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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
  • Composed by James Newton Howard
  • WaterTower / 2016 / 73m

A prequel spinoff of Harry Potter, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is loosely based on a 2001 book J.K. Rowling wrote for the Comic Relief charity.  The book purports to be Potter’s copy of a textbook written by Newt Scamanger, including handwritten notes by Potter and his friends, and lives up to its name, describing various fantastic beasts that exist in that universe (and in a shock move, where to find them).  The film follows Scamanger (Eddie Redmayne) and his adventures in 1920s New York and is intended to be the first of a five-film series.

David Yates – who made the last four Potter films – is in the director’s chair.  He had hired Nicholas Hooper to score his first two Potter films and (despite rumours at the time that John Williams wanted to return to finish what he had started) Alexandre Desplat the last two; he’s gone in a different direction again this time, with the fertile musical opportunities of the fantasy world being entrusted to James Newton Howard, no stranger himself to this sort of thing.  Happily, he’s delivered a very rich and rewarding score.

James Newton Howard

James Newton Howard

It contains a large number of themes, probably the largest collection Howard’s ever given a single score, but I have to say it’s the one that appears in the opening seconds of the main title cue (and fleetingly once more later on) that leaves the biggest impression – and that’s Williams’s “Hedwig’s Theme”. After it first appeared in the trailer for the first Potter film, I couldn’t get it out of my head – and it’s still firmly planted 15 years later.  That’s no slight against James Newton Howard, it’s just an acknowledgement of the brilliance of John Williams. After a bit of fairly dark action music, this score’s main theme – for Newt – is heard for the first time. It’s a light, breezy theme which is very appealing; then comes just a hint of the most heroic of the themes, heard far more later on.

The first half of “There are Witches Amongst Us / The Bank / The Niffler” features spooky choral music, with various magical-sounding colours from chimes and celesta amongst others providing a fine counterpoint; the second half of the cue is less interesting, but does culminate in some lovely playful material that’s as sweet as anything.  You can’t help but think of Danny Elfman as the choral music from the previous cue is turned into something a bit more comically macabre in “Tina Takes Newt In / MACUSA Headquarters”, but as that melodic material takes flight from the horn section around the half-way mark we’re into pure JNH.  This segues into the score’s most unexpected feature, the slightly Gershwinesque jazz of what the composer has called “Kowalski’s Rag”, which is period authentic and on its own terms very good, but does bring some issues in terms of the album listening experience (more on that later).

If you can get over the excitement of having to choose between the two items presented in the first part of the cue’s title, “Pie or Strudel / Escaping Queenie and Tina’s Place” then you find some pleasant, if fairly routine underscore before things turn dark in “Credence Hands Out Leaflets” (not the darkest-sounding of activities) with electronic sounds prominently joining the orchestra, not entirely satisfactorily.  Fortunately things are soon back on track with the majestic, soaring opening to “Inside the Case”, a lengthy cue which trawls over a lot of ground, all of it very impressively – the opening hints of Waterworld soon give way to a reprise of the main theme, and there’s plenty of very appealing material in the nine-minute piece (and it’s a shame there couldn’t have been more extended treatments of the various little sections).

“The Erumpent” brings some interesting comedic textures at first before an opulent waltz leads into an abrupt turn into action territory, sharp and aggressive brass fighting its way against the smooth beauty of the waltz.  The darkness is more restrained in the atmospheric “In the Cells” with its choppy strings, and it gets even darker in the first part of “Tina and Newt Trial / Let’s Get the Good Stuff Out / You’re One of Us Now / Swooping Evil”, leading into a trademark JNH elegy (he does them so well) but that’s barely even started before it ends, giving way to some dreamy textures which themselves lead into some very solid action material, loud and powerful and highly impressive.

It’s back to a laid-back jazzy feel in “Gnarlak Negotiations” (but even that does explode into action at its conclusion), then we come to the gently mysterious “The Demiguise and the Occamy”, which starts with various Oriental-sounding flavours and leads up to an absolutely gorgeous melody that then leads into (guess what) more action, this time very flamboyant and expansive, with a great version of the heroic theme heard so briefly in the opening titles.

A new theme is introduced in “A Close Friend”, though it sounds very much like an old one – the sweet melody and sweeter choir clearly inspired by Danny Elfman’s Edward Scissorhands.  Regardless of its familiarity, it’s just sublime.  After the score’s lightest moment comes its darkest, with the angry-sounding “The Obscurus / Rooftop Chase”, deep brass over a growing storm of strings building up to pulse-pounding action material, perhaps the score’s finest.  Then comes the big emotional payoff, with the moving “He’s Listening to you Tina” a glorious example of Howard’s most accomplished orchestral style, serious and rewarding.

At twelve and a half minutes, “Relieve him of his Wand / Newt Releases the Thunderbird / Jacob’s Farewell” is the score’s longest cue, and it does take a while to get going, rumbling away at first with some unsettling timbres before we get virtually ten minutes of grand, sweeping music, running through many of the score’s themes, including a huge version of the Edward Scissorhands material that actually sounds a bit like Randy Newman’s variant on it in Pleasantville.  It’s back again in the first half of “Newt says Goodbye to Tina / Jacob’s Bakery” with the second half revisiting the jazz, then we get brief reprises of three of the main themes in the relatively brief end title.

On paper this sounds like a five-star masterpiece, with all the themes and the emotion it contains, but it actually doesn’t work quite as well as it might on album because of the way its constructed, mandated no doubt by the film: there’s actually barely a single, full-fledged, self-contained version of any of the themes (at least, not on the regular album – there may be on the deluxe version, but I haven’t heard that), they tend to drift in and out and get interrupted by the jazz and so on.  It isn’t exactly Mickey Mousey, but it is rather stop-start and so, for all its qualities, it remains a notch or two behind the composer’s best.  Still, I hope he gets to explore them further in the subsequent films in the series – it’s certainly off to a good musical start.

Rating: ****

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  1. RedCaio (Reply) on Saturday 10 December, 2016 at 09:53

    You must listen to the Deluxe version. The main theme (MACUSA Headquarters) gets its own extended suite in “A Man and his Beasts” an it’s great! This may just be my favorite non-John Williams Potterverse score. 🙂

  2. tiago (Reply) on Sunday 11 December, 2016 at 00:45

    Perhaps my favorite Hollywood “blockbuster” score from 2016, along with Debney’s The Jungle Book.

    You should really check it out the disc 2 of the Deluxe Edition if suites are what you’re looking for, James. There’s one based on the Witch Theme (“A Man and His Beasts”) and other based on Kowalski’s Theme (“Kowalski’s Rag). There’s also the second part of the End Credits suite (also based on the Witch Theme) and more of Credence’s material.