VALHALLA – Ron Goodwin
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Valhalla was a Danish animated film based on a series of popular comic books, which were in turn based on the ancient Norse mythologies. The story focuses on two human children, brother and sister Tjalfe and Røskva, whose farm is visited by the gods Thor and Loki during one of their many visits to Earth. However, when Loki tricks the children into breaking a golden rule, Thor – not knowing that Loki was responsible – decides to punish the children by taking them home with him to Asgård to be his servants. Once in Asgård, the children find their new life among the gods is surprisingly dull and so, with the help of a strange creature named Quark whom Loki has adopted, the children escape from Thor’s home, and begin a series of adventures where they meet giants in a magical forest, and even encounter Odin, the king of the gods himself. The film was directed by Peter Madsen and Jeffrey Farab, and at the time was the most expensive Danish film ever made, having cost around 40 million kroner. It was also popular with audiences across Scandinavia, but the production company failed to regain the cost of production and, as a result, the film became a financial flop at the box office, scuppering the chances of sequels based on other comic books in the series.
The score for Valhalla was by the great English composer Ron Goodwin, and was the last theatrical score of his illustrious career in writing music for film. Goodwin was actually the second composer on the film; originally, it was to be scored by two local Danish composers, Bent Hesselman and Jussi Adler-Olsen, but the majority of their music was rejected in favor of Goodwin’s more classical-sounding work. Some of Hesselman and Adler-Olsen’s music remains in the film, but the score release contains only Goodwin’s efforts. He retired from film work after completing this project, and spent his latter years as a popular and successful conductor, touring and conducting orchestras all over the world for more than 15 years, and was working until literally the day before his death at the age of 77 in 2003. While many are familiar with his scores for several classic British war movies, notably 633 Squadron, Operation Crossbow, Where Eagles Dare, Battle of Britain, and Force 10 from Navarone, as well as his themes for The Trap and Miss Marple, Goodwin was much more versatile composer than many realize, having scored action films, comedies, horror movies, and more. Valhalla was one of his few forays into animation and fantasy, but it more than showcases his talent in this regard.
The score was recorded in Denmark with the Copenhagen Collegium Musicum Orchestra, and is a large scale fantasy epic, at times playful and whimsical, at times broad and expansive, with strong thematic ideas, and a predominant sense of scope that equals the film’s depiction of Norse gods at large in the world. However, I’ll start with my one major criticism of the score, which is that Goodwin seemingly fell into the trap of scoring this film with far too much ‘lightness’ overall. Contemporary scores for animated films are, for the most part, scored with straightforward dramatic music, but composers like Goodwin, who were brought up in the Golden Age, often seemed to view animation as being a genre specifically for children. With this in mind, I often find that their scores for the genre feel as though they were ‘written down to a child’s level’, rather than just being a regular score; what I mean by this is that, at times, the music feels almost painfully cute, and intentionally avoids too much dark, imposing music that might scare the children. Looking at Valhalla with the perspective of someone thirty years down the road, one can easily see how listeners would feel that too much of the score is pitched at just the wrong side of sweet, with too much comedy prancing, too much pretty twittering, and too much mickey mousing for its own good.
Having said all that, there is still plenty of music in Valhalla that impresses. The score is built around three central themes, each of which are presented sequentially in the first three cues. The “Opening Title” introduces the Valhalla theme, but it is really only hinted at here, never truly receiving a full and clear statement. The cue is a dramatic one, full of horns performing a noble and stately melody offset by scampering woodwind textures. Thereafter the Valhalla theme is entirely absent from the score, until the nineteenth cue “Tjalfe and Thor,” another dignified brass statement. It finally reaches its full potential in the “Finale,” which begins with gentle sentiment, but gradually grows to include a snare drum tattoo, cymbal clashes, an angelic choir, and patriotic trumpets which swell to a rousing finish.
The theme for the warrior god Thor is introduced in “Thor’s Arrival,” a swashbuckling fanfare, bold and rousing, which is defiantly classical in its approach, and reminds me of something Erich Wolfgang Korngold may have written in his heyday. The musical identity for the children, Tjalfe and Røskva, is introduced in the third cue, “Children’s Theme,” and is a light, folk music-like theme for darting woodwinds and pretty dance-like rhythms. These two themes form the cornerstone of much of the score’s melodic identity, and feature strongly thereafter, but to Goodwin’s credit he finds ways to adapt them to different circumstances with varied instrumental textures and changing tempi.
In “At Home with Thor and Sif,” for example, Thor’s theme is heard on pastoral, calm strings, while in “The Wrath of Thor” the theme is bold and stirring, with more strident brass. Later, “Dancing With Elle” presents Thor’s theme in the style of a ballroom waltz, lighter and more carefree, with an elegant, delicate, flowing style that is very impressive, while in the aforementioned “Tjalfe and Thor” his theme plays contrapuntally with the Valhalla theme, passed between muted horns and trombones. Meanwhile, the Children’s Theme re-appears in the glorious “Rainbow Bridge,” where it is heard on playful high strings, and is surrounded by a magical female chorus and glittering chimes that remind me greatly of parts of James Horner’s score for Willow. “The Children in the Forest” is lush and lyrical, redolent of sun-dappled glades and endless fields of flowers, and showcases prominent writing for cellos, as well as a fanciful bassoon countermelody. Possibly its best performance comes in the lovely “Building the Tree-House,” a fully orchestral arrangement of the theme as if for an English country dance, with more light waltz rhythms, pretty and feather-light woodwinds, and prancing string textures.
Other cues of note include “Thor’s Fishing Tale,” an adventurous seafaring theme for undulating textures that mimic the rising and falling of the ocean; and “Giant’s Theme,” a piece for bulbous brass, piano rhythms, ominous male voice choir, and a prominent guiro wooden percussion element, which has a strong and daring spirit. Goodwin is also not averse to referencing some of the greatest classical works of all time, from the clear allusions to the twittering woodwinds and gentle harps of Grieg’s Peer Gynt in “Morning of the Magic Hammer,” to the barely-disguised references to Rossini’s William Tell Overture in “Eating Competition”.
Less successful are the moments of pure comedy, most of which involve the Quark character, and seem to be mainly comprised of scampering, capering, pseudo-Mickey Mouse noises and off-kilter rhythms. Cues like “Arrival of Loki and Quark” and “Farewell to Quark” are clearly intended to inject a sense of irreverent fun into the proceedings, but come across as desperately old-fashioned, like bad Carl Stalling crossed with bad Tchaikovsky; it’s incredibly annoying when Quark’s musical identity cross-pollinates into neighboring tracks, infecting Goodwin’s lovely themes with silliness. Worst of all are the “Whistling Theme” written by Børge Ring, a truly awful jazzy comedy piece augmented by raspberries and belching noises, and the “Giant Party,” an unexpected rock dance track with electric guitars, a drum kit, and keyboards, which appears totally out of place.
The music for Valhalla was originally released as a vinyl LP on the Replay label at the time of the film’s release, but did not surface on CD until 1997 when it was released by the somewhat obscure German company Label X (with some of the worst cover art in soundtrack history). Since then the soundtrack has been hard to come by, commanding hefty prices on the secondary market. There has been talk of a new expanded release coming from the Plant Sounds label to coincide with the films 30th anniversary, although at the time of writing this has not yet materialized. Nevertheless, if you can find it for a decent enough price, Valhalla is certainly worthy of a look. It shows a side to Ron Goodwin that people more familiar with his rousing war marches might not know, and it confirms just what a superb talent he was, and how much he is underrated by film music aficionados today. The music is multi-thematic, and at times very impressive, as long as you can overlook some of the score’s more childish moments of saccharine twee and occasional over-wrought comedy.
Buy the Valhalla soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Opening Title (2:17)
- Thor’s Arrival (1:29)
- Children’s Theme (0:59)
- Thor’s Fishing Tale (1:43)
- Morning of the Magic Hammer (1:25)
- Farewell Theme (1:06)
- Rainbow Bridge (1:59)
- At Home with Thor and Sif (1:16)
- Arrival of Loki and Quark (0:42)
- The Wrath of Thor (1:09)
- The Children in the Forest (2:26)
- Building the Tree-House (4:55)
- Whistling Theme (written by Børge Ring) (2:24)
- Giant’s Theme (2:24)
- Eating Competition (2:32)
- Drinking Competition (0:34)
- Thor Lifting the Cat (1:22)
- Dancing With Elle (2:46)
- Tjalfe and Thor (2:14)
- Giant Party (2:09)
- Farewell to Quark (1:18)
- Tjalfe Gets His Sword (1:44)
- Finale (5:19)
Running Time: 44 minutes 29 seconds
Replay RELP-3909 (1986)
Label X Europe LXE-709 (1986/1997)
Music composed and conducted by Ron Goodwin. Performed by The Copenhagen Collegium Musicum Orchestra. Orchestrations by Ron Goodwin. Additional music by Jussi Adler-Olsen and Bent Hesselmann. Recorded and mixed by Niels Erik Lund. Edited by Rod Howick. Album produced by Ron Goodwin.