Snow White and the Huntsman (James Newton Howard)Posted: June 26, 2012
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
- 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