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Surround Sound: Ani-Mania (The Simpsons Movie/ Ratatouille)

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Tuesday, Jul 24, 2007

After the big screen musical went the way of other motion picture dinosaurs (around the time of Sidney Lumet’s The Wiz), critics started complaining that the only viable source of cinematic song and dance left was animated kid films. With Disney inserting tunes into everything they could, and fiscally minded mimics (Fox, Warner Brothers) following suit, the only place to find legitimate Broadway style show biz was in the soundtrack of cartoon cavalcade. Of course, the House of Mouse saved face, bringing in real life tunesmiths like Howard Ashman, Alan Menken, and Tim Rice to reinvent the genre. But now, a few decades removed, it seems like the fantasy format of characters vocalizing their inner feelings has, again, gone the way of the do-do. In fact, Pixar (Mickey’s latest production partner) has consistently avoided the crooning creature ideal. So where does that leave the pen and ink production? By the look of the selections in this second installment of SE&L”s Surround Sound, it appears the genre is tired and treading water. Two of the three highlighted choices this time represent the most routine – and in one case, shameless – substitute for actual artistic accomplishment available. And then once again, it’s the stellar CGI of one company’s amiable aesthetic that wins out over everyone else.


The Simpsons Movie [rating: 6]


By now, most fans know the sad and confusing fact that neither Danny Elfman (who concocted the series’ signature theme) nor Alf Clausen (the man behind the music for 17 years) are involved with the sonic situation in the new Simpsons Movie. Instead, that Tinsel Town tunesmith Hans Zimmer was pegged to provide an aural backdrop to the big screen adventures of Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie. An Oscar winner (for The Lion King) and five time nominee, there is nothing inherently wrong with said choice. The German born composer has been on a summer blockbuster role as of late, having worked on the last two Pirates of the Caribbean films as well as Batman Begins and The Da Vinci Code. But like asking an outsider to partake in a massive and extremely insular family reunion, Zimmer arrives unfamiliar with the ways of America’s favorite family. As a result, he turns in a decent, if derivative score that owes as much to the men he replaces as it does anything remotely original. It’s tough to get a handle on just what doesn’t work – especially in light of the music’s inherent quality and sparkle. But it’s clear that, without the context of the film around it and the specific sequences illustrating its tone, the auditory concepts here just don’t gel. Instead, they end up resembling disconnected sketches, ideas never coming together under a common theme or mood.


It’s clear that Elfman and Clausen were Zimmer’s main inspiration. Several of the tracks here - “Trapped Like Carrots”, “What’s an Epiphany?”, “Thank You Boob Lady” – are nothing more than extended symphonic tweaks tagged to variations on the main Simpsons’ theme. While the notes aren’t always in the exact same place, you can instantly recognize the series sassy trademark each and every time. In other instances, elements that Clausen excels at (stylistic mimicry, sonic stereotyping) are also attempted by Zimmer. Yet the results, like the ersatz spy jazz of “Release the Hounds” or the Busby Berkley gone batty of “Bart’s Doodle” have a less pointed, satiric quality. Still, there are moments of ambient excellence throughout – “You Doomed Us All…Again” is a massive musical statement that goes from delicate to demonstrative with perfect action/adventure vibe, as do “…Lead, Not to Read” and “World’s Fattest Fertilizer Salesman”. We also experience a weird kind of Aaron Copeland hoedown déjà vu during “Why Does Everything I Whip Leave Me?”, the track resembling that famous beef council commercial rewritten and inverted. The score can get syrupy at times, and when Zimmer is stuck for inspiration, her reverts back to Elfman, or a joke from the film (in this case, the overblown choral version of “Spider Pig”) to save the day.  Like any new writer or artist coming to The Simpsons, fitting in is half the battle. Zimmer more or less succeeds, but not without an awkward adjustment period.


Ratatouille [rating: 9]


Unlike the Simpons score, there is a solid synchronicity between Michael Giacchino and his remarkable work for Pixar’s latest animated pearl, Ratatouille. Almost every cue contained on this 24 track collection reminds one of the amazing adventures of the rat Remy and his desire to be a great Parisian chef. The composer – a long time JJ Abrams associate, having worked on Lost, Alias and Mission Impossible III – is no stranger to the animation/family film game. He helped Brad Bird’s other 3D masterwork, The Incredibles, roar to sonic life and put the aural polish to several Muppet titles. Here, Giacchino had quite a massive musical mountain to climb. Dealing with a modern France filtered through the city’s noted old world charm and aura, the score for Ratatouille needed to be instantly recognizable while incorporating as much of the cosmopolitan European flair the narrative needed as possible. It’s a balancing act that he manages brilliantly, turning this score into a reference heavy collection of waltzes, tangos, slow groove jazz, and ‘50s/’60s metropolitan cool motifs. When combined with the other odd inclusions – random Hawaiian guitar and harmonica –, the idiosyncratic ethnic choices (gypsy?), and the occasional callbacks to his own Mediterranean culture, Giancchino delivers a delightful aural stew, perfectly seasoned and ready to consume.


With some tracks lasting less than a minute, and others pushing close to ten, the Ratatouille score has a very traditional flavor and feel. There are snippets of big band swing and the typical sidetracks you’d find in a foreign set storyline. As this is France, wandering accordion and saccharine string trills are mandatory, and Giancchino doesn’t shy away from them. Yet he also tries to anthropomorphize the soundtrack, tossing in aural allusions to mice, a chaotic kitchen, or a robust city street. This is a composer who understands the inherent ingredient a good musical backdrop needs in order to stand on its own – a fully realized ‘personality’, one easily identifiable and separate from the movie itself. In addition, all throughout the collection of tracks – “Souped Up”, “Remy Drives a Linguini”, and “Kiss and Vinegar” for example – we find ourselves swept away into an ephemeral world where one’s imagination starts painting in the particulars.  Like the movie it supports, the Ratatouille soundtrack melds classic and contemporary ideas into something that should be routine and familiar – an animated movie – into a stunning work of art.


What’s Cooking? Songs Inspired by Disney’s/Pixar’s Ratatouille [rating: 4]


Leave it to the House of Mouse to find a way to dull this Pixar production’s decided twinkle. Presented as a collection of songs ‘inspired’ by the film, but really nothing more than an excuse to make more merchandising oriented cash, What’s Cooking? utilizes the theme of food as a way of tying together 12 mindlessly mundane tunes. Most are originals from composer/conductor Fred Mollin and his Blue Sea Band, while others are corny covers. Sounding like something you’d experience in one of Uncle Walt’s theme parks, the slick overproduced feel of this collection is kind of creepy. You can hear every over-earnest nod to minority music styles in this hodgepodge of jumping jive and swamp boogie slink. It’s supposed to be toe tapping and finger snapping, but it ends up soul sapping most of the time. Like the recipes included in the liner notes (for fabulously perfunctory dishes like “Oven-Baked French Fries” and “Eiffel Tower Cookie Sundaes”) this is broad, unimaginative pap barely capable of providing true aesthetic sustenance. While there may be a few fans out there who see this release as a way of extending their Ratatouille pleasure – or cynically, introducing their impressionable children to the world of musical diversity – there’s nothing here that demands attention or approval. This is the kind of listening experience available every morning as part of TLC’s family programming. All that’s missing are Raffi and someone dressed up like a monkey.


Complete with fake applause and crowd noise that will continue throughout the entire 36 minute running time, What’s Cooking? starts off with “Cheese Please”, a goofball jaunt that uses rhyming as its reason to exist. We are supposed to get a kick out of the various culinary quips, but the whole song smacks of a rejected Madison Avenue dairy jingle. Next is a classic track, “Saturday Night Fish Fry”, and with its blaring horns and thumping bass, it’s a perfect illustration of what this compendium strives to be. For a while, the call and response nature of the tune is infectious. But soon, all the goodwill garnered by this anthology is destroyed by a doping rap remix/remake of the Gerardo hit (huh???) “Rico Suave”. Entitled “Taco Grande”, this soggy sonic satire makes you want to grab something and destroy your CD player. Even when followed by the safe and superficial beats of “Pizza, Pizza, Pizza”, and “One Meatball”, the stench of such a sloppy selection lingers. Luckily, the classic clip of “Save the Bones for Henry Jones” (one of the oddest swing numbers ever) and the Louis Prima penned “Banana Split for My Baby” almost save the day. Without the original artists providing the performance however, the rescue is only half realized. Indeed, most of What’s Cooking? could be considered a semi-success. Of course, this also means that it’s mostly a failure as well.


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