Starting with an utterly magnificent burst of festive joy in the first few bars, Alan Silvestri's delightful score for Robert Zemeckis' adaptation of A Christmas Carol plants a massive Christmassy smile on the face of the listener. It's possibly the composer's loveliest effort of the past decade, surpassing even his warm-hearted work on The Polar Express from a few years earlier.
Just like The Polar Express, Zemeckis' second seasonal effort was somewhat underrated on release. Sticking close to the prose and Gothic overtones of Charles Dickens' classic source novel (bar some ostentatious additions), it really is a moving and engaging piece of work. Irrespective of whether the CGI motion capture process adds anything to Jim Carrey's multiple performances (he not only plays Ebenezer Scrooge at five stages of his life but all three ghosts as well!) or indeed to Zemeckis' on-screen world, the actor conveys a degree of emotion beyond mere gurning, and is backed by an excellent supporting cast, including Gary Oldman, Colin Firth and Bob Hoskins.
Silvestri, just like his director, also has a firm handle on the story's moral ramifications, singing the joy of Christmas to the heavens while juxtaposing it with an eerie sense of Gothic darkness. A Christmas Carol marks the 13th collaboration between the two men, and theirs is one of the longest-enduring working relationships in Hollywood, having spawned classic scores such as the Back to the Future series and Forrest Gump. Even so, the festive season clearly inspires Silvestri more than usual (as the score for The Polar Express attests).
One of the composer's inspired notions here is to mix in traditional carols with the underscore, grounding the music in British tradition while also allowing it to take on a life of its own. It's perhaps akin to what Michael Kamen may have done, were he still alive (he famously blended Beethoven's Ode to Joy with the suspense material in Die Hard). The heavy timpani, bells and full orchestra of Main Title gets the ball rolling, showcasing Silvestri's original theme (which sounds remarkably close to a traditional carol itself) with interpretations of, among others, Good King Wenceslas and Deck the Halls. It's tremendous stuff, and one of Silvestri's best pieces in years.
Things then quieten at the close of the track, with moody strings and Edward Scissorhands-style choir tapping into the decay of Scrooge's world. Scrooge Counts Money is a deceptively comic piece but then full blown horror erupts in Marley's Ghost Visits Scrooge, adding a doomy sense of portent as the miser is set on his path to redemption. Eerie strings, harp scales and What Lies Beneath-style outbursts precede jagged string solos, lamenting Marley's fate (the latter being brought to macabre life by Oldman).
It's in the subtle juxtaposition of emotions, the balance between light and dark, that Silvestri scores the greatest success with A Christmas Carol as his central theme is often subtly woven into the wider fabric of the score. The heavenly Ghost of Christmas Past ushers in a beautifully moving choral rendition of Hark the Herald Angels Sing, adding a tragic sense of poignancy as Scrooge reviews his early life. There's even time for some frantic yet light-hearted string-led action music, anticipating the darker set-piece theme Carriage Chase later on, one which brims with danger and excitement. It even uses some carols as an action theme! Let Us See Another Christmas and First Waltz allow lovely renditions of Silvestri's central theme, and Flight to Fezziwig's opens it up to even grander heights, soaring across the orchestra.
Another Idol Has Replaced Me is another brief reminder of the menacing darkness underpinning Dickens' story, before music representing The Ghost of Christmas Present takes over. Touch My Robe, appropriately, brims with mirth and goodwill, calling to mind some of Silvestri's finest brass work, before exploding into Hark the Herald Angels. The Clock Tower again foregrounds a sense of eeriness, supple, descending string figures and vocals nagging at the listener like an unpleasant memory.
We then descend to the darkest portion of both Dickens' story and the music, as Scrooge realises to his horror the potential ramifications of his continued lifestyle. Old Joe and Mrs Dilber is deceptively whimsical, but it precedes the terror of the following tracks. The Dark Chamber revisits the chilling material heard in The Clock Tower, taking the moody intrigue to new heights. As The Ghost of Christmas Future shows Scrooge what potentially lies ahead, None Of Us Will Ever Forget and Who Was That Lying Dead reach quite apocalyptic proportions, marking the darkest stage on Scrooge's journey. A solitary string figure wrenches the heart; chimes now sound desolate and cold; before finally the now violent choir and orchestra add a sense of dreadful reckoning.
And of course, out of the darkness comes the light, the wonderfully redemptive climax of I'm Still Here and Ride on My Good Man showing the newly redeemed Scrooge in all his glory. Silvestri's theme gets a terrifically punchy and cathartic sense of resolution as the Victorian penny-pincher changes his path in life, all sleigh-bells, brass fanfares and festive cheer. The score is eventually rounded off with a song adaptation of Silvestri's theme by Andrea Bocelli entitled God Bless Us Everyone, a rousing and stout-hearted way to finish.
A Christmas Carol is one of Alan Silvestri's most purely satisfying scores, a multi-faceted listening experience that is able to tell Charles Dickens' story on its terms brilliantly. It samples all that is great about the composer – witty instrumental ensembles, heartfelt writing for choir, superb action music – into a brilliant package that is sure to go down as one of the classic Yuletide film scores. It's a graceful, intelligent, beautiful and occasionally scary work that marks a high point between the composer and director Robert Zemeckis. Long may it continue – and God bless us, everyone!
Frustratingly, Silvestri's soundtrack score is only available as a download album, an increasingly common practice for Disney music releases. The following links will take you to the download album on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.