Epic Mickey 2 -The Power of Two- Original Game Score
Epic Mickey 2 -The Power of Two- Original Game Score
Walt Disney Records
November 19, 2012
Buy at Amazon
The first Epic Mickey was one of those games where the concept was more exciting than the execution. In a sense, the game’s set up — goody two-shoes Mickey travels into a cartoon underworld — was derivative and certainly influenced by the zeitgeist of the early 2000s. Heroes can’t just be carefree protectors of the world anymore, but require backstories and moral conflicts to agonise about. Still, the prospect of a surreal, twisted take on Disney’s most perpetually optimistic hero promised to deliver a fascinating spin on this popular character. The fact that the game was designed by industry legend Warren Spector (System Shock, Deus Ex) was delicious icing on the cake. However, the final result, despite all the potential inherent in Epic Mickey‘s premise, was less ambitious than what many had hoped for, leading to good rather than great reviews. Still, the game managed to sell close to three million copies and a sequel was quickly put into production. Two years later, Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two was released in time for the lucrative Christmas season. However, critical reception was significantly more hostile this time, with reviewers singling out crippling gameplay flaws and the game’s much more stereotypically cheery atmosphere as reasons for their disappointment.
For Epic Mickey, composer Jim Dooley had faced the formidable challenge of giving the classic upbeat sound of Mickey cartoons a facelift to match the game’s gloomy world. The result played somewhat like Danny Elfman-lite by way of Hans Zimmer — both connotations not surprising, considering Dooley’s long-standing collaboration with Zimmer and Elfman’s work on playfully morbid films like Nightmare Before Christmas that played like close cousins to Epic Mickey‘s mix of moods. Dooley returned for the sequel and found his work right at the centre of the game’s marketing campaign, as the game’s creators (including Dooley) touted Epic Mickey 2 as “the first video game musical”. And not only that, but according to Dooley, since “the character development of the villain […] is told through songs”, the title allegedly also marked “the first time that songs have been used to drive the narrative forward in a video game.” Such claims were bound to be met with raised eyebrows from the game score fan community — storytelling through musical numbers in video games reaches back at least as far as the iconic opera scene in 1994’s Final Fantasy VI. Still, there’s no denying that the game’s ambition to play like a Broadway musical, repeatedly underlined by Spector and Dooley, helped fan anticipation. Curious score collectors got a chance to verify Dooley’s claims in December 2012 when the game’s score was released both as a physical album and across digital music retailers.
The fact that Epic Mickey 2 is a less grim and more traditionally cartoony game than its predecessor is reflected in its music, particularly at the album’s start. While the more child-friendly tone and simple characters might make the game itself less interesting, it actually works well for its music. Epic Mickey’s soundtrack felt underequipped to adequately translate the game’s weighty issues of guilt, jealousy and atonement into music, painting mostly with broad and simplifying brushstrokes. In marked contrast to this, Epic Mickey 2 is relieved of the burden to be oh-so-deep and serious, and has some space to simply have fun. The music rarely lets you forget that it’s based on a cartoon property — much of it underpinned by jaunty and quite pronounced rhythms that give the score a traipsing charm. However, there’s no reason to worry that the score has gone from (supposedly) epic to childish fluff — at least not for most of the time. Whereas the use of the orchestra on Epic Mickey was not particularly distinguished, Dooley shows a much better grasp of how to use the full ensemble and its various solo instruments on tge sequel. His generally lusher compositions can rely on more detailed orchestrations that have two beneficial effects: when the music’s bright, it usually doesn’t feel cloying, as its upbeat nature is draped in colourful and mature instrumentations. Even more importantly, once Epic Mickey 2 recalls its predecessor’s glumness, the album’s subdued cues still possess a melodicism that prevents them from playing like mere underscore.
Epic Mickey 2‘s more encouraging and lyrical nature announces itself right at the start of the album with “Yen Sid’s Lab”, which introduces a graceful melody on flute and passes it around to the horns and bassoons, before the composition segues into a buoyant march. A menacing brass outburst pushes the march into more serious territory and after the intrusion of more crisis moments, “Yen Sid’s Lab” finishes with a massive climax that gives the brass and cymbals a good workout. While Epic Mickey sometimes felt overwrought in its fortissimo passages, the fluent and varied development of a richly orchestrated track like “Yen Sid’s Lab” makes its mighty conclusion feel natural and earned. “Opening” continues the turbulent mood and now brings the woodwinds to the fore. It’s a composition that’s just strong as “Yen Sid’s Lab”, or at least that’s until the much ballyhooed musical elements kick in (more on those later). A still more happy-go-lucky composition is “Disney Gulch”, which is another jolly march that’s given some extra colour and playfulness through its banjo backing. Again, Dooley makes full use of the orchestra’s sections and passes the lead melody from one instrument to the next. “Disney Gulch” and “Opening” are also worth mentioning for being two of the few tracks that reprise Mickey’s theme established in Epic Mickey.
Early on though, Epic Mickey 2 also introduces its more shadowy side, which will eventually come to dominate the album in its second half. As mentioned though, these hushed compositions possess enough live and melodicism to hold listeners’ attention, translating the colourful nature of “Yen Sid’s Lab” and “Opening” into more toned down cues that never turn dreary. They also skilfully manage to remain sufficiently serious and still maintain their cartoon-like nature that ties together the whole album, mainly due to Dooley’s intelligent use of solo woodwinds on tracks like “Prescott and the Pumps” and “Intro to Blot Alley”. Dooley lets various solo woodwinds lead the way on these charming Gothic-light cues, as the instruments are able to express a cautious, unobtrusive mood that still rewards closer listening because of their inherently melodic nature. “Mean Street” first introduces Epic Mickey 2‘s more plaintive streak and sets the bar quite high, made more attractive through the cue’s original use of banjo and accordion and its ability to nicely build into a tense finale. The cello rhythms on similar tracks “Meet Daisy” and “Floatyard” can feel a little heavy-handed, but this minor inconvenience is quickly forgotten when the next lovely woodwind solo comes around the corner. Like its predecessor, the title introduces darkness into the world of an always merry comic icon, but its attempts feel less forced this time.
The darker undertones in these quietly whimsical compositions are amplified towards the album’s end when Dooley cranks up the tension and leads the album’s Gothic elements into more aggressive waters in preparation for the game’s climax. Around the album’s halfway point, “Blot Dragon” bursts onto the scene with rhythmic brass attacks, cello ostinato rhythms and building brass chords that showcase Dooley’s background in Remote Control Productions. Thankfully, on soundtracks like Jak and Dexter: The Lost Frontier and inFamous 2, Dooley has shown himself to be capable of handling RC stylings in a more intelligent way than many of Zimmer’s other mentees. The simple but grand melodies of “Blot Dragon” are then appropriately imposing when set against the track’s persistently clanging percussive backdrop. The RC trademark chopping cello and brass rhythms that dominate most of “Prescott’s Machine” and “Ventureland Combat”, together with rather basic French horn and trombone overlays, are not among Epic Mickey 2‘s most interesting moments, but these cues are still solid action tracks whose inky atmosphere develops organically out of the album’s quieter moments. Better yet are “Dioramas” and “The Mad Doctor’s Attic”, which mix in a fairground organ that works surprisingly well with the commanding Gothic outbursts surrounding it. This is particularly the case on the latter, whose somewhat stereotypical orchestral bombast is regularly and harshly interrupted by the organ, giving the music a slightly demented edge that is just what the track needs to successfully function as the game’s final action track.
In short then: while Epic Mickey 2 is not afraid to embrace its roots as a cartoon more so than Epic Mickey, this is anything but an issue for the majority of the album, as Dooley mostly handles the music’s more jocund nature in moderation and through sufficiently sophisticated orchestrations. Where the sequel goes astray is during those portions off the album where this balance is thrown off-kilter and the music goes from jaunty to at worst wacky and knowingly cheesy. The less concerning symptoms of this tendency are a few short tracks on the album’s first half like “Building A Building” and “Music Land”, both hommages to a bygone era of cartoon scoring that still possess a nostalgic charm. In “Floats”, the childish fairground organ over bouncy orchestral rhythms is another matter, as the organ’s sometimes kazoo-like timbre gets grating pretty soon. The honking sounds and chirping, cutesy voices à la Rayman Origins on “Autotopia Exploration” pose a similar problem, as they put a sticky coat of sugar on a cue that also feels drawn out and repetitive due to its thin material.
However, Epic Mickey 2‘s biggest problem is unfortunately its most publicised component: the songs, aspiring to be Broadway-worthy material. Sadly, the title misses that aim by a country mile, for a number of reasons. Firstly, don’t expect any dynamic ensemble numbers — pretty much the entirety of all sung material is performed by the Mad Doctor, the game’s antagonist. This issue is compounded by the Mad Doctor’s utterly uninteresting and one-dimensional character. He’s the kind of early cartoon villain who rolls his “R”s, twirls his moustache, and in his spare time ties damsels in distress to railway tracks. In other words, you will have encountered this kind of bad guy already so many times that yet another appearance will only be obnoxious. During his first showing on “Opening”, the Mad Doctor’s vaudevillainesque wackyness is chuckle-worthy, and there’s no doubt that his voice actor relishes every single line and performs with absolute gusto. But when the Mad Doctor returns on “I’m Falling Apart”, “The Mad Doctor Isn’t Mad” and “The Fall of Prescott”, he starts to feel like a one-note joke that has long since stopped being funny. According to Dooley, the Mad Doctor was conceived as a “great con man”, but he’s actually no more than an uninteresting goofball.
There’s no doubt that the Mad Doctor’s existence as a walking cliché is a conscious decision, a resurrection of 1920s and 1930s cartoon villainy hoping to find a place in a game that heavily deals in Disney nostalgia. But while Dooley usually manages to deploy and update musical Disneyisms throughout Epic Mickey 2 with aplomb, the Mad Doctor remains a simple quote that’s past its use-by date. It doesn’t help that the orchestral backing of the Mad Doctor’s songs devolves into barebones accompaniment that’s far less attractive than the orchestral writing on many other album tracks. The last element that seals the fate of these songs are the lyrics, which are rarely witty, but instead simple chunks of exposition that let the Mad Doctor explain his motivations and devious plans in the most straightforward manner. Again, the Mad Doctor is not a character built on psychological insight and subtlety, but that doesn’t make lines like “I understand now: Respect does not come from power. It comes from courage! And love!” from “That’s What Heroes Do” any less cringingly in-your-face. On a soundtrack that often features music of considerable subtlety and maturity, these hammy interludes stand out like a sore thumb. Speaking of which: the closing track “A Hero’s 2nd Chance” is a jarring change of pace and turns fragments of the game’s spoken dialogue into samples mixed over club beats. Even if it was meant just as a fun bonus track, it feels terribly forced, out of place, and way too long.
In several ways, Epic Mickey 2‘s score improves on its predecessor and is a worthy entry into the Disney canon. Dooley fills the majority of the album with colourful and melodically strong cues that make good use of the orchestra’s capacities, generating a sound that is lusher and more involving than Epic Mickey‘s various shades of grey. Bold and dramatic pieces like “Yen Sid’s Lab” go hand in hand with cheery compositions like “Disney Gulch” and the hushed woodwind soli on cues such as “Floatyard” and “Mean Street”, all of these tracks well developed and fully fledged. The score’s sojourns into darker territory are charmingly whimsical, but also convincingly turn into statements of Gothic-meets-Hollywood bombast. Epic Mickey 2 only falters when it gives in to cartoonish silliness, and unfortunately it does so in a major way through the game’s much-promoted songs, which are an unwelcome throwback to 1930s comic clichés of mad doctors and their dastardly plans. In the end, Epic Mickey 2 is certainly no Broadway musical, but it is a charming work whose sophistication is only occasionally marred by some hammy interludes.
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by Simon Elchlepp. Last modified on August 1, 2012.