Boys the songs are nothing to write home about, and will likely be of little interest to score fans. The two Delerue pieces are “Une Petite Île” from the 1971 film Les Deux Anglaises et le Continent, and “Le Grand Chorale” from the 1973 film La Nuit Américaine. The former is a typically lovely, slightly baroque-sounding romance theme for harpsichord and strings, while the latter is a heraldic piece clearly inspired by the non-vocal parts of Handel’s coronation anthem Zadok the Priest. They actually fit in quite nicely with the stylistics of Desplat’s original score, and add to the overall listening experience.

One thing which will stand in the way of many listeners to this score is its quirkiness. Fantastic Mr. Fox is not a typical film score in any way, and the orchestrations are designed to present an overall feeling of old-fashioned whimsy and mischievousness. If you don’t like banjos and fiddles, if you don’t like intentionally childish-sounding rhythms and bounciness, and if you never appreciated Ennio Morricone’s more unusual efforts in the western genre, then this is most definitely not the score for you. However, personally – and perhaps a little predictably – I thought it was entirely wonderful, showing a completely different side to Desplat’s musical personality, and showcasing his wonderful touch with an entirely different instrumental setup, as well as his theme-writing prowess. Including the two Delerue pieces, the score comprises must 24 minutes of a 46 minute album; and works best when programmed out-of-sequence apart from the songs which comprise the rest of the album.

Rating: ****

Buy the Fantastic Mr. Fox soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • American Empirical Pictures (0:14)
  • The Ballad of Davy Crockett (written by George Bruns and Tom W. Blackburn, performed by The Wellingtons) (1:40)
  • Mr. Fox in the Fields (1:02)
  • Heroes and Villains (written by Van Dyke Parks and Brian Wilson, performed by The Beach Boys) (3:37)
  • Fooba Wooba John (traditional, performed by Burl Ives) (1:07)
  • Boggis, Bunce and Bean (0:51)
  • Jimmy Squirrel and Co. (0:46)
  • Love (written by George Bruns and Floyd Huddleston, performed by Nancy Adams) (1:49)
  • Buckeye Jim (traditional, performed by Burl Ives) (1:19)
  • High-Speed French Train (1:26)
  • Whack-Bat Majorette (2:56)
  • The Grey Goose (written by Huddie William Ledbetter, performed by Burl Ives) (2:48)
  • Bean’s Secret Cider Cellar (2:06)
  • Une Petite Île (composed by Georges Delerue) (1:34)
  • Street Fighting Man (written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, performed by The Rolling Stones) (3:14)
  • Fantastic Mr. Fox [Petey’s Song] (written by Wes Anderson and Jarvis Cocker, performed by Jarvis Cocker) (1:20)
  • Night and Day (written by Cole Porter, performed by Art Tatum) (1:27)
  • Kristofferson’s Theme (1:35)
  • Just Another Dead Rat in a Garbage Pail Behind a Chinese Restaurant (2:33)
  • Le Grand Choral (composed by Georges Delerue) (2:23)
  • Great Harrowsford Square (3:20)
  • Stunt Expo 2004 (2:27)
  • Canis Lupus (1:15)
  • Ol’ Man River (written by Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern, performed by The Beach Boys) (1:18)
  • Let Her Dance (written by Bobby Fuller, performed by The Bobby Fuller Four) (2:35)

Running Time: 46 minutes 42 seconds

Abkco 02562 (2009)

Music composed and conducted by Alexandre Desplat. Orchestrations by Alexandre Desplat, Jean-Pascal Beintus, Marie-Christine Desplat and Sylvain Morizet. Recorded and mixed by Andrew Dudman, Peter Cobbin and Sam Ockell . Edited by Gerard McCann. Album produced by Wes Anderson, Randall Poster and Alexandre Desplat.

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