An underrated film, Dennis the Menace didn’t make much of a box-office splash in 1993, despite its name recognition and top-notch cast, featuring a wonderfully cranky Walter Matthau. The late composer Jerry Goldsmith was no stranger to comedy scoring, with both Gremlins and The ‘Burbs to his credit, but was often (then as now) pigeonholed as a composer for action and science fiction. The film also was another slice of Goldsmith’s usual luck: the previous John Hughes family comedies, Home Alone and Home Alone 2, had been smash hits with John Williams scores. As with Supergirl before it, Goldsmith was left to score Williams’ leftovers.
Goldsmith anchors Dennis the Menace with a rollicking and carefree theme, a close cousin of his propulsive The Great Train Robbery motif, that is performed in full by an orchestra at the beginning and end of the album but mostly passed to soloists in the remaining tracks. The theme is therefore taken up by harmonica, woodwinds, and even tuba as circumstances dictate, usually at a slow and deliberate tempo. When presented in all its orchestral glory, Goldsmith’s theme is a treat–rambunctious, enthusiastic, but with an endearing undercurrent of innocence. The rest of the time, it’s far more subtle, and the endless interpretations and variations of the tune on album can grow tiresome.
There’s also a more menacing secondary motif for the ill-recieved character of Switchblade Sam–a series of repeated harpsichord notes with jagged brass vaguely similar to Capricorn One. This motif works well enough as a counterpoint, but isn’t very fully developed, leaving Dennis the Menace feeling at times like a monothematic score. The opportunity to have both themes in counterpoint or collision at the end of the film, which unwisely veered into Home Alone territory with a strong dose of The Ransom of Red Chief, was a bit of a missed opportunity.
Gentler material, notably at the beginning of “He’s Back” and “The Shaggy Dog,” is provided for the relatively few sentimental moments in the film–Goldsmith’s work here is effective , but rather low-key. In fact, “low-key” best describes the majority of the album: while there are occasional energetic outbursts, the music is generally restrained, meandering along with plentiful harmonica solos and single-instrument reinterpretations of the main theme to accompany the titular character’s inadvertent mischief.
The album can be difficult to find, as it was issued by the now-defunct Big Screen Records. Still, Dennis the Menace is well worth tracking down for the moments of orchestral exuberance and muscular main theme performances that bookend it, but even Jerry Goldsmith fans my find themselves skipping over some of the tracks in the middle.