Home > Reviews > ANIMAL CRACKERS – Bear McCreary

ANIMAL CRACKERS – Bear McCreary

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Animal Crackers is an animated adventure film for children, directed by Scott Christian Sava and Tony Bancroft (who co-directed Mulan), which is somewhat astonishingly inspired by the animal-shaped biscuits/cookies of the same name. It’s a surprisingly convoluted story but, basically, the plot boils down to a family of circus owners who are given a magical box of Animal Crackers which temporarily turns people into whatever animal shape they eat, and which they use to save their livelihood and thwart the plans of their evil uncle, who wants to take the circus over for his own nefarious purposes. The film has an astonishing voice cast – John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Ian McKellen, Danny DeVito, Sylvester Stallone – and premiered at the prestigious Annecy International Animation Film Festival in 2017 prior to debuting in cinemas in China in 2018. It was slated for release in the United States later that same year but financial issues involving the distributor led to it being delayed and delayed, and then with all the issues surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, it eventually skipped theaters altogether, and was finally released on Netflix in July 2020.

The score for Animal Crackers is by Bear McCreary, who had an astonishing big-screen breakout year in 2019 with the scores for theatrical films like The Professor and the Madman, Child’s Play, and especially Godzilla: King of the Monsters, in addition to the 187 TV shows he seemingly scores each year. Although McCreary specializes in the action, sci-fi, and horror genres, it is nevertheless a little surprising to learn that Animal Crackers is the first traditional animated film he has scored, and is one of only a few comedies in his career – the last of which was probably the little-known Knights of Badassdom back in 2013. For inspiration, McCreary reached back to the very early days of animation scoring, and emulated two of the composers whose work defined the genre: Carl Stalling and Scott Bradley.

For better or worse, depending on your point of view, Stalling and Bradley (among others) invented the technique now colloquially known as ‘mickey-mousing,’ in which the rhythm of the music matches exactly the movement of the characters on screen, either in terms of their footsteps or their body language, or as a musical onomatopoeia, using instruments and musical phrasing to create sound effects. It was initially used as a way to form an easily understandable connective bridge between the film and the audience for this then-new genre, but over time it has fallen out of fashion, a relic of a less sophisticated musical time. However, as scholars of the genre know, mickey-mousing is easy to parody, but very difficult to do well; it requires a detailed knowledge of the orchestra and what it can do, and it requires precision timing down to the millisecond. In recent years the critical recognition of the work done by composers like Stalling, Bradley, Milt Franklyn, and others, has become more positive, acknowledging the level of musical technique required to pull it off – which is where Bear McCreary comes in.

To put it succinctly, Animal Crackers is mickey-mousing done really, really well. McCreary takes the tried-and-tested Looney Tunes approach, blends it with a healthy dose of Danny Elfman/Nino Rota-esque carnival circus music, and filters it through his own dramatic sensibility, which makes use of a large and varied orchestra. The whole thing is then anchored by an astonishing eight – yes, eight – recurring character themes, which run the gamut from broad and raucous to strongly emotional. The key to understanding what McCreary is doing in Animal Crackers is to listen to the opening 6-minute “Overture,” which introduces all eight of the main themes, as well as the majority of the stylistic and textural ideas that these themes adopt as the score progresses. I’ve made up my own names for the themes based on a cursory viewing of the movie and a reading of the plot breakdown, so here we go!

At 0:04 we have the Biscuit Machine Theme, a rhythmic march which comes across like Raymond Scott’s classic cartoon piece ‘Powerhouse’ via James Horner and Honey I Shrunk the Kids. It represents – as the original Powerhouse piece did – the relentless hustle and bustle and ratchet and clank of automated machinery which, in this instance, is churning out the biscuits that play such an important role in the story. At 1:20 we get the first clear and prominent statement of the score’s most important theme, which I’m calling the Huntington Family Theme, as it follows the fortune of the original owners of the circus – Bob and Horatio Huntington, and then Bob’s son Owen, who eventually takes over. It first appears on what sounds like a soprano saxophone, before switching to a frothy and fulsome fully orchestral rendition. The theme is bouncy, amusing, and endearingly playful, but also has the capacity to be changed into multiple different styles, and as the score progresses it appears in variations that are action-packed, poignant, and even at times a little menacing.

The score’s main Love Theme, for Owen and his girlfriend/wife Zoe, appears at the 2:00 mark, and is more wistful and introspective, but wholly lovely. It first appears anchored by oboes and backed by strings, and the whole thing reminds me of those poignant melodies people like Alan Silvestri and David Newman and Marc Shaiman used to write in the 1990s – think along the lines of Father of the Bride, or Patch Adams. The more ominous theme for Uncle Horatio, the film’s primary antagonist, emerges at 2:34, and is a purposeful march for encroaching stepwise strings, underpinned by a snakelike bassoon. Horatio’s theme tends always to work in tandem with the theme for his henchman/minion Zucchini, who has an offbeat theme of his own for a bank of kazoos that first appears at 3:01. The sixth theme, which comes in at 3:26, is what I am calling the ‘Italianate Theme,’ as it is a wonderful piece of Nino Rota-Federico Fellini style dolce vita for accordions and a florid, passionate solo gypsy violin. This theme appears to pull quadruple duty as an overarching motif for the heritage of the circus, while also relating specifically to the characters of Esmeralda the Fortune Teller, Chesterfield the Clown, and the mysterious box that holds the key to the circus’s power. The final two themes, which are introduced almost simultaneously at 3:35, take us back to the biscuit factory, its owner (and Zoe’s father) Mr. Woodley, and Woodley’s antagonistic associate Brock. Woodley’s theme is a pompous and officious little motif for a solo tuba, while Brock’s theme is a throwback to Shaft and the 1970s, with wakka-wakka electric guitars and roaring saxophones speaking to his narcissism and self-centeredness.

The orchestrations McCreary uses throughout the “Overture” paint a picture of a lot of what is to come in the rest of the score; they are wonderfully vibrant, sometimes anarchic, sometimes beautiful and elegant, and often seem to be tottering on the fringes of complete chaos. They are heavy on brasses, often surrounded by swirling strings and twittering woodwinds, and regularly make use of a bank of comedy instrumental solos ranging from saxophones to calliope circus organs, to kazoos, to bumbling tubas. And, really, everything else in the score takes it’s cue from the content of the Overture, with numerous statements and variations of each theme, a variety of different orchestral arrangements and textural shifts, but which retains the overall tone and feel of the circus throughout. Every single cue contains at least one statement of one or more of the themes, and I have to take my hat off to McCreary for making his score this sophisticated: balancing a huge amount of vibrant circus music while weaving more than half a dozen character leitmotifs into the fabric of the piece is no mean feat, especially when most people won’t be paying as much attention to it as I am.

There are a number of especially excellent statements of the Huntington Family Theme in the score proper. It’s light and playful in “The Huntington Brothers”. It’s arranged like a Big Top march in “Life at the Circus,” grand and bouncy and gallivanting around with cheerful energy. In “Circus Memorial” it begins a little wistfully, arranged like a music box, but by the end of the cue it is playing in juxtaposition to Horatio’s theme, illustrating how the underhanded uncle tries to initiate a fight between the various circus performers, resulting in lots of chaotic shifts in tone, texture, and tempo. Later, in “Little Cookie Me,” there is a lovely sequence where it is arranged as a lilting waltz, while in “The Magic Is Gone” it initially has a morose tone, filled with regret and a touch of sad resignation, before rising to a more upbeat and optimistic finale. There are also several notably pretty statements of Owen and Zoe’s Love Theme, notably the one that underscores their marriage proposal in “Life at the Circus.” Perhaps the best performances of both themes come in the gorgeous “Papa Bear,” which features extended variations on both main themes, gentle, warm, and endearing, and which become quite sweeping in places.

And then there is the action music, which is at times completely wacky, but never less than superb. This is where McCreary’s excellent mickey-mousing comes into play and, let me be clear, I am in no way using that term as a pejorative. McCreary’s action writing here is just superb, a masterclass of orchestration, a silly symphony of raucous cartoon mayhem. It’s very different from the McCreary action one might be used to hearing from scores like Godzilla or God of War or The Cloverfield Paradox, but it’s no less impressive, just in a different way. The sheer variety of rhythmic ideas, tempo changes, orchestral sound effects, and instrumental textures McCreary uses is just astonishing, and in the midst of all this he still constantly uses one or more of the recurring themes as melodic anchors, while retaining the flavor of the circus. It’s brilliant.

“The Dog Food Factory” is a completely anarchic combination of the Huntington Family Theme, the Biscuit Machine Theme, and Brock’s theme. “Zucchini Chase” puts Zucchini’s theme through an increasingly wacky set of pulsating variations, which pass the theme’s core idea around between kazoos, banjos, gypsy violins, surf rock guitars, heroic trumpet fanfares, and accordions, until your brain leaks out of your ears. “A Helping Hoof” could have been a rejected cue from Danny Elfman’s Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure or Beetlejuice, and is a frantic chase sequence supported with a constant calliope under the action. “The Tiger” uses threatening tribal percussion, pan-flutes, and heavy brass rhythms, before eventually coalescing into massive statements of bot the Love Theme and the Huntington Family Theme. “Monkeying Around” features yet more jungle drums, and somehow sees fit to move at least five of the score’s main themes in and out of an enormous finale for rampaging strings, brass chords, and heavy percussion.

The score’s finale begins with “An Offer From Horatio,” which features an ominous, sinister, almost seductive statement of Horatio’s Theme, and has a touch of James Horner’s Balto in the strings towards the end, under the Love Theme. “Freak Fight” is a rampaging, dangerous, sometimes chaotic cue for every instrument imaginable, as every main character engages in an enormous brawl under the big top, while they all constantly change into different animals. If you ever wanted to hear an action calliope underpinned with circus rhythms, crazy xylophone runs, kazoos, tubas, and constant switching back between at least four of the score’s main themes – now’s your chance! The obvious burst of James Horner and Star Trek II at 2:57 is inexplicable but brilliant, and shows how much fun McCreary is having emulating his heroes. The conclusive “Chimera” sees Horatio making one last, desperate bid for victory by eating broken pieces of several animal crackers at the same time, and changing into a terrifying multi-animal beast; here, Horatio’s Theme becomes bold, overpowering, and dominant, before eventually being overpowered itself by the combined strength of box magic, circus heritage, and familial love. There are more references to the rhythmic ideas of Star Trek II here, juxtaposed against the Huntington Family Theme, and what sounds like a completely oblique reference to John Williams’s 1986 score for SpaceCamp in the chimes. At this point, I’ve run out of ways to justify what this sounds like, and simply I’m along for the ride.

The final cue, “Showtime,” starts with a statement of Horatio’s Theme as he gets his just desserts, but quickly segues into a series of rousing final statements of all the main themes. The Huntington Family Theme, subtly heroic, but then celebratory, underpinned with circus orchestrations. Zucchini’s Theme and Horatio’s Theme, this time played for ironic laughs. The Love Theme with tender emotion, Woodley’s Theme as he finally accepts his son-in-law for who he is, and finally the Italianate Theme, reminding us that there is still magic in the world.

If you can get yourself into the right headspace, and mental prepare yourself for what amounts to more than an hour of musical anarchy, then Animal Crackers is a delight. As I have repeatedly mentioned, it’s very difficult to do mickey-mousing well, especially in the year 2020 when this style of scoring is so out of fashion, but Bear McCreary does it as well as it is possible to be done. Blend that with a ridiculously large amount of character-based thematic content, references and homages to everyone from Danny Elfman and Nino Rota to Raymond Scott and James Horner, relentlessly bouncy and cheerful circus music, and buckets of raucous action, and you would usually have a recipe for disaster. But not Bear McCreary; he has taken all these ingredients and baked them into a box of animal crackers that you’ll want to reach into and snack on for quite some time.

Buy the Animal Crackers soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Animal Crackers Overture (5:51)
  • The Huntington Brothers (3:28)
  • Life at the Circus (3:59)
  • The Dog Food Factory (4:54)
  • News of the Fire (1:45)
  • Circus Memorial (3:58)
  • Holy Moly (2:35)
  • Zucchini Chase (4:16)
  • Little Cookie Me (3:22)
  • The Magic Is Gone (3:01)
  • Brock and Woodley (3:43)
  • Papa Bear (3:13)
  • A Helping Hoof (1:58)
  • The Tiger (3:14)
  • Monkeying Around (3:58)
  • An Offer From Horatio (3:40)
  • Freak Fight (3:54)
  • Chimera (5:57)
  • Showtime (6:40)

Running Time: 72 minutes 58 seconds

Sony Classical (2020)

Music composed and conducted by Bear McCreary. Orchestrations by Bear McCreary, Edward Trybek, Henri Wilkinson, Jonathan Beard, Sean Barrett, Jamie Thierman and Jeff Tinsley. Additional music by Paul Mounsey. Recorded and mixed by Steve Kaplan and Nick Spezia. Edited by Michael Baber. Album produced by Bear McCreary and Steve Kaplan.

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