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Review by Brad Green:
Never underestimate the pastiche. Joel McNeely’s score opens with a quote from When You Wish Upon A Star, but it’s just the tip of Pinocchio’s schnoz when it comes to clever use of much loved themes. A short while later Percy Grainger’s Children’s March strides in for a bar or two, and in between there are more familiar phrases that peek in and scurry by before you can quite name them. And we’re only talking the start of cue number one. If it sounds as though it might all add up to an unoriginal and unqualified mess, think again. Certainly, innovation is out of the question for this kind of formulaic Disney flick, but there is a real craft to the way this soundtrack is constructed.

When the score isn’t directly quoting, it’s using the veritable vocabulary of animation film music: woodwinds that flutter like gossamer fairy wings, deep brass accents of real and ironic menace and strings that sometimes scurry with action, sometimes sustain drama and sometimes burst into florid passages that evoke magical landscapes. The craft lies in the musical syntax, and McNeely constructs his montage with impressive panache. It requires both expertise and discretion to keep control of a musical journey that is twisting and turning every few steps.

A big orchestra in the hands of a masterful composer/conductor can reap great beauty from the simplest emotions. Although we are dealing with a fairy story, full of stereotyped heroes and villains, fantastical places, horrible pirates and a little boy who never grows up, each element kindles music filled with aesthetic quality. In this way it as rewarding for adults as for the very young.

Of course there are some moments on this disc that are littlies only territory, namely three of the five songs that accompany the score. The first of these, Do You Believe In Magic, is a spritely kiddy-pop production. Up-tempo, unoriginal, but full of easy hooks (not of the captain variety) and a glossy tone, it should have the tiny tots singing along. Later, there are two purely theatrical numbers that are slight, humorous and harmless.

Of more general appeal are the two songs featuring the vocal talent of Jonatha Brooke, one of which she penned herself. Brooke’s voice can be placed squarely in the musical box of contemporary folk-pop that is inhabited by the likes of Sarah McLaughlin and Shawn Colvin. And what a wonderful sound that music box makes. Again, the scenario here does not allow for surprises, but these are lovely melodies, backed with unparalleled production and performed with a conviction that will have the most hardened souls permitting that the “world is made of faith and trust and pixie dust”. Brooke’s own composition could have really been something special if it only took flight in the chorus, and even as it is it’s better than half the stuff on the pop charts, and deserves a place there if only for its superior orchestration. Oh, that we could turn on commercial radio and here simple tunes put together with this kind of artistic sensibility!

I enjoyed this soundtrack a lot more than I expected my wizened and cynical side would permit. Soft on the saccharine and clamorous with charm, the Disney formula will never grow old when executed this tastefully.

Published March 28, 2002

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TITLE: Return To Neverland
ID: 60744-7
SONGS BY: John B. Sebastian; Sammy Fain and Sammy Cahn; Jonatha Brooke; Randy Rogel

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