Most of my exposure to the works of Roald Dahl has been through the movies. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Witches, and James and the Giant Peach have all hit the big screen with varying degrees of success. The latest entry is the stop-motion animated film FANTASTIC MR. FOX, directed by indie darling Wes Anderson and starring the vocal talents of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, and Bill Murray. Of interest to film music fans is the score by Alexandre Desplat.
This has been a busy year for Desplat. His music has already graced the screen in CHERI, COCO AVANT CHANEL, and JULIE & JULIA. His score for THE TWILIGHT SAGA: NEW MOON is sure to garner attention in a few weeks. And that doesn’t count his work on Terence Malick’s THE TREE OF LIFE and Roman Polanski’s THE GHOST, both due in 2010.
Fans of Desplat’s delicate film scores may be surprised to hear the plucking banjo and mandolin that greet you with the first score track. A cello solo soars over the pizzicato instruments until a beautiful major chord and celeste signal the Desplat harmonies we know and love. It’s like French hillbilly music. And it’s utterly delightful.
Desplat adds recorder, ukelele, spoons, and washboard to the mix for aural interest, but he hasn’t completely abandoned his trademark delicate sounds. Chamber-like orchestrations enhance sweet-sounding tracks like “Jimmy Squirrel and Co.” and “High-Speed French Train.” If you’re looking for traditional Desplat, check out the pizzicato strings, piano, and celeste of “Kristofferson’s Theme.”
As the drama increases in the story, Desplat channels his inner Ennio Morricone and the music takes a 180-degree turn. Guitars strum, the banjo notes bend, the Jew’s harp twangs, and a lone whistler completes the spaghetti Western feel. Add a parade march and a children’s choir, and you have one odd, but exhilarating, French-Italian-Appalachian mash-up of a score.
The soundtrack surrounds Desplat’s brief score with an eclectic selection of songs and instrumental tracks. There are a couple of lovely cues from fellow Frenchman Georges Delerue alongside The Beach Boys’ surreal rendition of “Ol’ Man River.” Art Tatum elegantly riffs on Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” while Burl Ives “saw a flea kick a tree” in the goofy “Fooba Wooba John.” By all rights, such an eclectic juxtaposition of styles and genres shouldn’t work. And yet somehow it does.
FANTASTIC MR. FOX represents a unique departure for Desplat. He seems to be having a great deal of fun with the music, and we do too. While it’s not quite “fantastic,” it certainly is enjoyable. Just relax and don’t analyze it too much.