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The Nutcracker and the Four Realms
  • Composed by James Newton Howard
  • Disney / 67m

When a young girl receives an egg from her late mother, she does what any other young girl would do and enters a magical kingdom to find the key to open the egg.  Said magical world features Keira Knightley, Helen Mirren and Morgan Freeman, but proved to be rather less than magical to a lot of viewers.  The film was originally directed by Lasse Hallström but had extended reshoots directed by Joe Johnston; the pair share the credit.

James Newton Howard wrote one of his very best scores for Maleficent a few years ago and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one hoping for a return to that sort of sound here.  Not surprisingly, he incorporates Tchaikovsky (credited with only one name here – like Madonna, or for that matter Maradona – I don’t believe either of them was involved in the scoring process in any capacity) extensively – and not just the famous tunes (in fact, a couple of them are absent).  The celebrity musical cast includes conductor Gustavo Dudamel and pianist Lang Lang (insert my usual joke here: so good, they named him twice) along with a song from Andrea Bocelli and his son Matteo (all I will say is, make sure you brush your teeth after it).

James Newton Howard

James Newton Howard

I think it can sometimes be a bit jarring when a composer tries to interpolate another composer’s music into his score – and given that Howard doesn’t really naturally sound much like Tchaikovsky, that is the case to an extent here.  The overture – with Lang Lang’s delicate playing truly joyous – is just Tchaikovsky, then comes “Presents from Mother” which is unmistakably Howard for most of its length, presenting a sad, lilting melody for those trademark strings and winds that highlight so much of the composer’s most beautiful pieces.  Here much of the impact comes from the arrangement, in fact: over three minutes pass before a gorgeous tune that really sticks in the memory emerges.

“Drosselmeyer” with its piano, chimes and subtle choir has a magical feeling which remains in keeping with the earlier moments of the previous cue, before a sprightlier feel takes over.  The inevitable arrival of the most famous Tchaikovsky melody comes in “Clara’s New World” and it sounds as lovely as ever, and later in the cue we hear the first really unadulterated version of Howard’s beautiful main theme (actually very similar to one of the themes from Maleficent) – and then Tchaikovsky again.  I’m sure for many it will be one of the highlight tracks.

There’s a bit of thumping action in “Mouserinks” – the first on the album – and it’s typically vigorous, but the cue does have a bit of a Mickey Mousey sound at times before leading up to its rousing Tchaikovsky conclusion.  He dominates the early stages of “Just a Few Questions” before Howard’s main theme starts to be heard alongside it.  The lengthy “Sugar Plum and Clara” trawls over a lot of ground – and while it has dashes of magic it never quite comes together as you hope it might.  “The Fourth Realm” again sees Howard interpolating some famous music into his own, this time for a dash of action (following some suspense) and this continues into “The Polichinelles”, which is rambunctious if a little unfocussed.

We move back to whimsical sentiment in “Clara Finds the Key”, which is sweet and lovely for a while before some genuinely impressive and powerful action material emerges (it’s probably my favourite cue on the album).  The action continues in “The Waterfall” which is a bold, boisterous cue, and then “The Bridge Fight” which is (surprisingly) much gentler and with a lightness of touch that is very easy on the ear.  Comic lightness is to the fore again in “Clockwork Mice”, with some Howard impersonations of Tchaikovsky, before he once more balances between his own music and the classics in “The Machine Room Fight”.

The score’s big finale is “Queen Clara” which features the soaring main theme in all its glory, before a Lang Lang-arranged “Nutcracker Suite” condenses Tchaikovsky’s familiar 20-minute version down to a paltry four.  Howard makes a valiant effort throughout the score to ensure his own voice shines through alongside Tchaikovsky’s but really, it’s a battle he was never going to win and – while it contains some wonderful highlights – the music just never quite clicks together to form that great fantasy score we were all hoping for (and we know James Newton Howard is more than capable of delivering).

Rating: *** 1/2

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  1. mastadge (Reply) on Sunday 25 November, 2018 at 15:27

    I think as a whole this score is a little unfocused and, as you say, the inclusion of Tchaikovsky bits doesn’t help anything . . . BUT, from “Clara Finds the Key” through “Queen Clara” is a pretty amazing ~25-minute miniscore from Howard all on its own. When I trim the thing down to just that it clicks great. This is one of those 67-minute releases that would be significantly better, I think, if trimmed to 35-40.

  2. Dirk (Reply) on Thursday 29 November, 2018 at 13:56

    As for me, I think this is one of the best scores ever from JNH. Just listen to ‘presents from morther’ and ‘Queen Clara’. The last couple of years we have rarely heard scores that have melody and harmony like this as their most important quality. It’s really a gem and much, much better than Fantastic Beasts.