With James Newton Howard lending a magical soundscape to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, writer Sean Wilson selects his personal favourites from an extraordinary film score career…
Enveloping muggles and devoted fans alike in a warmly nostalgic air of magic, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter prequel Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them has yielded enthusiastic reviews and a strong box office showing. And behind the scenes is one of the greatest magicians of all: veteran score composer James Newton Howard, whose rich array of melodies and themes encapsulate the dazzling world of magizoologist Newt Scamander. To mark this superb score from one of Hollywood’s finest, here’s a rundown of Newton Howard’s greatest compositional achievements.
17. The Sixth Sense (1999)
The composer’s first collaboration with longstanding collaborator M. Night Shyamalan is possibly the most discreet and understated of their team-ups, but no less effective for it. Expertly gliding between genuinely bone-chilling horror and moving poignancy, it’s an intelligently constructed score that captures the contradictory facets of Shyamalan’s famously twisty blockbuster, with the infamous climactic twist sequence in particular beautifully running the gamut of emotions from confusion to terror, through dumbstruck awe and, finally, tear-jerking redemption.
16. The Hunger Games (2012)
Newton Howard was a late replacement for Danny Elfman on the dystopian franchise and this perhaps led to his being stymied in terms of theme and memorability. Indeed The Hunger Games scores do suffer from an odd problem in that there’s an abundance of strong ideas that aren’t utilised with any sense of consistency, but the first score remains the most complete and coherent out of them all. Blending an earthy country sensibility with explosive, violent action and an occasional sense of portentous drama foreshadowing Katniss Everdeen’s eventual rise, it’s an effectively dramatic work.
15. Peter Pan (2003)
As a composer, Newton Howard is rarely better than when he’s working on sweeping fantasy adventures, as they offer him a chance to let loose with his fine-tuned melodic sensibility and sense of emotion. P.J. Hogan’s underrated adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s timeless children’s story benefits hugely from the composer’s whimsical and enchanting score, a blend of orchestra, choir and electronics that sneaks and glides in the mischievous manner of the title character. It also packs a tremendous punch during the bittersweet finale, the tender woodwind and string passages recalling the composer’s works for M. Night Shyamalan and other directors.
14. Maleficent (2014)
If Peter Pan was Newton Howard in sensitive fantasy mode, then this opulent Angelina Jolie Disney epic allows him to go all-out on the bombast and majesty. Clearly feeding off the movie’s extravagantly designed CGI effects and fantastical landscapes, the composer marshals all his forces from thunderous militaristic rhythms to pensive sadness embodying Maleficent’s internal struggle, all dressed up with the requisite chimes and choir to conjure that elusive sense of magic. A bit of distracting temp-track bleed-through prevents it from a higher ranking, but it proves how great Newton Howard is at scoring this kind of whimsical material.
13. Alive (1993)
Any great film composer worth their salt will look beyond the surface events of a given movie to extract its inner meaning, in the process adding extra layers of musical dialogue that enhance our emotional understanding. Frank Marshall’s acclaimed adaptation of Piers Paul Read’s ‘Alive: The True Story of the Andes Survivors‘ dramatises a Uruguayan football team’s desperate attempts to survive in the mountains after a horrifying plane crash, and Newton Howard responds with an engrossing, intelligent score by turns bleakly chilling and wonderfully uplifting. An early-period hit for the composer, one can hear the seeds of many of his later scores taking shape here.
12. Waterworld (1995)
Kevin Costner’s aquatic epic may have been a notoriously damp squib but it does gain some semblance of energy from Newton Howard’s efforts, here working overtime to keep the ponderous vessel afloat and inject a sense of fun. Again proving his mettle in replacing another composer at the last-minute (this time it was Mark Isham who got the boot), the composer revisits the rousing style of seafaring master Erich Wolfgang Korngold, fashioning some wonderfully percussive action sequences that merge with his familiar, ethereal fantasy sound. Frankly, the movie didn’t deserve a score this good.
11. Unbreakable (2000)
One of M. Night Shyamalan’s most complex and accomplished thrillers, one that plays around with comic book archetypes and tropes, Unbreakable merges fantasy and reality in a manner that’s deliberately obfuscating. It therefore requires an eerie, textural score that keeps the listener on tenterhooks throughout, hinting at the elusive mystery without ever spelling it out. Newton Howard mixes his signature stately strings and piano with unexpectedly modernistic beats to craft a fresh sonic landscape in which nothing is as it seems, a textbook example of how to score such a movie in a discreet yet intelligent manner.
10. Treasure Planet (2002)
This steampunk variation on Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Treasure Island‘ came at a point where Disney’s hand-drawn fortunes were seemingly waning (again) in the wake of a CGI animated onslaught. Irrespective of the film’s qualities, it did elicit a superb score from Newton Howard that pushes all the right adventure buttons, lifting the viewer’s spirits when their attention threatens to wander. When a film composer can lift a fairly unremarkable movie through the sheer power of their scoring skill, you know they’re doing something right.
9. Dave (1993)
Comedies are among the hardest genres to score: push the quirky button too hard and the music will likely overwhelm the jokes. However, too much understatement will mean an opportunity to extract further humour is lost. This charming story of an ordinary man (Kevin Kline) brought in to impersonate the American President sees Newton Howard brilliantly walk the line between fluffy whimsy (acknowledging the inherently farcical nature of the storyline) and genuine emotion, making us feel the characters as more than just comic archetypes.
…Click below to continue on for the top eight scores…