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Maleficent by James Newton Howard (Review)

posted May 12, 2014, 8:29 PM by Koray Savas

It is no secret that James Newton Howard has been in a rut lately. Seemingly having given in to industry standards and demands, the brilliant composer hasn't written anything comparable to his much loved 00s output in the past four years. Enter Maleficent, Disney's upcoming live-action film based on the classic Sleeping Beauty character. It marks a return to the fantasy realm for Howard, whose understanding and grasp of the imagination has pulled this listener into worlds of awe and wonder countless times before.

The score reels you in within minutes, and instantly reminds of a style of music long forgotten from Howard. It boasts a chilling boy choir, which performs the main motivic idea that is subtlety threaded throughout, and strikes a great balance between bombastic action and gentle slumber. The vocals and rigorous orchestrations echo Lady In The Water, while the warm and quieter passages remind of The Water Horse: Legend Of The Deep and Peter Pan. The soul of the music firmly lies in Howard's fantasy short-hand, and the ease of which the journey unfolds is a testament to just how talented he his. It is a shame that he isn't able to break loose like this more often in today's cinema. There is a consistent harmonic flow weaved in here that really makes the music slide along at an even pace. The music doesn't rush itself to the finish line, but carefully takes its steps into becoming a whole work, with bouts of fervor and excitement along the way, ultimately building into a bursting finale encapsulating all the preceding melodic ideas. 

The album kicks off with a nice suite of the more robust ideas in the score, and from there Howard embarks on a musical journey that is sure to rival this year's best. "Maleficent Flies" is by far the standout cue, and is one of the best of the year thus far. It is the perfect representation of the heart of the score. The light fluttering choir that builds and bursts into the main theme has yet to get stale. Moreover, "The Christening" is another runner-up cue, with its great structure and infectious melodic line during the last minute or so; and then there's the superb "The Queen Of Faerieland" that closes out the score and sends us off into Lana Del Rey's song, "Once Upon A Dream." The latter of which is a slow sleepy inoffensive closer for the album that utilizes some of Howard's choral elements.

Maleficent is not just a great fantasy score, it is James Newton Howard's full-bodied return to film scoring; and while it doesn't necessarily surpass some of his earlier career efforts, it will proudly sit right alongside them. There is a raw energy and cadence embedded here, and an overshadowing essence of warmth, that will keep listeners returning to this one for the foreseeable future.