Tim Burton’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND continues its spectacular (and surprising) box office run, bringing Danny Elfman‘s score, one of the strongest elements of the film, right along with it. As I mentioned in my post of 9 Favorite Danny Elfman Scores, Elfman is the composer du jour. His ALICE score fares better with Burton at the helm than his music for THE WOLFMAN did, but the score as represented on CD isn’t quite what you’ll hear in the theater.
“My score was not going to be about the Mad Hatter or the Red Queen,” said Elfman in an interview with Wired. “The ‘falling down a hole’ music is going to be wild, crazy falling-down-a-hole music. Two armies meeting—I can almost write that automatically. That’s the easy part. The hard part is Alice’s trajectory. I needed the music to tie it all together as she goes from this kind of confused child to a bewildered young lady to becoming Alice as a hero who finds herself in the center of this big story where she has a huge part to play.” Alice’s story inspired one of Elfman’s finest themes.
The first thing you’ll notice about the main theme on CD compared to the film are the lyrics. The CD has them, the film does not. Apparently, the lyrics came late in the game, and much as Burton did with Stephen Sondheim’s choral “Ballad of Sweeney Todd” that runs throughout SWEENEY TODD, he eliminated Elfman’s lyrics and kept just the theme. For some reason, it didn’t bother me in SWEENEY (which is odd considering my love for that score), but the lack of lyrics weakens Elfman’s score within the film and relegates the chorus to wordless ah‘s. None of this distracts from the sheer memorability of the theme though.
Set against a combination pulsating duplet and triplet accompaniment, the haunting minor-key theme draws you in to the surreal world of Wonderland. Elfman excerpts various motifs from the theme that can be used tenderly or more aggressively as the story commands. The theme as a whole moves from terror and “curiouser and curiouser” to full-on battle music by the end of the film.
Elfman’s sly humor conjures the absurd in cues like “Finding Absolem” and “The Cheshire Cat.” Action cues like “Bandersnatched,” “Going To Battle,” and “The Final Confrontation” will please fans of Elfman’s superhero scores.
The quiet moments are few and far between. Then again, Burton doesn’t allow the film to relax much. Elfman makes the most of the more lyrical moments at the beginning of the film with young Alice and following the final battle and Alice’s return to the real world.
As a child, Elfman was terrified by a picture of Alice on a copy of Lewis Carroll’s classic on his family’s bookshelf. Elfman’s score captures that terror, but as music it’s more enjoyable than frightening. In the film, the score does its job and gave me something to listen to while I fidgeted and checked my watch through the slow portions.
Is there anything new here? Not particularly. But Elfman’s inimitable style shines through and there’s something comforting in that. The score is stronger on CD than in the film, and for us film score fans, that may ultimately be all that matters. As for that main theme, I dare you to get it out of your head.