A box office hit in its native Australia, poignant rites-of-passage drama Paper Planes marks Babe composer Nigel Westlake's return to the world of film scoring. Antipodean stars Sam Worthington and David Wenham feature in this uplifting story of young aeroplane enthusiast Dylan's (Ed Oxenbould) desire to enter the World Paper Plane Championships in Japan, the film loosely based on an episode of documentary series "Australian Stories". Although the film is primarily intended as a heartwarming experience, infused with the wonder of flight, it also features moving undertones as Dylan attempts to come to terms with the death of his mother in a car accident. It's this latter aspect of the narrative that seems to have spoken to Westlake: in 2008, his son was tragically killed in a road rage incident, precipitating his withdrawal from the film scoring scene. However, he's now returned to the fold with a beautifully intimate work that's clearly very personal to him. Alive with a sense of wonder and beauty and vigorously performed by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Paper Planes is a soundtrack resplendent in the sound of Bronze Age masters such as John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner and Alan Silvestri, all of whom helped define the joyous sound of family film scores throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
As soon as the Paper Planes score begins, memories of the scores from these wonderful composers are guaranteed to come flooding back. It's also a reminder of Westlake's own musical voice as heard in the likes of the Babe films and Miss Potter. Tinkling glockenspiel and hushed, reverent woodwinds give way to a thrillingly brassy main theme in opening track "Paper Planes": the strings are energetic, the orchestra darts around with a palpable sense of energy and there's a resonant sense of love. The theme weaves its way through the score but it's time for a delightfully tender woodwind piece to take over in "Ready to Launch", which has an almost Celtic air in places. This then fuses with the noble, sturdy brass, launching into another piece celebrating the wonder of flight.
The anticipatory woodwinds are back at the start of "Flight Research", the tinkling xylophones and chimes lending a featherweight sense of innocence. Westlake's writing is accomplished enough to take the listener on a coherent journey throughout each track: a brief injection of timpani and snares lends a militaristic, adventurous air to Dylan's story; a beefy brass ostinato raises the adrenaline, before the woodwinds bring everything down to a more personal level. This intelligent, multi-faceted approach with the orchestra is one of the many ways in which Westlake honours his legendary musical predecessors like John Williams. It's also humorous, as the brief jazzy interlude heard in "My Journey Starts Here" makes clear. The latter is also notable for its thrillingly adventurous second half, as the main theme reaches soaringly exciting proportions. "Dog Fight" begins and ends as a nostalgic throwback to another composer, Ron Goodwin and his wartime scores, bookending a complex, exciting assault from the Melbourne Symphony. "A Bird That Cannot Fly" dials everything down with a heartbreakingly beautiful woodwind and harp melody, one that captures the story's more tragic dimensions. "Pavane" is similarly poignant, a graceful piano solo performed by Michael Kieran Harvey giving way to solo violin, underlined with a sense of hope and optimism. "Take Your Positions" bubbles away tentatively before rhythmic strings and shakuhachi wood flute (making its first appearance in the score) lend a forthright sense of purpose.
The graceful "Do Emus Dream of Flying?" reinstates the more lyrical material, all the while building a sense of adventurous spirit through the noble horns. "The Final Challenge" builds into a surprisingly imposing piece of brassy action, evokes more memories of Goodwin's classic 1960s scores, in-between featuring plenty of sprightly interaction between the strings and woodwinds. "Is There a Movie on this Flight?" reinstates the solo piano and wavering violin from the earlier "Pavane", this time embellished with the Celtic-sounding tones of Hannah Coleman's recorder.
"Tokyo By Night" is a bustling piece of brassy action music before the score's lengthiest track, "The Competition", runs the gamut of emotions from anxious anticipation to adrenaline-fuelled excitement and, finally, rapturous joy. The track is also embellished with the thunderous sound of Japanese Taiko drums and again the Shakuhachi, adding a sense of geographical specificity whilst also amplifying the power of the music. The resonant piano chords and strings partway through meanwhile are pure James Horner. The score then resolves itself with the emotionally cathartic "For as Long as It Takes" before the album proper is wrapped up with song "Learn to Live", performed by artist Lior.
There aren't enough good things to say about a score like Paper Planes. It's incredibly energising and satisfying to see a composer like Nigel Westlake honouring the richly entertaining sound of beloved family film scores, but at the same time this is clearly no mere pastiche but a personal, deeply felt piece of work. Criss-crossed by resonant thematic ideas and beautifully performed by the Melbourne Symphony, Paper Planes proves that sometimes the old ways are the best. It's set to be one of the film score highlights of 2015. At the current time this album is not available from Amazon, but the CD can be found at the ABC Shop, the album can be downloaded from iTunes or streamed from Spotify.