It seems fitting that Henry Jackman would be the man to provide the score for Wreck-It Ralph, Disney’s fantastic animated underdog movie.
Jackman tends to work under the radar, his work on Kick-Ass frequently quoted John Murphy’s iconic work on Sunshine but finding new and exciting ways to repurpose those core components, such as giving it an Ennio Morricone inspired twist. ‘Frankenstein’s Monster’ on his X-Men: First Class score once again had a twang of Morricone to its opening, each strum of the guitar carrying some palpable menace, so effective it joined Danny Elfman’s marvellous ‘Wolf Man Suite’ as the soundtrack fo the Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy trailers. Capable of great work without really earning the same accolades as his mentor, Hans Zimmer, for example.
Even the ordering of the playlist seems to inadvertently devalue his contribution, the first six tracks being either licensed or original songs from the soundtrack and not Jackman’s score. We begin with Owl City’s ‘When Can I See You Again?’ which is actually the end credits soundtrack, yet positioned up front. This seems like a mis-step. Owl City is certainly not for everyone and front-loading such a divisive pop act could be off-putting, but when watching the film and being charmed by Jackman’s synth-inspired score, the arrival of an Owl City song feels less jarring. Even as someone who finds Owl City a little irritating, they became a welcome sound by the film’s close, that warm-up period for non-fans is lost by making it the opening track.
‘Wreck-It, Wreck-It Ralph’ by Buckner & Garcia feels like a more appropriate starting point for the album, it may be the second end credit song but it is bouncy, fun and effectively lays out the story of Wreck-It Ralph. Buckner & Garcia are a novelty act, famous (if that’s even the right word to use here) for their 1982 album Pac-Man Fever which featured songs inspired by popular arcade games of the era like Frogger, Donkey Kong and the titular pill-munching ghost-chaser. The fact the producers of this soundtrack even thought to hire Buckner & Garcia to write a Pac-Man Fever style track about imaginary retro game, Fix-It Felix Jr, shows a deep and almost pathological love for video game history; something evident to anyone who has seen the film.
We have all heard ‘Celebration’ by Kool and The Gang, so that can be easily skipped without missing anything from the overall experience. In fact, it only seems to be on this soundtrack because they had already paid for the license to use it and did not want to seem wasteful, it’s barely present in the film and it is the one track that sticks out here like one of Ralph’s giant thumbs.
Things pick up almost immediately with ‘Sugar Rush’, the infectious J-pop track by AKB48, which serves as the sugary sweet theme song to the candyland-themed Mario Kart knock-off of the same name. Once heard, it will be next to impossible to shake. It has that same sense of authenticity that Bucker & Garcia’s contribution brought to the soundtrack, serving the film perfectly but working incredibly well out of context. Assuming you can stomach J-pop without the need for insulin. Again, the major complaint comes from its placement in the track listing, this song really needed to be wedged between some of Jackman’s work to better establish the scores move into the Sugar Rush world.
Are you a fan of dub-step? If not, this next track may send you scrambling for the skip button, as Dutch electronica maestros Noisia provide a remix of Skrillex’s Bug Hunt as the theme for the grim ‘n’ gritty, machismo overload of Hero’s Duty, a first-person shooter in the vein of Gears of War or Halo. As a marriage of modern trends that alienate rapidly-ageing farts like myself, this is another master stroke of context for the producers of this soundtrack. It perfectly sums up a culture that can feel imposing and chaotic to those on the outside, if this is not your genre of choice then you will immediately relate to the disorientation Ralph feels as he runs around Hero’s Duty. It’s a well put together example of the genre to my untrained ears, yet once again I question the placement. This is a common problem in the OST until things segue into Jackman’s score.
Unless you are a big fan of Rihanna, there is really no reason to linger on ‘Shut Up And Drive’, which works well in the film but without an accompanying training montage is just one of many thousands of Rihanna tracks in existence today. Moving on…
Henry Jackman’s ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ is where the soundtrack finally picks up. The early moments of the score are soothing to the ears, there’s a nostalgic quality to it, lulling you into the world of Wreck-It Ralph’s arcade. This theme is heavy on synth, paying tribute to that ’80s arcade sound without sacrificing a sophisticated, modern production as a more traditionally cinematic orchestral arrangement swells up in the background. This mix of retro and classical allows the track to play on two emotional levels; it’s loving and familiar sound to gamer geeks but one tinged with sadness. It perfectly encapsulates Ralph’s character when we first meet him.
‘Life In the Arcade’ is a real treat for old school video gamers like myself, Jackman’s recreation of that 8-bit sound for the Fix-It Felix Jr game is so authentic I was convinced I had heard it before in my childhood.
‘Jumping Ship’ and ‘Rocket Fiasco’ pair up to chart the moment in the movie where Ralph leaves Fix-It Felix Jr behind and moves into the dark, oppressively modern world Hero’s Duty. There is a mischievous, adventurous quality to the opening moments of the track which build into something of a jingoistic military march before escalating into something more menacing, something that seems to riff on James Horner’s Aliens score. Fitting, since the sci-fi action game has been raiding James Cameron’s pantry since time immemorial. Through this one-two punch, Jackman creates a sound that slowly leads us further and further down the rabbit hole before we realise the rabbit is a giant biomechanical carnivore intent on biting our faces off.
These two tracks perfectly represent the quality of the Henry Jackman’s score. Note that I have yet to gripe about the ordering of this segment; that’s because Jackman’s score actually tells a story, building an emotional journey that can be appreciated without even having the film as a reference.
At this point in the story, Ralph moves into Sugar Rush and the score introduces us to this change in location by introducing the theme to ‘Vanelope Von Schweetz’, the loveable little pixie that befriends Ralph. The opening notes feel like the after-effects of the more intense and booming ‘Rocket Fiasco’ before bleeding into something softer, more playful. There are moments of madcap energy and melancholic dips, often resembling the score to Final Fantasy VII, which are perfectly in-keeping with the Japanese origins of the Sugar Rush game and help establish the dual nature of Vanelope’s character much like Ralph’s theme.
Things pick up, energy-wise, with ‘Royal Raceway’ which brings that wonderful synth sound back with a vengeance, while mixing in some traditional orchestral work to give it a boost, at first regal and triumphant and then turning into something more aggressive. ‘Cupcake Breakout’ and ‘Candy Vandals’ continue this trend, setting up the cutesy nature of Sugar Rush, but hinting at the bitter taste inside its gooey centre.
‘Turbo Flashback’ is one of the more intimidating sounds on Jackman’s score, telling the tragic story of arcade legend. There is a looming menace to this track, perfectly telling a story of anger and madness without the aid of the film’s exposition. Jackman even throws in a riff on his own ‘Frankenstein’s Monster’ track from First Class; an idea that makes perfect sense when considering the characters.
The score continues its emotional journey, like the bendy, loopy racetracks of Sugar Rush, with tracks ‘Laffie Taffies’, ‘One Minute To Win It’ and ‘Vanellope’s Hideout’, the latter of which blends in a rearrangement of the ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ theme to wonderful effect.
‘Messing With The Program’ and ‘King Candy’ pay off the hints of darkness found in ‘Cupcake Breakout’ and ‘Candy Vandals’, mapping out a descent into madness arc akin to ‘Turbo Flashback’.
The combination of the emotional lows of ‘Broken-Karted’, the self-reflection of ‘Out of the Penthouse, Off to The Race’ and the triumphant opening push of ‘Sugar Rush Showdown’ build a great story of their own. Around the halfway mark ‘Sugar Rush Showdown’ shifts into the showdown portion of the tale, taking things into more dramatic territory before leading into ‘You’re My Hero’ which continues that intense drama, with notes of arch-villainy, before paying off with a moving and crowd-pleasing heroic conclusion.
‘Arcade Finale’ plays us out, returning to that gentle and soothing synth sound, with hints of Jackman’s heroic Kick-Ass score creeping in as things reach their crescendo and many of the familiar themes begin to pay off in emotionally satisfying ways.
From Henry Jackman’s immersive, often emotional work on the score and some keenly produced original songs, the soundtrack to Wreck-It Ralph is brimming with joyful sincerity. My only real complaint stems from the placement of the non-Jackman tracks, they feel like they should be the bonus tracks that follow the main score but here they give the impression of being the main event. This gripe is easy to forget when we finally hit Henry Jackman’s score, as the entire thing takes off in wonderful and surprising ways.
A good score should stand alone, and I feel Wreck-It Ralph does that, but it should also be able to conjure up memories of the film and allow you to re-live it through sound alone. On this front, Jackman’s score does a brilliant job, with his music deftly conveying the dramatic beats and character arcs of the film. If you are a fan of Wreck-It Ralph, this is an essential item, though it may compel you to run out and see the movie again. If you are not a fan of Wreck-It Ralph or this score, book yourself into a Bad-Anon meeting as soon as possible.
WRECK-IT RALPH is out now from Walt Disney Records
Words: Andy Shaw