2005’s March of the Penguins opened up a new world of opportunities for big screen nature documentaries. While the BBC had been producing episodic and feature length docs at a high standard of quality for many years, March oudid the Beeb by grafting a warm, if anthropomorphic, storyline onto the documentary footage and connecting with audiences bored by the more accurate, procedural attitudes of other documentaries. When it came time to cut 15 years of similar footage of polar bears into a motion picture, National Geographic fashioned it into an even more overtly feel-good and anthropomorphized tale. With animal “composite characters” given names and motivations and eco-warrior narration co-written by Al Gore’s daughter, no one could accuse 2007’s Arctic Tale of being subtle in either its message or its attempts to connect with audiences (though disappointing box office returns and a healthy life in reruns on TV were the project’s ultimate fate).
Classically trained British composer Joby Talbot had worked mostly in television, most notably The League of Gentlemen for the Beeb Two, before his first major feature scoring assignment in 2005, the Douglas Adams comedy adaptation The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It was an odd choice, giving a relatively inexperienced composer a scoring assignment of this nature with only a few features under his belt, but Talbot responded with a pleasant surprise and one of 2007’s most obscure film score treasures.
For Arctic Tale, Talbot penned a grand, thematic score in the tradition of the best nature documentaries and dramatic films. From the first moments of “Kingdom of Ice,” when he introduces his sweepingly majestic main theme, the composer layers on expansive music with an optimistic sound, strong tonal melodies, and an overall pastoral feel despite the chilly subject matter. Talbot evokes the icy Arctic setting in subtle ways, mostly with chimes and mallet percussion, but it’s never overwhelming and the balance between warmth and icy majesty is one of the album’s great strengths.
A few moments of cellular writing (as in “A Small Miracle”) recall Philip Glass, and there are some stylistic nods to George Fenton’s famously lush BBC documentary music as well; the most soaring parts of the work like “The Arrival of Spring” also recall Elmer Bernstein’s rollicking music for National Geographic projects of yore. This is merely a case of inhabiting the same sonic universe, in most cases, rather than temp track influence or direct homages. Even the more troubled music, like the sinister “The Storm” and tragic opening of “Strange Encounters” have the same expansive scope and lush orchestration (the latter building into perhaps the most joyful statement of theme and motion on the album).
Film score fans only familiar with Talbot through The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy will be mightily impressed by what he accomplished with Arctic Tale. The composer essentially took the most creative, positive, and hugely orchestral sound from that film, the duo of “Planet Factory Floor” and “Earth Mark II,” and crafted it into a full-bodied 45-minute score of beautiful, uplifting, and pastoral music.
Arctic Tale came in the midst of a purple patch of feature scoring for Joby Talbot, including the aforementioned Hitchhiker’s Guide (2005), The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse (2005), Son of Rambow (2008), Penelope (2008), and Franklyn (2009). The mixed success those films suffered in the marketplace unfortunately meant that Talbot received relatively few film assignments mixed with a few classical commissions in the years since, which is a shame. All of the scores share the same lush orchestral sound, and Arctic Tale is perhaps the pick of the lot as the ultimate expression of Talbot’s harmonic, thematic, and enjoyable music. Highly recommended (though beware the song compilation from the film with none of Talbot’s score), and as of this writing available for as little as one cent for the CD and $7 for a digital download.