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DINOSAUR – James Newton Howard

dinosaurOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

A mammoth majestic effort of immense proportions and great beauty, James Newton Howard’s score for the Disney animated epic Dinosaur is far and away the best work of his career to date. Previously defined by taught, almost themeless thriller and horror works with the odd landmark standout (Waterworld, Wyatt Earp), Dinosaur is highly recommended for anyone who was underwhelmed by The Sixth Sense or bored by Snow Falling on Cedars. It is the James Newton Howard score I have been waiting all my life to hear. As a film, Dinosaur’s themes and messages are rooted in the grand Disney tradition. Right from The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, through The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Mulan, the mouse house have continually recycled the old story line chestnuts again and again – an outsider comes to be part of a new community, is initially shunned by the group, but is eventually accepted when he/she/it stands up to an aggressor and proclaims the merits of teamwork, loyalty and understanding. In this case, the outsider is a young dinosaur named Aladar, who is orphaned at birth and raised instead by a family of lemur-like monkeys on a small island. When the island is devastated by a meteor shower, Aladar and the survivors hook up with a group of other dinos who are searching for “The Nesting Grounds”, a mythical place where land and water are bountiful, but who are continually avoiding the deadly carnotaur predators who track their every move. Initially shunned by the herd, Aladar eventually makes friends with Neera, a female, and offers help to three elders who are slowing down the group – and making an enemy of Kron, the leader, in the process.

Despite being beaten to the punch by the BBC’s nature series Walking With Dinosaurs, the visual effects in Dinosaur are nothing short of miraculous. If I didn’t know any better, I would swear that the creatures on screen in this movie were real. The animated monsters in Jurassic Park look positively prehistoric when compared to the work on display here. The skin textures, the fluidity of movement, the attention to detail in every single character render this film one of the most visually staggering I have ever seen. Similarly, the setting is simply beautiful – filmed with real backgrounds onto which the CGI beasts are seamlessly superimposed. It’s just a shame that the narrative is so flat. Basically, it’s a rehash of the plot of The Land Before Time, minus the cutesy-pie overtones (although the lemur things do invoke a few aaahs and ooohs from the kiddie masses).

However, by far the standout element in the movie is the score. James Newton Howard actually somehow succeeds in making the plight of the displaced dinos seem more emotionally compelling; the action scenes are inspiring and exciting; the romance between Aladar and Neera seems more plausible, and the whole thing is capped off by a marvellous central theme. Howard goes for broke right from the very start of the movie (“The Egg Travels”), making the powerful and visually beautiful opening sequence the single musical highlight of his entire career to date. As a pteranodon flies over the clifftops, carrying still-unhatched Aladar in its mouth, the music proclaims its intentions; a heroic, spacious theme for the full orchestra and an African choir, rising and falling, swooping and soaring. The word “spine-tingling” never even comes close.

In terms of creating an atmosphere, Newton Howard revisits the African/world music sound that Hans Zimmer and Jerry Goldsmith used so well in, respectively, The Lion King and The Ghost and the Darkness. The decision to embrace this kind of scoring was, without doubt, the correct one. With the instantly enthralling vocals of Lebo M and his choir, and an array of live and sampled percussion instruments, Newton Howard is able to create evocative moods of a time, a place and, more importantly, a culture. Cues such as the opening ‘The Inner Sanctum/The Nesting Grounds’ are moody and wistful, while others such as ‘The Courtship’ and ‘It Comes With A Pool’ are vibrant, celebratory and joyous. When the two styles combine, like in the aforementioned ‘The Egg Travels’, the net result is nothing short of movie music magic.

The action music, in cues such as ‘The End of Our Island’, ‘The Carnotaur Attack’ and ‘Kron & Aladar Fight’ make wonderful use of the tempestuous percussion and off-kilter ostinatos that have typified his work in the genre to date. Especially worth noting is the tremendous ‘Raptors/Stand Together’, in which Howard injects a powerful five-note brass motif to signify the collective resistance and sense of camaraderie the dinosaurs share. It’s also worth specifically mentioning two specific cues: ‘Aladar and Neera’, which contains the most rounded rendition of the score’s playful romantic theme, and the incredible ‘Breakout’, the emotion inherent in which is almost impossible to put into words. Somehow, by some touch of genius, Howard makes ‘Breakout’ a cue which has a frustrating, searching, almost agonising quality to it: so much so that, when the main theme finally bursts forth, it’s comes as a blessed relief.

Dinosaur is easily the most impressive and enjoyable score of 2000 so far, and it will take one hell of a score to beat it as the best of the year come the end of December. In the past, I have been quick to criticise James Newton Howard for the general lack of emotion in many of his scores. Dinosaur redresses the balance, and then some. Having dispensed with Alan Menken, and tested the waters with Jerry Goldsmith, Rachel Portman, Lennie Niehaus and others, it seems as though Disney have finally found their man for the new millennium.

Rating: *****

Track Listing:

  • Inner Sanctum/The Nesting Grounds (2:57)
  • The Egg Travels (2:43)
  • Aladar & Neera (3:29)
  • The Courtship (4:13)
  • The End Of Our Island (4:00)
  • They’re All Gone (2:08)
  • Raptors/Stand Together (5:37)
  • Across The Desert (2:35)
  • Finding Water (4:14)
  • The Cave (3:40)
  • The Carnotaur Attack (3:52)
  • Neera Rescues The Orphans (1:13)
  • Breakout (2:43)
  • It Comes With A Pool (3:01)
  • Kron & Aladar Fight (2:58)
  • Epilogue (2:32)

Running Time: 51 minutes 39 seconds

Disney 606727 (2000)

Music composed by James Newton Howard. Conducted by Pete Anthony. Orchestrated by Brad Dechter, Jeff Atmajian, and James Newton Howard. Vocal Arrangements by Lebo M. Recorded and Mixed by Shawn Murphy. Album produced by James Newton Howard and Jim Weidman.

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