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THE GRINCH – Danny Elfman

December 4, 2018 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Whenever I tell this fact to Americans they invariably look at me like I’m from Mars, but I swear I’m telling the truth: growing up as a child in England, I had never really heard of Dr Seuss. I think I might have had some passing awareness of The Cat in the Hat, but beyond that the literary canon of the rhyming Theodor Geisel remained a complete mystery to me. My childhood literary icons were Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton, A. A. Milne, E. Nesbit, and people like that, and so when director Ron Howard made a feature film based on Seuss’s book How the Grinch Stole Christmas starring Jim Carrey in 2000, I went into it blind (it perhaps says something that the film was released simply as ‘The Grinch’ in UK cinemas, such was the nation’s general unfamiliarity with the character). I have since become aware of the 1966 Boris Karloff-voiced animated short film, and come to understand it’s status as a festive American television staple, and as such it is no longer surprising to me that there is now a full-length animated film based on the same story. Like the previous incarnations, it tells the tale of the eponymous mean and grumpy green creature who hates Christmas so much that he decides to ‘steal’ it by ruining the holiday for the citizens of Whoville, who live in the valley beneath his mountaintop home. Of course, in the process of ruining things, the Grinch actually comes to learn the true meaning of the season – and they all live happily ever after. The film is directed by Scott Mosier and Yarrow Cheney, and features Benedict Cumberbatch voicing the title role.

The score for The Grinch is by Danny Elfman, who is returning to the medium of animation after a four year break – his last one was Mr. Peabody & Sherman in 2014 – and it’s nice to see him back working on something that allows him to showcase the style that has served him so well over the years. Elfman is an old hand at writing music for holiday-themed films – two of his most beloved works are Edward Scissorhands and Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas – and those two scores have a big influence on the sound of this new work. As such The Grinch is a big, warm, rollercoaster of a score, filled with charming wintry orchestrations, rambunctious action sequences, and festive cheer galore… but here’s my issue with it. Danny Elfman can write this sort of thing in his sleep, and a large part of The Grinch feels like he might have done exactly that. There’s nothing actually wrong with the score – in fact, parts of it are really lovely – but despite that I can’t shake the nagging feeling that this is all very much by-the-numbers. Whereas Edward Scissorhands and Nightmare had strong, distinct, individual personalities, The Grinch feels a bit like Elfman on auto-pilot, hitting all the right markers and having the pretty sheen of a Christmas classic, but without doing anything especially memorable in and of itself.

I wish I could understand why I don’t have a more positive reaction to this score, because all the components are there. It has a big orchestra performing an array of beautiful ideas augmented by wintry orchestrations – sleigh bells, chimes, and so on. It has a mixed choir that accompanies many of the cues, from full-throated exclamations of wonder to the quick la-la-la vocalizations that Elfman has used throughout his career. There are a number of sequences where specialty instruments come to the fore, ranging from recorders and an ominous pipe organ in “The Big Opening” to a Theremin and more organ in “Forlorn”. There are compositional touches that scream classic Elfman, from the use of bulbous woodwinds in “Going to Town” and “Dog Tongue,” to the Simpsons-esque scampering violin runs in “Jaunty Kitchen” and “To the Fort,” the throwback to the rock vibe of Midnight Run in “Mailing a Letter,” the dazzling jazz textures of “Grinch’s Wild Ride,” the familiar crystalline vocals in “It’s Better This Way,” and much more besides. I am especially fond of “Last Lonely Boy,” which is emotionally resonant and features some gorgeously downbeat scoring for solo cello and choir that speaks to the Grinch’s forlorn childhood.

The action music, when it comes in, is often raucous and energetic, with a lively and fast-paced internal tempo and plenty of playful bounce. Cues like “Christmas in Whoville,” “The Loudest Snow,” “Command Center,” “Grinch’s Wild Ride,” and “Stealing Christmas” are rich and vivacious and full of fun, and when you actually examine them from a compositional point of view the technique on display is immense. This style of scoring is incredibly difficult to master – there’s a reason people like Carl Stalling and Scott Bradley are held in such high esteem – and there is so much going on in these cues that it’s impossible not to be impressed with the orchestrations in and of themselves. There is a sequence in the middle of “The Loudest Snow” where the horns are going completely bonkers – so much so that the first time I heard it I burst out laughing at the sheer audacity – and some of the instrumental and choral combinations in “Stealing Christmas” are staggering. However, having said that, these cues do have a tendency to change style incredibly quickly, so much so that they come across as being very ADD and Mickey Mousey, and as a result they tend to suffer from a lack of focus that may give some listeners migraines.

One of the other criticisms I can level at the score is its lack of prominent thematic content, which is not usually something one can say about Elfman. There is at least one recurring theme (it sounds for all the world like a variation on the ‘Oompa Loompa Doompadee Doo’ song from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory), which gets especially prominent statements in “Northward Bound,” “To the Fort,” “Walking Toward Destiny,” at the end of “Grinch’s Wild Ride,” and with an emotional swirl in “Kids Can’t Sleep”. It’s a perfectly lovely piece, and once you identify it you can hear it all over the place, but for some reason I found that initial identification process tricky; from my point of view, it never really imposes itself on the score in a way that makes it truly memorable, and as such is unlikely to establish a legacy that outlasts the film.

In fact, much more noticeable are the frequent interpolations of the ‘fahoo fores dahoo dores’ theme from the song “Welcome Christmas,” which was written for the 1966 special by composer Albert Hague, and which has become a sort of cross-project leitmotif for the citizens of Whoville. It appears prominently in “Christmas in Whoville” (along with a rather dramatic setting of the traditional carol ‘O Tannenbaum’) and again in “Welcome Song,” but deconstructed statements of the melody also appear in snippets throughout the score, providing a link between all three Grinch films that many will find appropriate. Long-time listeners will recalls that James Horner used it in his 2000 score too.

The emotional high point of the score comes in the cues “It’s My Fault,” “Welcome Christmas,” and “The Apology,” when the Grinch finally sees the error of his Grinch-like ways and allows his three-times-too-small heart to increase in size via the spirit of Christmas. Elfman’s writing here is warm, magical, and tender, but it does suffer a little in comparison to James Horner’s cue for the same scene in his film (“A Change of the Heart”) which was staggeringly beautiful in context. “First Christmas” offers a sentimental statement of the melody from Nat King Cole’s “Christmas Song” (‘chestnuts roasting on an open fire…”) before a rousing statement of the main theme in “The Big Finale” ends the score on a lovely high note of friendship, festive cheer, and screaming goats.

I’m almost annoyed with myself that I don’t like The Grinch much more than I do, because there’s really no reason for it. The main theme – once you find it – is good, the orchestrations and arrangements are rich and varied, the action music is at times wonderfully boisterous if a little scattershot, the emotional content often allows the score to reach some lovely heights, and it features many of Elfman’s most beloved compositional idiosyncrasies and instrumental combinations, some of which date all the way back to his 1990s heyday. But there’s just something – something – about it which doesn’t connect with me on a base level. Whatever the case of it may be, I feel like I’m the outlier here, and I still absolutely recommend it to Elfman fans, who are sure to savor it’s charms like a carved slice of roast beast.

Buy the Grinch soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • The Big Opening (2:46)
  • Going to Town (1:36)
  • Jaunty Kitchen (1:37)
  • Mailing a Letter (0:50)
  • It’s Better This Way (1:29)
  • Northward Bound (1:29)
  • Christmas in Whoville (4:01)
  • Last Lonely Boy (1:52)
  • Welcome Song/Forlorn (2:29)
  • To the Fort (1:18)
  • Dog Tongue (1:23)
  • Walking Toward Destiny (2:47)
  • The Loudest Snow (2:10)
  • Puppy Eyes (1:03)
  • Command Center (1:33)
  • Grinch’s Wild Ride (2:42)
  • Kids Can’t Sleep (1:33)
  • Stealing Christmas (4:04)
  • Taking the Bait (1:43)
  • It’s My Fault (2:19)
  • Welcome Christmas (written by Albert Hague and Ted Geisel) (1:38)
  • The Apology (1:08)
  • First Christmas (written by Bob Wells and Mel Tormé) (0:51)
  • The Big Finale (1:56)
  • All By Myself (written by Eric Carmen, performed by Benedict Cumberbatch) (1:05)

Running Time: 48 minutes 00 seconds

Back Lot Music (2018)

Music composed by Danny Elfman. Conducted by Pete Anthony. Orchestrations by Steve Bartek, Edward Trybek and Edgardo Simone. Recorded and mixed by Noah Scott Snyder. Edited by Bill Abbott. Album produced by Danny Elfman.

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