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Latest reviews of new albums:
The Pagemaster
  • Composed by James Horner
  • La-La Land Records / 2015 / 70m

One of the last movies to star Macauley Culkin during his “child star” age, The Pagemaster is a relatively short animated movie with bookending live action scenes (the former directed by Maurice Hunt, the latter by Joe Johnston).  It was reasonably high profile at the time of its release late in 1994 thanks to Culkin (and a well-publicised dispute over its writing credits), but was a box-office disappointment and is little-remembered today.  It tells the story of a very insular boy forced to confront his fears by stepping into the pages of classic literature, as he meets Moby Dick, Long John Silver, Jekyll and Hyde and various others.

Horner worked with director Johnston both before and after this, but was probably hired for the project by producer David Kirschner, with whom he had previously worked on An American Tail and its sequel and Once Upon a Forest.  The composer’s work for animation was generally excellent, his balletic scores in particular for An American Tail and The Land Before Time being particularly outstanding.  The Pagemaster presented him with a different challenge since it combined distinct elements in different episodes of the film – horror, fantasy and adventure – but of course all three were styles he had worked in very comfortably in the past and he seemed to relish the opportunity to bring them together in one score.

James Horner

James Horner

The main title opens with that heavenly choir familiar from Willow (and elsewhere) before the two-part main theme emerges triumphantly.  I love the first part – a great swashbuckling fanfare, which leads into the sweeping melody of the theme’s main section, lyrical and super-sweet.  From there Horner segues slightly incongruously into a Nutcracker-like passage which also forms the basis of the next cue and a half, the brief “Dad Builds Treehouse” and more action-dominated “A Stormy Ride to the Library” which also features some thunderous and very entertaining material.  To be honest, the Tchaikovsky lift is as blatant as they come, but not unusually Horner manages to make it sound at home.

“Library Card” is a brief burst of fantasy before “The Library… The Pagemaster…” offers a more extended take, harp and celesta and female choir mixing with more boisterous orchestral passages, some of which are particularly tumultuous.  Then comes an introduction to another element of the score, with “Meeting Adventure and Fantasy” introducing a lovely sea shanty which sounds nothing much like James Horner (think Errol Flynn) – it has quite a role to play later in the score.  The Tchaikovsky’s back as well, there’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice – the influences run far and wide and there’s no attempt to disguise them.

A little action cue “Baskerville Hound” introduces a couple of more low-key pieces – “Horror” is slightly surprisingly rather lovely for the most part with darkly brooding bookends, and “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” continues in much the same vein but – of course – it’s a cue of two halves and the second is decidedly more sinister.  “A Narrow Escape” features an appropriate feeling of peril, some grand dramatic gestures and a great ending.  Then comes what for most people is the highlight of the score, a pair of cues running eleven minutes, “Towards the Open Sea…” and “Pirates!” with that sea shanty coming back, along with some full-on Korngold swashbuckling, the latter in particular being highly entertaining.

“Loneliness” is the loveliest cue, so sweet and charming, at least until the burst of energy towards its conclusion, which sets up “Fire-Breathing Dragon”, not surprisingly one of the most full-bodied action cues here, with the main theme fanfare getting some very welcome air time, which continues into the next cue, “Swallowed Alive! / The Wonder in Books”, a lengthy piece which offers up fine versions of both parts of the main theme and also some really pulsating fantasy adventure music resembling that from much earlier in the composer’s career.  A bit of that swashbuckling swagger from earlier returns for the score’s finale, “New Courage / The Magic of Imagination”, a very satisfying way of rounding things off.  There are also a couple of songs – “Whatever You Imagine”, by Horner with his An American Tail collaborators Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, sung by Wendy Moten with the melody based on the score’s main theme, which is very nice and pleasant in a female Michael Bolton kind of way; and Diane Warren’s “Dream Away” sung by Babyface and Lisa Stansfield, which isn’t.

Most of James Horner’s scores for kids’ movies are unusually focused and feature great long through-composed pieces that don’t worry too much about hitting the sting points – indeed, most of his scores for all movies are like that – but The Pagemaster is different.  It flits about all over the place – fortunately the places it flits between are mostly very good, but it’s unusual for a Horner score to sound like this with new things happening so frequently.  This new album from La-La Land offers a very small amount of music left off the original album to expand it to the complete score, adds a couple of bonus cues and of course a remastering and it’s an entertaining one, great fun above anything else.

Rating: ****

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  1. tiago (Reply) on Saturday 30 January, 2016 at 15:55

    Indeed a really good score. It’s always fun to discover those hidden gems on Horner’s career.

    But there’s something that I don’t understand: the liner notes of the album said that the score, like many others from Horner on the 90s, was performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and recorded on Abbey Road on April 8, 9, 11, 12 and 13, 1994.

    However, this (pretty excellent) article on “James Horner Film Music” about Horner’s classic Legends of the Fall said that this score was ALSO recorded with LSO, on Abbey Road, on April 8-19, 1994.

    http://jameshorner-filmmusic.com/legends-of-the-fall-an-analysis-of-the-themes/

    So, what happened? Did he recorded those two scores at the same time? He conducted Pagemaster on mornings and Legends by afternoon? And the players didn’t get confused?

    It’s also worth mentioning that both scores were orchestrated by Thomas Pasatieri and Don Davis

  2. Jim Ware (Reply) on Saturday 30 January, 2016 at 17:59

    Legends of the Fall – recorded 8,11-15,18 & 19 April 1994, AIR Studios, Lyndhurst Hall
    The Pagemaster – recorded 8,9 & 11-13 August 1994, Abbey Road Studio 1

  3. Adam Cousins (Reply) on Sunday 31 January, 2016 at 07:00

    Oddly enough I was listening to this yesterday whilst cooking.
    Forgot how much I love it. Eclectic in a great and good orchestral way. The opening track always reminds me of Willow and Glory.
    Love it!
    Great review James.

  4. J.B. (Reply) on Monday 25 July, 2016 at 22:58

    I’m still wondering how much of this was ghostwritten. I was just listening to “Fire-Breathing Dragon” and there’s a section of it straight out of The Matrix (:58-1:35).