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DOLITTLE – Danny Elfman

January 24, 2020 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Whimsical fantasy adventure scores have been bread and butter for Danny Elfman for more than thirty years, ever since he first burst onto the scene and wowed us with his magical, maniacal musical talents. His latest effort in the genre is Dolittle, a new adaptation of the famous stories by Hugh Lofting about an eccentric, reclusive doctor in Victorian England who has a somewhat unique gift – he can talk to animals! The role was made famous by Rex Harrison in a 1967 screen musical, and then by Eddie Murphy in a very different approach in 1998; this new version returns (mostly) to its roots and stars Robert Downey Jr. in the title role, setting sail on a fantastical adventure to find a cure for Queen Victoria, who is suffering from a mysterious illness. The film is adapted from Lofting’s 1922 novel The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, is directed by Stephen Gaghan, and has an astonishing all-star supporting cast both corporeal and vocal, including Antonio Banderas, Emma Thompson, Ralph Fiennes, Tom Holland, Rami Malek, and Octavia Spencer.

Unfortunately, the film has become something of a critical and commercial disaster; one memorable review I read described it as “anti-cinema,” while another called it “one of the worst movies in years,” and yet another wondered whether Downey intentionally sabotaged the movie with bad acting. Whatever the case may be, Dolittle is likely to be remembered only as an expensive, lavish flop. Having said that, one of the things that can usually be counted upon with films like this is the quality of its score, which, as I mentioned, is by the great Danny Elfman. But here I have a confession to make: I have recently been finding myself becoming somewhat bored by his fantasy music. Let me explain.

Back in the 1980s and 90s and into the early 2000s, every new Danny Elfman score was a hugely anticipated event for me, and the majority of my favorite works by him stem from that period: Batman and Batman Returns, Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, Black Beauty, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Sommersby, Sleepy Hollow, and so on. Many of these scores live in the realms of the fantasy genre, and are powerful orchestral affairs written for big ensembles, featuring memorable themes. Then, somewhere around the beginning of the 2010s, something happened where they all just stopped being interesting. With just a couple of exceptions, all the big fantasy adventure scores Elfman has written over the last decade or so – titles like Dark Shadows, Frankenweenie, Oz the Great and Powerful, Epic, Goosebumps, and Alice Through the Looking Glass, among others – have all started to congeal into this generic blob of orchestral fantasy music that feels all the same. If you were to play me the main title of, say, Goosebumps, and ask me to identify it blind, I could probably tell you it was an Elfman score, but I would have no idea which one. Now, I absolutely acknowledge that this is a ‘me thing’ and is in no way a reflection on Elfman’s actual music. Every single one of those scores is well composed, is beautifully orchestrated, and fits the movie perfectly, but despite all that I find myself completely tuning out when I try to actually listen to them. I call it ‘fantasy fatigue,’ and whether Dolittle suffers from it too remains to be seen.

The reason I have this as a caveat is because, when you boil it down to its nuts and bolts, there is absolutely nothing wrong with Dolittle. It is, by all objective measures, a really good score. Like the others I name-checked above, it is well composed, beautifully orchestrated, features a multiplicity of themes combined with moments of action, heroism, romance, and comedy, and it undoubtedly fits the movie perfectly – in fact, it may be one of the few things about the film that emerges with its reputation relatively unscathed. The whole thing is anchored by an excellent main theme that makes its presence felt in the first track, “Opening,” and in numerous subsequent cues such as “Wonder,” the lovely “Revelry,” and the buoyant “He’s Back”. In many of these cues Elfman regularly douses his theme in the glitter and sparkle of fairytale magic, with lots of major key instrumental crescendos, and occasional moments of rousing brass-led wholesomeness.

Much of the rest of the opening sequence of the score deals with Dolittle’s somewhat unusual lifestyle, holed up in his English country house with his menagerie. Cues such as “Chess Match,” “Revelry,” “Lunchtime,” and “Investigation” adopt a tone of quirky light comedy that is fun to experience. In terms of arrangements, Elfman enhances his orchestra with numerous passages for sprightly solo instruments that flit and dart around at the upper reaches of the register– flutes and piccolos, oboes and bassoons, chimes, xylophones and glockenspiels, often accompanied by a light choir. The chord progressions, the instrumental combinations, and some of the compositional techniques are all vintage Elfman, harking back to his 1990s golden period, and there are especially clear echoes of scores like Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Numerous bouts of action punctuate the whimsy too, at times giving the score a frenetic, sometimes quite anarchic, sense of energy and vigor. Cues like “Betsy Chase” – in which Dolittle pursues a misbehaving giraffe around his estate – are especially notable in this regard, as Elfman enlivens the proceedings with flashy and bold combination writing for strings and brass, thunderous statements of the main theme, and an urgent tambourine undercurrent. This rambunctiousness is counterbalanced by a secondary theme which speaks to Dolittle’s primary motivator: the memory of his lost wife Lily, and the love he still feels for her so many years after her death. Cues like “Remembering Lily” are especially poignant in this regard, and showcase some quite beautiful writing for strings and haunting woodwinds, as well as a unique whistled version of the main theme that is very effective.

Once Dolittle sets off on his quest to find a cure for the Queen, the score begins to adopt a much more adventurous tone, beginning with the quite rousing “The Voyage Begins,” in which the main theme is given a superb, swashbuckling sweep. This style of writing continues on through subsequent cues like the stirring “The Getaway,” “Well Done Everybody,” the second half of “Onward,” and the bombastic “The Extraction,” most of which also work numerous statements of the main theme into the body of the score. I really like the use of more contemporary-sounding percussion ideas in “The Getaway,” especially when Elfman pits them against some resounding brass calls, as well as the slithery clarinet element in “The Extraction” which appears to be performing a deconstructed version of the main theme.

Perhaps the pick of the second half action cues is the superb “Monteverde,” which underscores Dolittle’s encounter with Rassouli, fearsome king of the pirate Port of Monteverde, played by Antonio Banderas. The cue luxuriates in bold and expansive orchestral strokes, numerous allusions to the main theme, and moments of elegance and daintiness, but also contains some of the most intense and muscular action writing, and makes me wonder what a Danny Elfman Pirates of the Caribbean score might have sounded like. Elsewhere, “The Dragon” offers some music that is slightly more dark and sinister, featuring harsh and aggressive brass clusters, more insistent percussion, ominous choral outbursts, and even some moments of impressionistic orchestral dissonance to sell the threat that Ginko-Who-Soars poses to Dolittle and his friends.

The final four cues – from “We Belong Together” through to the stirring and triumphant “Victory” – see Elfman bringing everything back together into a memorable and emotionally satisfying conclusion. Several full-bodied statements of the main Dolittle theme provide the cues with a strong anchor, and while the increased prominence of the chorus throughout much of the finale will undoubtedly result in comparisons to the ending of Edward Scissorhands, it doesn’t have quite the overwhelming emotional impact of that classic. The actual final cue – “Dragon Indigestion” – is actually more of a bonus stinger, as we check in on the fate of Dolittle’s scaly nemesis via a skirl of bagpipes.

It would also be remiss of me not to mention the latest effort from Sia, the reigning queen of soundtrack tie-in songs, which in this instance is an inoffensive power ballad called “Original” which has no musical relationship with the rest of the score, and isn’t very original at all in that it sounds like most of all her other pop efforts.

So, as you can see, Dolittle has a lot going for it. The main theme is good, the action music is bold and energetic in all the right ways, and the florid orchestrations keep the score interesting throughout its entire running time. Elfman fans will find that, despite never coming close to being their equal, it compares generally favorably with many of his best genre scores. In short, it’s a perfectly fine orchestral fantasy-action-comedy score. But here’s the thing: I can absolutely guarantee that tomorrow, having enjoyed it thoroughly in the moment, I will be able to recall precisely none of it. Six months from now I’ll confuse it with something from Dumbo, or Oz the Great and Powerful, or Alice Through the Looking Glass. And a year from now I’ll have totally forgotten how good it is because, like all those others, it will have disappeared into Elfman’s generic fantasy hole, never to be heard of again. This, for me, is a problem that needs a remedy, but I don’t know what to do about it, and no amount of Danny Elfman music sailing the seven seas has yet been able to come up with a cure.

Buy the Dolittle soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Original (written by Sia Furler, Sean Douglas, and Jesse Shatkin, performed by Sia) (3:35)
  • Opening (2:40)
  • Wonder (2:44)
  • Chess Match (2:18)
  • Revelry (1:17)
  • Lunchtime (0:39)
  • He’s Back (3:09)
  • Teamwork (1:47)
  • Betsy Chase (2:40)
  • Investigation (3:09)
  • The Voyage Begins (2:02)
  • Remembering Lily (0:53)
  • The Getaway (3:11)
  • Well Done Everybody (1:35)
  • Monteverde (5:03)
  • Pep Talk (2:14)
  • Onward (3:58)
  • The Dragon (3:48)
  • The Extraction (2:10)
  • We Belong Together (1:51)
  • Save The Queen (2:43)
  • Revelation (1:40)
  • Victory (2:21)
  • Dragon Indigestion (0:38)

Running Time: 58 minutes 05 seconds

Back Lot Music (2019)

Music composed by Danny Elfman. Conducted by Pete Anthony. Orchestrations by Pete Anthony, Steve Bartek, Edgardo Simone and Edward Trybek. Recorded and mixed by Noah Scot Snyder and Nick Wollage. Edited by Oliver Hug and Graham Sutton. Album produced by Danny Elfman.

  1. Marco Ludema
    January 24, 2020 at 12:18 pm

    Maybe you could try some “other” Elfman scores to allifiate this matter. I’ve heard there’s an extended soundtrack release of Dolores Claiborne out, perhaps that’s an idea.

    Personally, I could listen to whimsical Elfman forever, but I have admit I’m a bit quirky myself, so… it just fits.

  2. Fabrizio
    January 25, 2020 at 1:20 am

    I agree with what you say about the generic nature of Elfman’s fantasy music in recent years.
    To find works that have a strong musical identity one must go and listen to his non-cinematographic works.

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