Snow White and the Huntsman (James Newton Howard)

Final Musings: With Snow White, James Newton Howard offers a formulaic entry in his career which at times does succeed to impress while at other times, leaves you in pain. It’s disappointing to hear the composer incorporate a lot of generic material (much of which is harsh on the ears) in a genre that has often brought out his best material. But while this pales in comparison to his greater works, this score can still be a treat for the composer’s fans,  for it’s still full and ripe with Howard’s characteristic lyricism.

There seems to be no end these days to modern retellings of fairy tales; a fad arguably spawned by Tim Burton’s absurdly successful Alice in Wonderland. And whether it’s the comedic, over-the-top approach or the dark revisionist’s angle, the results largely remain the same. Rupert Sanders’ directorial debut is the second Snow White feature film of the year and certainly the better of the two, but that doesn’t say much. Expectedly, an array of well-conceived sets, colourful visual effects and an amusing performance by Charlize Theron is all there is to salvage the film from a mess of uneven acting, poor scripts and blatant clichés set up to lure in Twilight fans. Signed on to the project is composer James Newton Howard, a man who has become quite the veteran in scoring fantasy films. Having dabbled in the genre with fantastic entries like Lady in the Water and The Last Airbender, it’s not hard to see why the thought of Howard scoring a Snow White film a la “warrior princess mode” have left his fans drooling in anticipation. The finished product however might not have ended up with the same result.

In a way, this score is almost to James Newton Howard what Avatar was to James Horner or Alice in Wonderland to Danny Elfman. Yet whereas those two scores were highly effective mergings of the best compositional facets of their respective careers, Snow White and the Huntsman falters in many regards. The score draws inspiration from half a dozen of his past scores including Snow Falling on Cedars, The Village, King Kong and Lady in the Water. Accordingly, the music is full of Howard’s trademark lyricism and majesty that he regularly employs in his fantasy works. But considering the modern approach taken with this score, the composer does choose to deviate from his more traditional fantasy scoring in its constructs. Rather than scoring the film with consistent blown-up orchestral or choral grandeur, Howard chooses to dominate the score with more intimate solo instruments, especially his characteristic piano material, although the former is still present. While this is no major detraction in itself, other problems do exist.

To begin, Snow White and the Huntsman can very much be defined as a formulaic entry in Howard’s career. Consequently there is nothing new or refreshing that this score has to offer as it sticks well within the composer’s comfort zone. In fact, its hard not to get the sense Howard didn’t put his all into this score because what we ultimately end up with is an accumulation of leftovers from Lady in the Water or The Village and scraps picked up from his previously established action material. On that note, the action material is comprised of familiar brass motifs and redundant Remote Control mannerisms that detract from the more tonal passages of beauty in the score. This is often the case with the darker material for the film. Helmed by a generic four-note motif for the film’s primary villain, Queen Ravenna, Howard chooses to experiment more with sound design for these concepts. Various harsh sound effects are laid over obnoxious blasts of the brass section. And these often-dissonant passages do infuriatingly well to play against the countering moments of beauty. A prime example would be the crashing synths that rain hell all over the lush majesty of The Village-like material in “White Hart”.

Be that as it may, there is still much to like in this score. The score’s loyalty to its main theme and its development is one of its strengths, although the melody does bear a vague resemblance to Harry Gregson Williams’ thematic identity for Aslan in the Narnia films. It’s also nice to hear the use of various solo instruments like the cello in “Something for What Ails You” and “You Failed Me Finn” or the thoughtful woodwind solos in cues like “Journey to Fenland” for these elements succeed in adding great emotional depth to the score. And one cannot go wrong of course with Howard’s keen sense of lyrical orchestral writing, which is plentiful here, even with the more harsh electronic material. Listeners will find themselves adhering to the glorious expressions of emotion in cues like “Fenland in Flames” and “Death Favors No Man” or the genuine sense of magic in wonderful cues like “Sanctuary” (easily the highlight of the score). Even the action material has its moments. By and large, generic Salt-style music is what you’re getting here, but there are moments like 1:29 in “Escape From The Tower” that do not fail to impress with bombastic choir and brass. Strangely enough the choir has been severely under-mixed, a lamentable concern that was curiously present in his previous score for The Last Airbender as well. It’s a shame really because a more prominent mix for the choral material really could have benefitted this score especially in portions of “Warriors On The Beach” like 2:09 or the more awe-inducing portions of the score. The mix does injustice to the score by depriving it of the greater scope and gravity the choral parts could have easily provided were they more audible. Hopefully, this is an issue that does not prevail in the composer’s future endeavours.

Muse on These:

-       Snow White

-       Fenland in Flames

-       Sanctuary

-       White Hart

-       Death Favours No Man

There exist two tracks outside of the original score. They are the source-like cue “Gone” and the song “Breath of Life” by British band Florence + The Machine. The former is a touching cue that features an intriguing vocal performance Ioanna Gika. One can’t help but wonder what the score could have been if such a vocal element was consistently integrated into the score. The latter is an entertaining stand-alone song but admittedly a distracting conclusion to the album experience. Ultimately, Snow White and the Huntsman ends up a mixed bag. A lot of the score comes off as generic and even intolerable at times. But despite the fact that it also really adds nothing new to his career, the highlights are definitely worth the listen. The score does act as the composer’s stronger entry of the year (his former being The Hunger Games) but Howard didn’t quite hit the ball of the park with this one. What we end up with is a flawed score still filled with some quality Howard material for all fans to enjoy.
Rating:  * * * 1/2

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4 Comments on “Snow White and the Huntsman (James Newton Howard)”

  1. Nice analysis, Kalaisan. I too had very mixed thoughts on the score (or rather, not that my thoughts were mixed, but that the score itself is very mixed). I saw the film last week finally, and I for one actually enjoyed it a fair bit (nothing great by any means, pretty cliche and weak writing, but impressive visuals and style, decent performances, plus I’m just a sucker for medieval fantasy films to begin with).

    I actually listened to the score a few times before I saw the film, which I usually don’t do, but I figured this music wouldn’t be particularly spoilerish, which in a plot sense is true, but it actually did distract me when I saw the film, because several musical passages seemed very familiar already and because of that, jumped out too much for me (which perhaps is a tribute to JNH’s work in certain cues). Overall, there’s plenty moments of orchestral grace and beauty, especially in the middle section of the film, which are really lovely (though even there, it often feels “stock”ish, compared to JNH’s other work). The whole action side of the score is really what destroys the overall experience, as it is so cliche, full of the typical RC modern scoring approach, with endless ostinatos, pounding bass, and synth percussive effects. These cues, although one might argue are not Entirely horrible on their own, are really just very very disappointing to hear from Howard, and especially placed together with his better orchestral work, it just seems either very lazy on his part, or else, very heavy-handed pressure from the director/producers to sound like everything else. All these moments too are very painful in context of the film, as there were many times I was getting into the scene, and then the score played and it actually made the whole experience even More cliche. The music could really have added so much, if Howard had pushed himself to really do something interesting, especially with the whole Ravenna side of things and the action. I appreciate he was trying to do something “different” for Ravenna’s dark side, but the growling, harsh effects are just lame. How about some actual modern orchestral writing, maybe pull a Penderecki or something like that, yet something that still fits within an intelligent orchestral composition and not just noise. Her 4-note theme is generic, though enjoyable on its own (though in the film, it’s too on-the-nose). The main theme is very nice, and stuck in my head for a while (though again highly reminiscent of other themes). I think there was another theme in the film I noticed a few times, that you didn’t mention, I would assume it was maybe a motif/theme for the Huntsman, but I was glad there were at least a few ideas at play.

    Anyways, that was a very long analysis, I could probably keep going, but there’s really no need. Ultimately, I think your 3.5 rating is very fair. Thanks for sharing (and hopefully we’ll get a Prometheus review one of these days!).

  2. Thomas Allen says:

    Good review. Though, I still think The Hunger Games is better ;-)

  3. Craig Richard Lysy says:

    Nice review Kalaisan. I made my suite from Snow White, Sanctuary and White Hart. Like you I expected more here than his formulaic action writing. A more thematic and malefic statement for the queen was a big miss and disappointment.

    All the best!


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