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The Spiderwick Chronicles
  • Composed by James Horner
  • Lakeshore Records / 2008 / 72m

Based on the children’s books by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black, 2008’s The Spiderwick Chronicles followed a group of children who move into a remote old house with their mother and discover a realm of fantasy creatures not that pleased to see them there.  Mark Waters’s film is enjoyable enough if rather slight, with decent acting from the youngsters (Freddie Highmore is impressive in a dual role playing twin brothers and giving them each a distinctive character) and the more mature actors – David Strathairn, Joan Plowright and Mary Louise Parker.  Ah, Mary Louise Parker.

There may have been no real “movie stars” in front of the camera but Waters certainly assembled a high-end team behind it, with Caleb Daschanel lensing, Michael Kahn cutting and James Horner scoring.  Horner did a number of films like this earlier in his career but had all but abandoned them in favour of much weightier fare by the time this came around, so it was a surprise but a nice one to see him on board, and if it was always likely to be more Casper than Willow, it was nice to hear him do something back in the realm of fantasy again.

James Horner

James Horner

A brilliant effect opens the score in “Writing the Chronicles”, immediately putting the listener into the fantasy world, with swirling string phrases rising and falling, with the twinkly accompaniment of celesta and sampled voices before a playful melody breaks out briefly; then Horner returns to the opening idea, adding in a few darker textures this time.  It lacks the long-lined main theme that many would have been expecting to open the film but it’s a really clever cue.

In “So Many New Worlds Revealed” various textures are heard and from the strings and later horns we hear the first hints of what will become the score’s main theme, but they are still just hints at this stage, the composer for now focusing on that wonderful “forest music” style he employed in various scores.  He’s holding back for now, surprisingly so, tentatively stepping towards places but never quite getting there.  In “Thimbletack and the Goblins” the music becomes for a while much warmer, including too some playful passages for harpsichord which add a little humorous colour to the film but sound a little incongruous on the album, and that little string idea that opened the score is never far away to emphasise the fantasy elements.  There are the first hints of darker action music too, the piano not quite crashing in that trademark Horner way but it adds as unique colour, the way it’s used.

The score’s secondary theme is first heard in “Hogsqueal’s Warning of a Bargain with Mulgarath” (not the catchiest of cue titles) but no sooner do you furrow your brow wondering where you’ve heard it before, Horner goes off into dark action territory, just briefly unleashing some thunderous music from the brass section before it’s back to playful meandering.  “Discovering Spiderwick’s Secret Workshop” features the most sublimely delicate little melody for a minute or so, Horner at his very best as he creates a sense of awe and childlike wonderment, before this turns to confusion and a little terror.  In “Dark Armies from the Forest Attack” the action is ramped up a bit, pounding percussion and brass, but not for the first time in the score it does feel a little restrained, as if the composer was deliberately holding something back for whatever reason.

In “Burning the Book” the harpsichord is back, but even though that’s doing the same as it was earlier for comic effect, here because of what’s accompanying it there is a much more serious sound, which leads into the darkest music of the score, rumbling timpani accompanying moody strings before some great Britten-style brass.  Then “A Desperate Run Through the Tunnels” presents the most exciting adventure music yet heard in the score, a lovely slice of Star Trek II thrown in at one point.  It’s a great cue, alternately light and exciting and dark and scary, but like a few other parts of the score up to this point it does suffer a little from a lack of thematic identity.  That is finally put to rest in “Lucinda’s Story”, an absolutely lovely cue for the most part which explores the delicate secondary theme, which is only a slight variant on “Casper’s Lullaby” (sans choir).

The score’s best cue is the spectacular “The Flight of the Griffin”, where the full force of Horner magic is on display; the main theme finally gets a completely unrestrained, soaring performance, and it’s a glorious thing, up there with some of the great flying music the composer wrote throughout his career.  It’s so rousing, so energetic, a standalone piece of the highest quality.  That uplifting mood continues to an extent in “Escape from the Glade”, which meanders around a bit before getting back to that great main theme, which pushes all the right buttons again as it soars away.  Then in the brief “The Protective Circle is Broken..!” Horner unleashes some unexpectedly dissonant action, hard-hitting and grown-up and very satisfying.  The style is reprised for a time in “Jared and Mulgarath Fight for the Chronicles”, which goes on to offer the score’s fullest exploration of the comic goblin music.

The album comes to an end with two of its longest and strongest cues.  First “Coming Home” which is a warm, whimsical finale in which both of the main themes are given a very nice airing, and the same thing happens again really in the “Closing Credits”, a typically strong piece from a composer who always did these things well.  For a while The Spiderwick Chronicles feels a little unfocused, very atypical of this composer, but once it hits its stride away half way through the lengthy album it never looks back.  “The Flight of the Griffin” and the last two cues are just over twenty minutes between them and those are of the highest quality; enough of the rest is either good or very good to make it an easy recommendation for Horner fans.

Rating: ****

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  1. Mastadge (Reply) on Tuesday 11 August, 2015 at 18:11

    Never been able to get into this one. Listened to it again after this review and still can’t. It’s good, but to my ears it’s one of the . . . redundant Horner scores — not much here that I can’t hear elsewhere and better in some of his other scores. On an absolute scale it’s an above-average score but I’d never have a reason to spin it instead of something else by Horner.