THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS – Alexandre Desplat
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
The Secret Life of Pets is the latest animated film from Illumination Entertainment, the successful studio behind the smash hits Despicable Me and Minions. Directed by Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney, it follows the escapades of Max, a terrier who lives a life of luxury in an upscale New York tenement building with his owner. However, Max’s perfect life is spoiled when his owner adopts a new dog: Duke, a large and accident prone mongrel mutt who quickly makes Max’s life a misery. Before long, Max and Duke are involved in all manner of escapades, including a trip to the pound, a jailbreak masterminded by a streetwise bunny named Snowball, and a devilish plan to get revenge on the former owners of the city’s abandoned animals. The film features the voice talents of Louis CK, Eric Stonestreet, and Kevin Hart, among others, and has a score from an unlikely source: Oscar-winning French composer Alexandre Desplat.
Although Desplat is not new to the world of animation – he scored the French animated film Le Château des Singes [A Monkey’s Tale] in 1999, as well as the Oscar-nominated Fantastic Mr. Fox in 2009 and Rise of the Guardians in 2012 – he is not a composer known for his light hearted comedy hi-jinks, but this should all change after The Secret Life of Pets. This is, basically, Desplat’s loving homage to all the greatest cartoon music ever written, a score which overflows with so much life, vitality, and playfulness, that it can’t help but melt the hearts of hardened film music critics. It’s a masterclass of orchestration, beautifully recorded with crystal clarity so that every flourish, every nuance, every texture comes shining through. It’s an extravaganza of musical influences and styles, bringing together aspects of world music, European classicism, American cartoon music, Broadway, and more, and mixing it with some fast-paced contemporary action writing that stands up alongside that of animation specialists like John Powell. It’s not a score which engages in a great deal of prominent thematic development, so don’t go into it expecting for there to be a tune to whistle afterwards, but what it lacks in melodic memorability it more than makes up for in pretty much any other criteria you can think of.
If you read Alexandre Desplat’s biography on Wikipedia you’ll see him quoted as saying that many of his early musical influences were South American composers like Carlinhos Brown and African musicians like Rey Lima, as well as film music giants like John Williams, jazzers like Stan Getz, Miles Davis and Duke Ellington, and classical composers like Debussy and Ravel. In many ways, The Secret Life of Pets allows Desplat to directly draw on all those influences in a single score for the first time, and while it may sound like such a thing would be musical chaos, in Desplat’s hands it works wonderfully.
Despite what I said before about there being a lack of prominent thematic development in the score, there is a main theme which runs through virtually the entire piece, ostensibly as a recurring theme for the main character, Max, and the adventures he finds himself having. It first appears in the opening cue, “Meet the Pets,” a wonderful example of big band raucousness which plays like a something Leonard Bernstein could have written for West Side Story, combined with the sultriness of Henry Mancini’s Pink Panther jazz, and has a killer main clarinet melody, along with prominent horns and bass flutes.
Max’s theme reappears throughout the score at regular intervals: on shuffle-footed comedy horns and a slightly skew-whiff piano in “Meet Duke;” on recorder accompanied by happy-go-lucky tubas in “Telenovela Squirrels;” in a lounge arrangement with an especially expressive saxophone part in “Gidget Meets Tiberius;” with light and charming pizzicato accents in “You Have an Owner?;” and in the conclusive “Welcome Home;” as well as being a thematic interjection into several of the score’s action sequences.
The action music, when it comes, is generally magnificent, a raucous collision of Carl Stalling, Scott Bradley, Raymond Scott, and Randy Newman, filtered through Desplat’s personal action techniques and sensibilities. “Fetch Me a Stick” is a whirligig cue performed at an astonishingly fast pace, giving it something of a Tom & Jerry feel, albeit with more focus in the thematic application and the rhythmic clarity. “Hijack” sees Desplat not only referencing Mancini, but also the pedigree of composers like Lalo Schifrin and Neal Hefti, with jazz and funk beats, muted brasses, swirling string figures, and a wailing Hammond organ to give it the vibe of a 1960s Steve McQueen action movie. Parts of “Initiation Time” and “The Viper” even have a touch of Desplat’s Godzilla about them, with more sinister flutes, dark piano chords, huge rasping brasses, and a portentous choir.
Later, “Sewer Chase” revisits the jazz-inspired action ideas with churning string writing and an energetic pop beat, while “Flushed Out To Brooklyn,” the subsequent “Brooklyn Bridge Showdown,” and “Rescuing Duke” continue the trend of the earlier efforts, but increase their potency, adding in layers of bright brass calls, snare drum riffs, electronically inflected zany soundscapes and modern beats, a surprising Morricone-style western fanfare, and even a clear nod the staccato rhythms John Williams brought to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
The homages come thick and fast in other cues. One of the most prominent ones is a clear reference to silent era composer J. S. Zamecnik’s classic ‘sneaking around’ music, the nine-note motif that has been used to suggest creepiness since the dawn of cinema, and which appears here in several cues, notably as a superbly menacing bass and bassoon duet in “Gidget Meets Tiberius,” in “The Viper,” and during “Flushed Out to Brooklyn”.
Elsewhere, “Telenovela Squirrels” has an ultra-seductive Spanish flair that reminds me of James Horner’s Zorro scores, with solo trumpets and expressive flamenco guitars. “You Have an Owner?” has an effervescent country-inflected theme, reminiscent of early John Williams scores like The River, with light pop rhythms, and prominent parts for recorder and trumpet. “Rooftop Route” and “Good Morning Max” could be jazz standards in their own right, while “Me Like What Me See” and “Traveling Bossa” have wonderfully dexterous, sinewy, lighthearted bossa nova beats that Burt Bacharach or Les Baxter could have written, and which feature especially glorious cascading string writing underneath the electric guitars and carnival-style shakers and rattles.
As is always the case on Desplat scores, the excellence in the orchestration makes his music stand out from virtually all his contemporaries, and The Secret Life of Pets is no different. As one would expect from a lifelong flute player, the woodwind writing throughout the score is especially amazing, and several moments stand out as being of note, especially the last 30 seconds or so of “Fetch Me a Stick,” the magical-sounding flute and harp writing in “Gidget Meets Tiberius,” the ludicrously complicated finale of “The Viper,” and the equally ridiculous and intricate “Sausages”. Similarly, “Duke’s Old House/Captured” showcases some lovely transitions from piano to glockenspiel, driving string lines, and a big finale with Golden Compass-style cascading string and woodwind passages.
If all this sounds like a big, garish mishmash of disparate musical influences and styles, you’d be right, it is, and under normal circumstances this would be a problem. True Carl Stalling-style mickey-mousing has been out of fashion for decades, and if anyone else tried to pay homage to all the other composers I’ve name checked – Henry Mancini, John Williams, Lalo Schifrin, Neal Hefti, Randy Newman, Burt Bacharach, J. S. Zamecnik – you’d wonder how on earth any of the composer’s original voice was able to make it through the noise. But, somehow, Desplat makes it all work. Even when he is clearly emulating one of these other greats, the music still sounds like Desplat, whether it’s in the string phrasing, the rhythmic ideas, some instrumental combinations he favors, or something entirely intangible that only someone who has devoured everything the Frenchman has written could feel.
To get anything out of The Secret Life of Pets you have to have a high tolerance for jazz, a liking for certain world music rhythms, and not be put off by numerous blatant homages to other composers, irrespective of how well they filter through Desplat’s own musical sensibility. You also have to be prepared to experience rapid changes in tone, style, orchestration, and pacing, sometimes all within the same cue. Switches from light comedy to romance to full on action and back again are frequent, and unapologetic, and if that sort of emotional musical schizophrenia bothers you, you might want to take a sedative before hitting the play button. With all that in mind, I have to say that I found The Secret Life of Pets to be a delight from start to finish, by far the best mainstream animation score of the summer. If you’ve been aching for Alexandre Desplat to write something with a little more energy and joie de vivre than his recent Oscar-bait drama scores, this just might be the thing for you.
Buy the Secret Life of Pets soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Meet the Pets (2:37)
- Katie’s Leaving (0:55)
- Meet Duke (3:36)
- Fetch Me a Stick (3:09)
- Telenovela Squirrels (1:24)
- Hijack! (2:00)
- Gidget Meets Tiberius (4:56)
- Initiation Time (1:01)
- Rooftop Route (1:27)
- The Viper (1:49)
- You Have an Owner? (3:04)
- Good Morning Max (1:29)
- Sewer Chase (1:09)
- Who’s With Me? (1:21)
- Me Like What Me See (0:54)
- Traveling Bossa (1:56)
- Flushed Out To Brooklyn (2:47)
- Sausages! (1:13)
- Duke’s Old House/Captured (3:03)
- Brooklyn Bridge Showdown (2:34)
- Rescuing Duke (2:46)
- Wet But Handsome/Blue Taxi (1:24)
- Max and Gidget (1:36)
- Welcome Home (1:57)
- We Go Together (written by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, performed by The Sausage Factory Singers) (1:24)
Running Time: 51 minutes 43 seconds
Back Lot Music (2016)
Music composed and conducted by Alexandre Desplat. Orchestrations by Jean Pascal Beintus, Mark Graham, Conrad Pope and Clifford J. Tasner . Recorded and mixed by Peter Cobbin. Edited by Kenneth Karman. Album produced by Alexandre Desplat.