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Raya and the Last Dragon
  • Composed by James Newton Howard
  • Disney / 70m

500 years after dragons sacrifice themselves to save humanity in the face of attack by monsters, the monsters are back – and it’s up to young warrior Raya to track down the last surviving dragon to help save everyone once more. With a fine voice cast led by Kelly Marie Tran, Raya and the Last Dragon would probably have made a fortune had it (as planned) been released in cinemas in a non-pandemic world, and I’m sure it will make a fortune anyway, though in this household it will lead to a series of explanations about why we must wait for it to be widely available on Disney+ rather than only via “premier access”.

James Newton Howard wrote three scores for Disney animations at the turn of the century – not the most memorable of Disney animations, it has to be said, made while they were in between the Alan Menken renaissance period and the next great resurgence a few years later – but his music proved to be very popular and it’s great to see him tackling one of these again.

James Newton Howard

There’s a single song which opens the album, “Lead the Way”, written and sung by Jhené Aiko. It’s a fairly generic modern pop ballad which is auto-tuned to a comical level (think of Cher’s “Turn Back Time”). It is not a musical harbinger of what is to come in the score, which it’s worth saying straight away sounds absolutely nothing like I expected it to, and doesn’t really sound like any previous Disney animation score (including Howard’s) – which is as refreshing as it is surprising.

Howard packs a lot into his “Prologue” – a bit of action material, then the big theme for Raya is revealed (briefly) for the first time, then there’s more action – along with the typical Howard thunderous orchestral bombast there’s a huge array of synths, including of various “Asian” sounds (there are somewhat more authentic actual exotic solos in the mix, too). I don’t feel as if you can truly claim to be part of the film music cognoscenti unless you can pinpoint the exact moment you first heard Jerry Goldsmith’s synth ram’s horn in Timeline; this is perhaps the first time I’ve had a similar feeling since then.

The Raya theme gets a really lovely, sweet performance in “Young Raya and Namaari” before the first of several really thunderous action tracks, “Betrayed”. Big brass, percussion (real and electronic), choir – and incidentally, said choir very much resembles that distinctive half-shrieking sound of James Horner’s Avatar, and it’s not a stretch to imagine that this score is basically exactly what a James Newton Howard score for the Avatar sequels might sound like, because it also features various new agey synths which wouldn’t sound out of place in Pandora (though to be fair they are a sound familiar to Howard fans from Waterworld in particular). That sound dominates “Into the Shipwreck” before an absolutely gorgeous bit of orchestral swooning at the end.

A very light theme is introduced in the brief “Enter the Dragon”, after some Indian-influenced comic material; this leads into more (very synthy) action in “Fleeing from Tail”, which sounds like the opposite of what used to happen to me in my nightclub-visiting, single days. The synths will be jarring to some but I think it’s a terrific piece.

“Sisu Swims” is a magical little cue, again with more than a hint of Waterworld to it – it does sound quite dated I’d have thought, but for an old fart like me it’s great. The comic material from “Enter the Dragon” comes back in the first part of “Noi and the Ongis” where it’s turned into light-hearted action music, before a whole host of ideas and textures is thrown together in some stop-start light-hearted adventure material. Much of the album’s middle portion is a bit like that – it doesn’t hold together as well as the two ends of the score, but at the same time is not without its charms.

There’s one big highlight through that section of the score, which is when a great big adventure theme emerges (frustratingly briefly) in the middle of “Spine Showdown” – a spine-tingling moment, really. That does mark the start of a long march towards the end of the score, which is full of great material. In “Running on Raindrops” we get a really spirited version of the main theme, full orchestra and choir – it’ll be a highlight for many. That “big” theme gets another airing, a fuller one this time, in the dynamite “Brothers and Sisters” which also features some touching emotional scoring.

There are some some grand, dramatic strokes painted in “The Meeting”, recalling some of the bigger moments of Maleficent (albeit with the unwelcome addition of the big foghorn blast of you-know-what). Then we get a much darker take on the Avatar-style choral music in the action-packed “Storming Fang”, which is very full-on and intense (and satisfying) – with a joyously happy ending.

Speaking of happy endings, that is the first in a sequence of four cues at the end of the album which is absolute gold. There’s beautifully-wrought drama in “The Druun Close In”, with sweeping orchestra and choir leading into a sequence where Howard cleverly moves from a sense of panic to one of grit and determination. Then in “Return” we get the result of that determination, in a strained sequence that leads into heavily-percussive action material and then a gloriously warm burst of the main theme; and finally comes “The New World”, which delivers exactly the kind of heartwarming finale you might hope for.

The score isn’t as consistently full-bodied as Maleficent but it’s probably Howard’s most entertaining since then. The album undoubtedly doesn’t present the music in its strongest light – a fair bit could be trimmed from the middle section for a better listening experience – but it’s got good themes, exciting action music and as I said at the start, it doesn’t sound like you would expect it to, which is not something you could often say about a major score by an A-list film composer as established as James Newton Howard is. It’s a very entertaining score, positive and entertaining and it brings a smile to the face.

Rating: **** | |

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  1. Momo (Reply) on Sunday 28 February, 2021 at 17:59

    They weren’t the most popular scores among critics, but damn do I miss the “Atlantis” and “Treasure Planet” James Newton Howard. I miss scores with those big nostalgia-fueling setpiece cues like “The Submarine” and “To the Spaceport” that keep popping into your head years later. Sure we’ve got the How To Train Your Dragon scores, and they’re great (the first movie’s soundtrack is like 60% musical setpieces in fact), I just wish such things were more common.

    I think Maleficent is a fine score, but it doesn’t really have one of those setpiece cues in my opinion. It’s music I enjoy listening to immensely in the moment, but can’t clearly recall after a few days.

  2. Marco Ludema (Reply) on Sunday 28 February, 2021 at 18:21

    Hm, something to put onto the backlog, perhaps. To stay with JNH for the moment, if you don’t mind me asking, what was your opinion on his score for The Crimes of Grindelwald?

    • James Southall (Reply) on Sunday 7 March, 2021 at 14:12

      Hi Marco. I think that somehow it completely passed me by. I don’t even have it! Not sure how that happened.