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Soundtrack Review: James Newton Howard – Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

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(SPOILER ALERT: In order to sufficiently analyze the application of themes and the grounding narrative, this review contains major plot-details and -reveals for the movie ‘Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them’)

Fifteen years ago, cinema brought us the first cinematic adaptation of British authors J.K. Rowling best-selling series of fantasy novels centering around a young wizard. ‘Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone’ was a smash-hit with critics and audiences alike and captured an entire generation, which followed the hero for 7 more films. The last one ‘Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Pt. 2’ hit theaters in 2011 and it seemed, as though audiences had to finally say goodbye to Harry and his friends.

Or so they thought. In 2014 it was revealed that J.K. Rowling and Warner were working on an expansion of the Potter-World in the form of ‘Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them’ which would deal with magizoolist Newt Scamander on his travels around the world in the 1920’s in order to write his book, which will become a much-needed text for every new Hogwarts student, including Harry Potter himself.

Planned as a trilogy, Rowling confirmed in fall of 2016 that the series will actually grow to consist of 5 movies. The first one hit theaters in late November and is directed by David Yates, who already helmed the last four Potter movies and is also set to direct the remaining 4 ‘Fantastic Beasts’ films.

Fantastic Composers but How to Find the Right One

Considering the consistent quality of the scores for the eight original movies, where even the weak scores are still a joy to behold in their own rights, the film music community was guessing wildly who would be attached to this all-new series.

Will Yates bring Alexandre Desplat back, with whom he worked on the last two installments? Will the original composer and father of the famous “Hedwig’s Theme”, John Williams, have his glorious return to the franchise? Or will a new composer get his shot and if so, who will it be?

This question was answered in early April when James Newton Howard was announced. The community was generally pleased and excited, since Howard wrote some of his greatest works for fantasy epics: Atlantis (2001), Dinosaur (2001), Peter Pan (2003), King Kong (2005), The Last Airbender (2010), Maleficent (2014), this man knew how to bring whimsical worlds to life.

Yet, some where skeptical and held their expectations back. Last few years, Howard had been pretty sparse on his fantasy-side. His ‘Hunger Games’- and ‘Huntsman’-series had their highlights, but were filled with filler- and suspense-tracks and synth-heavy action music. In addition to that, the four Potter-scores for the entries directed by David Yates may have been strong on their own, but made up the weaker half of the series. Both, Nicholas Hooper and Alexandre Desplat only introduced very few new themes while also keeping the Williams-references to a minimum. The orchestrations were very restrained as well which didn’t lead to the most exciting listening experiences.

So naturally, there was a slight fear, that the already restrained as-of-late Howard would not be pushed enough by Yates to deliver the rousing, orchestral power-horse the fans wanted.

A spin-off done right with a truly inspired James Newton Howard

Fortunately, though, ‘Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them’ proved every reserved expectation wrong.

The film itself is a surprisingly great spin-off. Instead of making a blatant cash grab, Warner did the impossible and brought their profitable brand back to life without forgetting to tell a good story.

Eddie Redmayne shines as Newt Scamander, Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol showcase a noteworthy deal of chemistry as the Goldstein sister while Dan Fogler stands out as the secret star of the film, combining both the comic-relief and the emotional anchor of the film into one loveable performance of the No-Maj (aka Muggle; Non-Wizard) Jacob.

These characters are thrown into a memorable adventure which doesn’t rely on fan-service and instead provides the audience with an encapsulating new, yet somehow familiar, world. Newt’s quest of recapturing his escaped creatures has the heart and fun while a surprisingly dark and deep subplot, harking back to the Witch-trials of old, keeps the stakes high.

When listening to the soundtrack, it’s clear, from the first note on, that James Newton Howard was truly inspired by the material. And he better was, because, as he told, he had to undergo quite a casting process to get this gig. According to him, “everyone but John [Williams] wanted to do this film!” and so one can expect Warner to have been quite picky. They are said to have demanded a set of demos by every contender which were to cover the broad range of emotions a film like this needed. Howard had to write something funny, romantic, epic, scary and a whole lot of adjectives more.

This investment and the statement that he “felt like a 10-year-old when accepted” is enough to raise expectations: If a composer wants to tackle a project this badly, the final result just has to magnificent!

A magnificent result

Needless to say, that it is.

Howard’s biggest goal was to create new themes for this new tale. Just as Rowling and Yates did with the film, Howard wanted to keep the references to the original scores to the barest minimum and thus knew, that he had to deliver something big. “Hedwig’s Theme” is, next to “He’s A Pirate” and the various Middle-Earth-themes one of the most well-known melodies of post-2000 cinema and has become the calling card of an entire generation. To ditch it for the new series in the same cinematic universe is a risky move and would absolutely need a worthy replacement.

This replacement comes in the form of a new main theme which is everything a fan of Harry Potter, James Newton Howard, or film music in general, could hope for. Sadly, though, it is only present in the first 30 minutes of the film. But first things first: “Hedwig’s Theme” appears three times in the film, from which two have made it onto the album. Aside from the Warner-Logo, though, there is no real connection. It’s just there to be there and calm down the fans. A really nice little nod, though, is the inclusion of the mysterious string figure Williams sometimes used in his first two films (most prominently in “Chamber Of Secrets”, though) in The Demiguise And The Occamy, albeit also with no real reason. Still cool, though!

The score opens, naturally, with the Main Titles, kicking off with the brief obligatory statement of Williams’ iconic melody until the film’s title card appears, accompanied by a celestial, beautiful but simple little motif performed by high strings, choir, and glockenspiel.

This motif will reappear a few times in the film, representing the beasts in its lighter variations (Billywig, The Demiguise And The Lollipop) and major-baddie Grindelwald in the darker minor-key variations, most notably in a small section in the finale when Grindelwald is revealed to have been imposing as MACUSA Head-Auror Parcival Graves (Colin Farrell) the whole time. This part, however, is cut from the CD and would appear around the first few minutes of Relieve Him Of His Wand/Newt Releases The Thunderbird/Jacob’s Farewell.

Having a motif that is used for two things that stand in no correlation to each other, shows what might disappoint a few listeners: The lack of leitmotific writing.

One needs to be aware, that Howard has always been a strongly thematic composer, but rarely into leitmotifs, which might sound contradictory at first.

Scores like ‘Peter Pan’ or ‘Maleficent’ were full to the brim with amazing themes that were developed throughout, yet the difference is, that those themes were never strictly tied to specific characters. There is no clear theme for Peter, none for Hook and none for Wendy. There may be some tendencies, but he never wrote something as much in the vein of Wagner as Howard Shore’s Middle-Earth-saga, where it is entirely clear that each theme represents one thing and one thing only.

Regarding ‘The Last Airbender’ Howard even stated in an interview that he didn’t approach this movie with leitmotifs, but rather have the themes be connected to emotions, situations, and circumstances.

When looking at ‘Fantastic Beasts’ it’s clear, that Howard has been true to this style. So, if one motif appears in a shot of a beast strolling through New York in one scene and then in another shot of Grindelwald grinning into the camera, it should not be a big problem, because this motif has not been introduced in a way that would suggest, that it is simply “Grindelwald’s Theme”.

However, this does not mean, that there are no character themes at all. Like ‘King Kong’ or ‘Maleficent’, ‘Fantastic Beasts’ is some kind of “semi-leitmotific”, featuring a small handful of character related themes and a whole lot of more ambiguous themes.

The last minute of Main Titles actually offers the first of these character themes: A joyful, upbeat, hopelessly optimistic and catchy string ostinato representing Newt and his equally infectious persona. It is great and makes few returns during the rest of the score, all tied to Newt (the best return would be the one in the opening of Inside A Case, underlining in its even more uplifting variation how Newt only feels comfortable when being around his animals). A small secondary motif, a heroic fanfare for strings and brass, seems to represent the magical case and its inhabitants (the Thunderbird Frank in particular) and is always weaved organically into Newt’s string theme.

A new iconic main theme – that’s barely present in the film

The second track (after a curious ‘King Kong’-quote) introduces us, to what Howard reportedly intents to be the new overall main theme: The “Umbrella-Theme of the series as a whole”.

It is a gorgeous melody, debuting performed by a cooing boys-choir. The underlying harp glissandi and wave-like string figures really bring home the quintessential Potter-feel that Williams created, without ending up only as a pale imitation. Just like Patrick Doyle, with his slight alteration of “Hedwig’s Theme” for the ‘Goblet of Fire’-prologue, James Newton Howard manages to make his own mark on the familiar world, but goes even further than his predecessors and creates a whole new musical identity for this new chapter of the wizarding world. It is pure JNH and only a nod to Williams.

This theme will return a few times in the next couple of tracks, cementing the notion, that it can hold its own against Hedwig’s Theme. Sadly, though, it only returns in the next couple of tracks and is then dropped until three minutes into the end credits.

Whoever is responsible for this decision, has made a serious miscalculation. It was already inept when the last four Potter films barely had Hedwig’s Theme in them, but this is even worse. At least Hedwig’s Theme already found its way into the audience’s minds. The series had its calling card. Not so much ‘Fantastic Beasts’. As mentioned above, Howard really had to fight, to let the producers allow him to use Hedwig’s Theme as little as possible due to its pop-cultural influence.

The series not only needs a new, worthy, main theme, that theme also has to be given the chance to connect with the audience. Howard masterfully managed the first obstacle by providing the viewers with one of the best melodies of his entire career and probably the best one he has done in recent years – but then goes on to use it only four to five times in the entire movie. All of them in the first 20 minutes. Only one of these statements is effortlessly notable in the film, marking the glorious establishing shot of MACUSA’s foyer (Tina Takes Newt In/Macusa Headquarters). The other moments where the Umbrella Theme appears are still amazing, but the general audience will most likely notice any of them.

This should have been the musical accompaniment to the films title card after the token Hedwig-reference and the smashing start of the end credits.

So many fantastic melodies

On a more positive note: This is the biggest, and probably the only misstep. While you will definitely want more of that theme (and probably wait for the whole first-listen of the album for it to reappear at some point) Howard still gives you a load of other themes to savor and the second track already has one for you:

A catchy, comedic, slightly slap-sticky melody representing the poor No-Maj Jacob, who gets sucked into Newt’s adventures without knowing what’s going on. It gets a few lovely statements during There Are Witches Among Us/The Bank/The Niffler as wacky highjinks ensue.

Jacob also gets a secondary theme, a Randy Newman-esque rag, introduced in the film after the Erumpent-sequence (though that section is cut from the CD). Curiously, though, this rag seems to replace Jacob’s original theme, since the latter is almost entirely absent from the rest of the score, despite some brief nods incorporated into the rag-statements (Jacob’s Farewell; Jacob’s Bakery).

Those are the most important themes of the first half with a new set of themes coming to light in the second.

Just like Jacob, Newt receives a secondary musical characterization, which makes its debut on the album during the last section of Tina And Newt Trial/Let’s Get The Good Stuff Out/You’re One Of Us Now/Swooping Evil: a triumphant, swashbuckling fanfare for Newt’s newly found heroic side. It is glorious and an unexpected throwback to early 2000’s JNH, most notably ‘Treasure Planet’. In the film, however, this theme gets one earlier, very subtle, statement, when Newt steps out of his case into the court of MACUSA.

A Close Friend, on the other hand, brings tears to our eyes with a beautiful love/friendship theme. It is so great and so prominent during the last handful of tracks, that, if you would only listen to those, you might be tempted to think that this is the main theme of the film since the actual one is gone by now. It is gorgeous and gets some amazing variations, including the one stand-out musical moment of the film.

Aside from those major themes, Howard sprinkled a few minor motifs throughout the score. There are two themes for the character of Credence, who is later revealed to be the destructive Obscurus. One is a slow-burning string movement, often underpinned by electronic ticking (Credence Hands Out Leaflets, Leaflets And Soup, Newt Talks To Credence) while the other one is a rising, suspenseful ostinato that is oddly similar to Charlie Clouser’s main theme from ‘Saw’ (The Obscurus/Rooftop ChaseHe’s Listening To You TinaIn The Cells). To be frank, the villain material is a bit weak, but it is still used astoundingly well and its growth matches the development of the character on screen.

Then there are many little details for the various magical creatures. The cute Niffler (whose plushy-replicas will probably dominate the merchandise shelves for the rest of eternity) gets a mickey-mouse-y little motif for his two scenes and Newt’s Bowtruckle has a short calling card, too, while the ape-like Demiguise may not have his own theme, but is instead represented by a distinct, far-eastern soundscape, showcasing its jungle-y origins.

A musical highlight: The Erumpent

An especially well-crafted scene, music-wise, is The Erumpent.

Newt finds this rhinoceros-like beast in Central Park and tries to lure him back into his case via a mating ritual. Of course, everything goes swimmingly for everyone involved and the clumsy creature chases poor Jacob instead.

The move of genius by Howard is, how he still gave this sequence a sense of awe. Considering the bulky stature of the beast, the silly, awkward movements performed by Redmayne and the overall weird sexual undertones, this could easily have been an embarrassing moment, strange noises and sensual shaking of posterior body regions included.

A lesser composer probably would have just thrown in a bit of comedy-music and call it a day, causing Redmayne to regret this movie even more than ‘Jupiter Ascending’. But fortunately for Redmayne, Howard was there.

The composer does address the humorous situation with an off-beat rhythm, flutes, and guitar (though replaced in the film with a more piano-heavy, but similar piece, based on the same melody) but he doesn’t over-do it.

It comes to the moment where the Erumpent decides that it wants to mate Jacob rather than Newt and this is where it could really have gone downhill. Thankfully, Howard chose to score this moment with a rousing waltz-variation of the Erumpent’s motif. It fits the comedic tone, but without forgetting, that this isn’t a tasteless sex-joke the likes of Adam Sandler would do, but just an animal chasing the love of his moment in naive happiness.

The piece is tongue-in-cheek, yet still beautiful and uplifting. To prevent falling into complete silliness, there is a bit of classic Howard-action as you would find it in the dinosaur chases from ‘King Kong’ and ‘Dinosaur’, as well.

The big Thunderbird moment

The last magical beast to get – or better the big moment – is the Thunderbird.

The 12-minute behemoth Relieve Him Of His Wand/Newt Releases The Thunderbird/Jacob’s Farewell contains exactly that, while simultaneous being the musical highlight of the entire film and having probably the best sense of narrative.

It starts slow, with a suspenseful string-lead soundscape (which also appeared during similar scenes earlier in this score), building to a brief burst of action. After 3 minutes, though, the darkness is gone and the listener is presented with about 9 minutes of Howard-magnificence of its best.

A quick reprisal of the opening bars from Inside The Case move into a short statement of Newt’s Theme, who then lets lose the Thunderbird in order to have it summon a rain, which will, with help from another creature’s essence, erase all the memories of the No-Maj’s who witnessed the violent, magical showdown.

As the rain starts, so does a beautiful rendition of the love theme. We watch the MACUSA restoring order in the streets of New York and the music just gets bigger and bolder, with ever-moving strings, an opening piano and uplifting brass and choir, accompanied by tiny woodwind-figures. The first few notes of that theme might be similar to Danny Elfman’s ‘Edward Scissorhands’ but the full theme and its statement in that track, are pure Howard, calling back to the equally emotional finale of ‘Lady In The Water’. It’s grand, colossal, epic!

Around the 8-minute mark, the music gets a bit calmer again, without losing any of its gravitas. The rain-montage may be over, but the finale isn’t. There is still Jacob’s Farewell, because, since he’s also a No-Maj, Jacob has to lose his memory as well.

The script makes a great move by making this his decision. The MACUSA gives the order, but Queenie (who has grown quite fond of the muggle) tries to work around it which leads to Jacob himself realizing that this is for the best and persuading his friends of it. In typical Howard-fashion, the orchestra just mercilessly breaks your heart during this sequence. The somber string and piano melody is wonderful (though only slightly connected to Jacob’s Theme) and after all is done, his Rag-Theme returns, with a bitter-sweetness to it.

Too many highlights not to get the Deluxe Edition

Next to all these big moments, there are many highlights found in almost every track. Tina And Newt Trial/Let’s Get The Good Stuff Out/You’re One Of Us Now has some great tragic string work in its middle before going into wonderfully complex action music, which can also be found in The Demiguise And The Occamy and The Obscurus/Rooftop Chase … it’s the kind of orchestral action we wanted from Howard in the last few years: It is sophisticated, deep and thematic.

The soundscape overall is reason enough to get this album. The synths are kept to a minimum and the orchestra is in the focus throughout, full to the brim with little details, like a woodwind-movement here and a brass-line there. Howard has spent around 7 months on this project and the orchestrations alone prove this.

Then there is the swing aspect of it all. The film takes place in the late 20’s and Howard (who has already shown a slight affection for jazz in ‘King Kong’) gleefully addresses this setting. The first venture into the MACUSA headquarters, Jacob’s Rag, the muted trumpets in Gnarlak’s Theme … it is all good stuff and never too much to distract from the really important moments! The source song Blind Pig by Mario Grigorov and sung by Emmi is cool as well!

fantastic_beasts_soundtrack_review_jamesnewtonhoward
Make sure to have a look at the 2 CD-Deluxe Edition of James Newton Howard’s ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’ soundtrack.

The score is released by WaterTower in two variants: a single disc with about 76 minutes of music and a deluxe edition with a bonus disc containing 9 extra tracks, giving the customer the option to get almost 100 minutes of JNH-mastery.

In all honesty: Whoever doesn’t take this opportunity has a serious problem.

The bonus disc has, admittedly, a lot of what some might disregard as “filler music”, but these tracks actually feature subtle little cameos of themes and if placed in the right order during the standard disc, they will improve the already-magnificent flow of the score. The whole finale gets a stronger sense of narrative, showcasing the tragic fall of Credence far better than the two cues from the standard album did. The melancholic variation of the Obscurus-Ostinato in He’s Listening To You Tina really hits home now (Necessary Track order: I’m Not Your Ma; The Obscurus/Rooftop Chase; Newt Talks To Credence; He’s Listening To You Tina; Relieve Him Of His Wand/Newt Releases The Thunderbird/Jacob’s Farewell).

The real reason to get the bonus disc are the two theme suites, though. Kowalski Rag is a great representation of Jacob’s Theme full of wonderfully catchy statements, once more raising the question while it was not in the film as much (the Erumpent-chase would have been even better with it!), before closing with the Rag Theme. In 5 minutes, Howard presents Jacob’s whole character to the listener. Be it his physical clumsiness, his dormant heroic side or just the innocent, wide-eyed sweetness he brings to the movie, wishfully witnessing the magic around him.

Last but not least, there is the best track of the whole project: A Man And His Beasts. This is the reason, why you will accept the absence of the Main Theme from the finished film because you still get a whole suite dedicated to it. Majestic and haunting or celestial and twinkly, it is all there, while also featuring a little bridge with a new motif, not heard in the rest of the score.

And just when you thought you had heard it all, Howard goes totally nuts and has the theme performed by a wild ragtime-ensemble! It’s glorious! You won’t be able to hold your feet still, promise!

A masterpiece with endless opportunities

So all in all, we have a masterpiece in front of us. It has astoundingly complex orchestral writing and, most importantly, mindblowing themes! The only problem is just, that this film’s best theme is abandoned so early on, thus leading to the film feeling like it lacks a true main theme.

This might sound worse than it is, simply because it is Harry Potter we are talking about and a strong new identity is expected. Howard is already attached to the second installment and will hopefully develop his themes, with extra focus on that particular one, at least he says he wants to [you can watch an extensive interview where Howard elaborates on the different themes here]. Hope also goes out to him scoring the remaining three films as well, to create a whole new musical saga, with the themes composed for this entry and new ones for the next, because all of the themes are incredible and deserve more exploration.

In modern cinema, it has become the exception, to come out of a movie humming musical themes. They are not gone for good, but rare and like Newt with his beats, James Newt(on) Howard outdid himself to prove the world the importance of themes. The movie was good, but Howard’s music added a whole new layer of investment and the themes were a big part of that.

One goes to the cinema these days, hoping to be able to remember at least something of the score. You will listen to ‘Fantastic Beasts’ and not know which theme to whistle first. Will it be the main theme? If so, the bold, epic variation or the more mischievous one? Will it be one of Kowalski’s themes? Will it be Newt’s optimistic ostinato? Or his swashbuckling fanfare? Or will you look at your significant other and hum the love theme to her? Or just dance to the jazzy craziness?

The opportunities are endless!

Since the film’s release in late autumn, maybe even the various awards will finally recognize Howard’s mastery of his craft. Not very likely, but not impossible either. He does deserve it.

Because “Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them” is simply that: Fantastic.

James Newton Howard’s soundtrack for ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’ is available now via WaterTower Music in all digital stores (including Vinyl).

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Long-time film music enthusiast, living and studying in Bremen, Germany.

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