Gamba is a Japanese CG-animated feature based on the old animated television series from 1970’s era. It tells a story of one city mouse that goes on an adventure and wants to discover the ocean. On his way, Gamba meets another mouse, Chuta, whose family is in trouble from the fearsome gang of mice. The two team up and try to defeat the evil rodents and save an island on which they all reside. The film was only released in Japan last month and virtually unknown to Western audience. The music was composed British composer Benjamin Wallfisch who is a frequent collaborator and conductor on many Dario Marianelli’s projects.
For a project developed and produced for Japanese audiences, the score is deeply rooted in Western stylistics. ‘Gamba’s World’ is very much reminiscent of the typical animated score coming from Hollywood, with sudden changes in tempo, quick theme statements and fairly predictable quirky orchestrations. They are well executed, however. The main theme has a really old-fashioned vibe and recalls the many sweet and innocent secondary tunes from many scores of John Williams or Jerry Goldsmith. That melody is relatively simple and can be easily manipulated within the underscore. It also perfectly encapsulates composer’s approach for his score - it’s very much a love letter to film music of the 1980’s and 1990’s. Even James Horner’s infamous danger motif makes a cameo in ‘Party Mice’.
The score’s biggest attraction is well structured action music, which carries a bit more dramatic weight than anything else in Gamba. The early track, ‘Boss Fight’, bristles with orchestral energy. In ‘First Fight’, Wallfisch pays homage to John Williams’ trademark busy xylophone writing. The real centrepiece is ‘Island Battle’. It’s a terrific extended piece, conjuring excitement in the best tradition of Hollywood’s orchestral writing. The climactic 13-minute duo of ‘Gamba Fights Noroi’ and ‘Noroi Returns’ is probably even more intense, especially for a children film. Some brass writing in this track is indeed quite expertly done. If anything, the composer has really learned a thing or two.
The villainous Noroi receives an appropriately darker musical treatment. All the material, while sparsely used throughout the album, will certainly manage to scare children as it shares some similarities with spookier films. The snarling brass, creepy low and high strings, celesta… they point into the direction of horror music of Danny Elfman’s tradition (‘The Clan of Noroi’ and ‘The Weasels Have Come’).
Occasionally, composer makes use of the chorus. ‘Stronger Together’ builds up its energy gradually over its 4-minute running time and vocal performances help to create a sense of necessary grandeur. Wallfisch makes a similar use of the ensemble in ‘The Plan’ and ‘That’s It’. While not original in any way, those tracks stand out among the cuter and more elusive light underscore that dominates this lenghty 62-minute album from Varese Sarabande.
For all its orchestral beauty and highly nostalgic writing, Gamba suffers a bit from a lack of real distinctive personality. Themes, while cute, are incredibly elusive and the overall concept maybe a tad too predictable. Kudos to Benjamin Wallfisch for showing off his impressive musical talent, of course, but one hopes he will get a chance to bring a little bit more unique touch to his future projects. As it stands, Gamba is certainly admirable but way too dependent on the predictable mannerisms of Hollywood tradition. All the ingredients are there but, for whatever reason, it doesn’t quite inspire awe.
Gamba is out now as a digital download from Varese Sarabande