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Surround Sound: Pomp and Cinematic Stances (Wanted/Prince Caspian/Wall-E)

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Monday, Jul 28, 2008

As an aural rule of thumb, the bigger the film, the broader the score. Very few epics are accompanied by acoustic guitar or solo piano. Indeed, when it comes to bringing on the bombastic, the creators of motion picture soundtracks are as excessive as the directors offering up the oversized visual inspiration. The summer of 2008 is no exception. Starting with Iron Man, and working its way toward an inevitable showdown with a certain Caped Crusader, this has been a popcorn season of unsubtle spectacle. Heck, even the comedies have gone gonzo, amplifying their anarchy for the sake of super-sized belly laughs.


Of course, on the other side of the argument is the notion that larger is not necessarily superior. Pushing anything to the limit - sight or sonic - can result in a kind of overkill that leaves audiences cold and critics complaining. Like an overreliance on CGI, symphonic pomposity can destroy an otherwise effective film. Equally annoying are instances where sound and filmic fury tend to negate and further devalue each other. Luckily, the three scores featured as part of this installment of SE&L‘s Surround Sound tend to pair up perfectly with the movies they mirror. In fact, the success (or lack thereof) of said accompaniment can act as a perfect measure for the overall entertainment value of combined product.


Wanted - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 7]


Ever since his days as the leader/creative guide for New Wave sensation Oingo Boingo, Danny Elfman has been unusual. His reputation for exploring all facets of a format (pop music, film scoring) has made him a must-have soundtrack composer. He typically brings something fresh and inventive to the mix - as in last years, ambient inspired turn for Peter Berg’s The Kingdom. But there is another complaint leveled against him, one that seems fostered and confirmed by his work on this summer sleeper. Elfman is often accused of being a surreptitious recycler, using thematic concepts and similar sounding cues throughout his oeuvre. His work on Wanted more or less bears this out.


While not as derivative as the above discussion would suggest, Elfman does pull out many of his old neat beat bombastic tricks here. There are the suggestive string runs, the quirky brass accents, and the dark, driving aural dominance. Every once in a while, like in the wonky “Wesley’s Office Life” or fluid “Fox’s Story”, he finds a way to mesh the known with the new. And there’s even an actual song - the rollicking first track “The Little Things”. At other times, like in the action sequence oriented “The Train”, we get the same old identifiable idiosyncrasies. One thing’s for sure - unlike his Explosions in the Sky inspired work from last year, you’d instantly recognize the man’s Wanted ways. Unlike other composers, however, redundant Elfman is still a clear cut above the rest.



The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian - An Original Walt Disney Records Soundtrack [rating: 4]


When Peter Jackson’s superb Lord of the Rings trilogy took the critical community (and box office) by storm, Hollywood suits hoped to replicate its ‘lifted from literature’ success. So far, the Narnia movies are the only viable Tolkien take, and even now, this sequel to The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe underperformed mightily, revenue wise. Part of the problem was the timing of the release. Who could have imagined that a certain Tony Stark would soar out of the starting gate to helom May’s monster hit? In addition, it was sort of a shock when Caspian turned out to be so…dull. Whatever worked the first time seemed lost in an unoriginal fantasy film.


Further proof of the title’s journeyman-like mediocrity comes with Harry Gregson-Williams’ overwrought score. Back again for another tour of C. S. Lewis’ allegorical realm, the staid, forced pomposity on display makes for tough listening. Without the movie’s movement to guide the sounds (or visa versa), we are treated to something that resembles endless inserts from a routine Renaissance fair. Between the fake grace of “Arrival at Aslan’s How” to the fighting frenzy of “The Armies Assemble”, everything here follows strict compositional clichés. Toward the end, some ersatz Enya tracks arrive to give everything a cloying, compact conclusion. Just like the source from which it was drawn, the soundtrack to Prince Caspian can’t help but feel overly familiar.



WALL-E - An Original Walt Disney Records Soundtrack [rating: 9]


When all is said and done, this latest effort from the geniuses at Pixar may be viewed as its most ambitious, underperforming film ever. Initially thought to be yet another kiddie robot romp, the resulting allegory, focusing on an Earth ravaged by materialism and ecological disaster and two automatons destined to save it, has to be one of the most unusual CG spectacles ever. Between the mockery of couch potato complacency to the last act homage to HAL of 2001 fame, there is much more to this amazing movie than cute as a button machines, awe-inspiring vistas, and bumbling human comedy. Along the way, the creators want to leave lessons that, while perhaps they are too young to process, will become more meaningful once the demographic ages a bit. 


That being said, Thomas Newman’s score is as dense and complicated as the movie it complements. The initial tracks, including an opening slice of Hello Dolly deliciousness, prepare us for the somber, subtle mood of the dead planet material. It’s like a symphony for a global snuff film. By the time we get to Eve’s arrival and the return to the Axion starship, the composer’s gift for satire shows through. His “BNL” track (representing the corporate jingle for the Wal-Mart like marketing monolith at the center of the storyline) is brilliant, as is the midway space ambience. By the end, WALL-E wanders into typical heroics mode, but along the way we are treated to treasures like Louis Armstrong’s resplendent reading of “La Vie En Rose” and another Dolly delight (Michael Crawford’s crackerjack “It Only Takes a Moment”). It’s the sugar on a sonic snack so sublime it leaves you craving more.


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