It is depressing when really great films don't get the audience they deserve because of poor advertising. One such victim was the terrific animated version of the Ted Hughes story, The Iron Giant. Unlike the Disney approach of saturation advertising, Warner Brothers released the film with little fanfare, even though it received great to rave reviews. The story is an ET, boy meets alien visitor tale, the kind of meeting that would almost certainly speak volumes to a composer like Michael Kamen. In some ways, it's easy to be initially disappointed with Kamen's music, but repeated listens reveal the myriad of melodies and ideas; this is not just a simple and sappy kids score, but a wonderful, inventive and dramatic score. Most composers unused to animation claim to approach the material as though it were live action, but this isn't often confirmed by the results, but by and large, Kamen really does treat the film as though it were a live action film. This is not to say that there aren't playful moments, but neither is it silly or frivolous.
The opening Eye of the Storm swirls up to a high brass hit and bounces around menacingly in a great piece of musical mimicry, setting out Kamen's masterful use of orchestral texture from the word go. Kamen's grasp of orchestral texture is complete and instruments are used inventively in a way that allows the listener to appreciate personality and timbre of each instrument rather than coming off as a homogeneous lump of strings and brass. Hogarth Hughes introduces a motif for the hero with a sprightly, but lilting twinkling motif that counterpoints the theme itself. The ensuing cues feature some highly entertaining cat and mouse music, plinking strings, the occasional woodwind motif as well as a some heavily percussive stomping in the aptly titled Cat and Mouse. This four note motif is used several times to represent the giant, although some appearances (such as in His Name is Dean) are quite subtly worked in. A few of the central cues have a tendency towards brevity and the score loses a little of its cohesion, but to little serious detriment.
A touching boy meets metal giant robot story isn't complete without some bonding moments accompanied by rich strings and this is provided in a highlight cue, Bedtime Stories which starts gently and gradually transforms into a light hearted and spine tingling scherzo by the end. The few light and jazzy interludes many have seen as a musical misstep, but they represent junk dealer/artist that Hogarth befriends and the era splendidly. It is in the much later tracks from The Army Arrives does the finale begin to spin out with some terrific action as well as some moments of pathos and drama. The twelve minute tour de force that comprises The Giant Discovered, Trance-Former and No Following are undoubtedly the best moments of the score. The Last Giant Piece is a brief coda that closes with a nicely upbeat touch.
There is a wonderful balletic feel to the entire score, indeed, with a little tightening and arranging, it forms an almost perfect musical depiction of the story. Kamen makes you work a little to hear all the detail, but once all the motifs are picked out, the score's rich texture becomes obvious. As mentioned, the central, shorter tracks aren't as beautifully flowing as the best parts, but those passages parts are some of the best music I've heard in an animated film. There are some heart breaking moments, some amusing ones and a few terrifically exciting moments; that coupled with a superb fidelity recording and truly fantastic orchestral performance this is an album not to be missed, or dismissed on first hearing if it seems hard to get to grips with. Give it time to grow on you and great pleasure can be had from it and those spine tingling moments you get with all the best music will make you feel like a kid again.