FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM – James Newton Howard
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS PLOT SPOILERS. IF YOU HAVE NOT YET SEEN THE FILM, YOU MIGHT WANT TO CONSIDER WAITING UNTIL AFTER YOU HAVE DONE SO TO READ IT.
Back in 1997, in her book Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, author J. K. Rowling made an offhand reference to “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” and its author Newt Scamander, when young Harry buys his textbooks prior to attending Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry for the first time. Now, some 19 years later, we have the first spin-off story in the Harry Potter universe, which tells the life story of Newt Scamander, and how Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them came to be written. The year is 1926, and Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a magical zoologist, has travelled to New York as part of his work with the Ministry of Magic in the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures; however, upon his arrival in the Big Apple, the shy and nervous Scamander runs into an American ‘nomaj’ (a non-magical person, what Americans call ‘muggles’), and contrives to accidentally release several creatures from out of his magical suitcase and into the city. As Scamander desperately tries to retrieve the creatures, he simultaneously becomes embroiled in several inter-twined plots at MACUSA, the American Ministry of Magic: one involving a mysterious force terrorizing the city, one concerning a rabble-rousing anti-Witch group, and – perhaps most seriously – the disappearance of the dark wizard Gellert Grindlewald. The film is directed by David Yates, who also directed the last four Harry Potter films, and co-stars Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, and Colin Farrell.
The Harry Potter films have always been especially notable for their musical scores. From the first three by John Williams, through subsequent efforts by Patrick Doyle, Nicholas Hooper, and Alexandre Desplat, the scores have generally been lauded as being some of the most inventive and entrancing orchestral scores of the last 15 years or so. The score for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is by James Newton Howard who, in writing it, becomes the fifth composer to tackle music for the Potterverse. Despite tackling across multiple genres throughout his career, Howard has especially excelled within the fantasy genre; scores like Peter Pan, King Kong, Lady in the Water, The Last Airbender, and Maleficent have long been regarded as some of his most outstanding works, and now we can firmly add Fantastic Beasts to that list of magnificent efforts. It’s a large, opulent, theme-filled orchestral and choral score which clearly sits within the established sonic world of Harry Potter, but is also different enough from its predecessors to be noteworthy. Howard uses the film’s time period and geographic setting to influence his music too, often referencing George Gershwin and his style of rich New York jazz, and he tops it off with a smattering of several of his identifiable personal mannerisms, marking it very much as a James Newton Howard score.
Howard plays lip service to John Williams and Hedwig’s Theme – now the overarching musical motif for the entire franchise – in the opening seconds of the first cue, “Main Titles – Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” and then later in “The Niffler,” but once that acknowledgement has been made Howard quickly moves on and brings his own thematic ideas to the fore. Fantastic Beasts features a vast multitude of different themes, and I would go so far as to say it is one of the most thematically rich and deep scores Howard has ever written. There are two themes for the main character, Newt Scamander: the first one, Newt’s Theme, is described by Howard as having a “slightly Charlie Chaplin-esque, absent-minded professor” quality which speaks to his “warm and sweet personality”. Howard calls the second theme ‘Newt the Hero,’ and describes it as “a big, muscular hero theme” for the moments when you “see him transform from being a bumbling professor into this genius action hero”.
There is a theme which appears to represent Newt’s friendships and relationships, a beautifully realized and emotional piece that has stylistic hints of Danny Elfman’s Edward Scissorhands and Randy Newman’s Pleasantville. There’s a theme for the Goldstein sisters, Tina and Queenie, a pair of New York witches, which can be spooky and mysterious, but is also flirty and mischievous. Jacob Kowalski, the incredulous nomaj who gets brought along for the ride of his life, has a theme which Howard calls ‘Kowalski’s Rag’ and describes as a “lazy, bluesy 1920s quasi-jazzy kind of thing.” The final major theme is related to both the United States as a concept, and to the Thunderbird animal specifically, and is a wide-ranging, sweeping piece full of opulence and grandeur. Finally, there are several motifs for the fantastic beasts themselves, including ones for the niffler, the erumpent, the demiguise, and the occamy, as well as a much darker and more threatening motif for the Obscurus at the center of the film’s plot. Each of these themes weave in and around each other throughout the length of the score, as the progression of the story dictates, with some appearing at the beginning of the score and then vanishing, and others not appearing until well into the second half of the album’s running time.
After a few minutes of sinister, agitated build up, the “Main Titles – Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” introduces Newt’s Theme at the 1:46 mark, a dancing string ostinato that’s lively, energetic, and is underpinned with all manner of effervescent percussion ideas. The Thunderbird theme briefly makes its first appearance at the 2:24 mark as Newt first arrives into New York, a buzz of energy, life, and humanity; this then segues into the second cue, “There Are Witches Among Us/The Bank/The Niffler”. The first moments of “There Are Witches Among Us” introduces the Witches theme, a wonderfully spooky melody for a children’s choir, magical chimes, harp, and celesta, the latter instrument clearly intended to be a throwback to the original sound of John Williams’s first Harry Potter scores. The second half of the cue, “The Bank/The Niffler,” is a gently comedic sequence wherein Newt’s escaped niffler – a platypus-like creature attracted to shiny objects – causes havoc inside the bank where Kowalski is trying to obtain a loan to open a bakery. Howard engages in a series of sequences of light caper music full of movement and energy, showcasing especially vibrant woodwind writing and light electronic percussion. There is a slightly incredulous-sounding recurring melody that runs throughout the cue, as Newt, Kowalski, and the niffler chase each other around the building while trying to remain undetected; the playful, occasionally slightly clumsy pizzicato ideas are nevertheless full of nimble dexterity.
The Witches theme is reprised in “Tina Takes Newt In/MACUSA Headquarters,” this time with more fluidity, underpinned by prancing strings, throbbing cellos, and slightly more urgent brass writing. The majestic statement at 0:53 as Newt and Tina first enter MACUSA’s headquarters is superb, with a graceful swooping woodwind undercurrent. The Witches theme again takes center stage in the subsequent “Pie or Strudel/Escaping Queenie and Tina’s Place,” albeit with a little more of a twinkle in the eye, both through the use of glittering orchestrations, and in it’s application as underscore for the brief hints of romance between Kowalski and the mind-reading witch Queenie, as she prepares dinner in the most unconventional manner Kowalski has ever seen.
The first true hints of darkness appear in “Credence Hands Out Leaflets,” a menacing cue featuring tick-tock percussion, dark electronic tones, and the first appearance of the Obscurus motif. This music speaks to the film’s primary sub plot involving a family of witch-hating fanatics led by the fiery Mary Lou Barebone, who preaches on street corners and treats her three children with cruelty, and the inexplicable existence of an Obscurus, a dark force inadvertently created by young children who suppress their magic out of fear of discovery or persecution by the non-magical community.
However, the darkness is quickly forgotten with “Inside the Case,” a showstopping sequence that follows Newt as he introduces the disbelieving Kowalski to the endless wonders he keeps inside his battered old suitcase. The ebullient, majestic opening has hints of the brass fanfares from other Howard scores – Waterworld, or The Last Airbender perhaps – but quickly goes on to present a series of little orchestral vignettes, expressive textures that move and shift throughout the orchestra, introducing viewers to the warm and friendly magical creatures (moon cows, bowtruckles, occamies), and showing the depth of Newt’s affection for them. Weaving throughout the piece are snippets of Newt’s theme, Kowalski’s Rag, and the Thunderbird theme, as well as some darkly tragic string writing to accompany the return of the Obscurus motif, and a sad little piano melody accompanied by a glass harmonica texture that ends the cue on a reflective note.
The score changes significantly in the aftermath of “The Erumpent,” the first of the score’s major action sequences. The cue actually begins with one of the few moments of out-and-out comedy – a peculiar dance for banjo, light chimes, tapped percussion that accompanies the mating ritual Newt performed to lure out the lumbering erumpent stuck inside Central Park Zoo. The sequence in the cue’s second half is an odd juxtaposition of a light, frothy waltz motif pitted against more thunderous action material that occasionally recalls “Head Towards the Animals” from King Kong, especially in the brass writing.
“In the Cells” and the first half of “Tina and Newt Trial/Let’s Get the Good Stuff Out/You’re One Of Us Now/Swooping Evil” has a solemn, heartrending quality for rhythmic pulsing strings, funereal percussion hits, and what could either be a hurdy-gurdy or a set of bagpipes; gradually, the music builds into the score’s second major action sequence, underscoring Newt, Tina, and Kowalski’s daring escape from the clutches of MACUSA’s head auror Percival Graves. There are bold string rhythms, fluttering brasses, and a choir, but it still retains a sense of lightheartedness, and is overlaid with several of the score’s thematic ideas. The racing string scales at 4:27 are outstanding, while the first explosive performance of Newt’s Hero theme at 5:44 is a score high point.
After a brief diversion into dirty jazz in “Gnarlak Negotiations” to musically depict the Goblin owner of the Blind Pig speakeasy bar, the third main action sequence occurs in “The Demiguise and the Occamy. The music for the demiguise itself – a wise-looking, monkey-like creature that can render itself invisible – is exotic and mysterious and faintly Asian, featuring glass bowls, pan flutes, chimes, and gongs. There is what appears to be a clear allusion to John Williams’s Aragog spider motif from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets at 2:00 – the cockroach variation? – before the action kicks in once more, a festival of whirligig, throbbing brass and string writing, full of flamboyant energy. The bold statements of Newt the Hero that begin at 2:40 are sensational, and should definitely appeal to anyone who fell in love with Howard’s action writing from scores like Waterworld, The Postman, and several others.
What I’m calling the ‘Friendship theme’ is introduced in “A Close Friend,” where Newt fondly remembers his childhood friendship with Leta Lestrange during a conversation with Queenie; the beautiful choral writing, harp glissandi, and soft strings have more than a hint of Edward Scissorhands to them, and they bring new depth to Newt’s character, adding a touch of loss and regret to his past. The down time doesn’t last long, however, as “The Obscurus/Rooftop Chase” is the score’s fourth major action sequence, a breakneck chase through the darkened streets of New York that sees both Newt and Graves in hot pursuit of the rampant, destructive Obscurus. Here the Obscurus motif fully emerges as an orchestral power for dark brass clusters, ominous churning strings, metallic electronic tones, and a five-note theme for brass that again recalls Howard’s action writing for Waterworld. The culmination of the chase, in “He’s Listening To You Tina,” is tragedy-laden, serious, and emotional.
The 12-minute set piece comprising “Relieve Him of His Wand,” “Newt Releases the Thunderbird,” and “Jacob’s Farewell,” is just superb; once the film’s shocking revelation has occurred – chanting children’s choir, tick-tock percussion, darkly-hued brass fanfares – and the evil-doers apprehended, the score begins it’s moving finale. A heartfelt statement of Newt’s Theme emerges into a wondrous performance of the Friendship theme beginning at 5:03, imperious and majestic. Here, cleverly, the Friendship theme adopts the Thunderbird theme’s orchestrations, illustrating Newt’s relationship with the splendid winged creature; then, as it soars high above the city, cleansing it with its magical power, Howard lets every emotion out. Stylistically the piece reminds me of the “Real Rain” sequence from Randy Newman’s score for Pleasantville, albeit on a much grander scale. The cue concludes on a sentimental note, as Kowalski says goodbye to Queenie and intentionally allows himself to be obliviated by the Thunderbird’s magic to the sound of soft pianos, tender strings, and a final statement of Kowalski’s Rag, as if nothing had happened.
The Friendship theme returns for one final time in “Newt Says Goodbye to Tina,” although now the theme clearly represents Newt’s blossoming hesitant romantic attraction to the lovely American witch. The sentimental solo piano version of the theme grows to encompass a exquisite string wash and cooing chorus. The conclusive jaunty statement of Kowalski’s Rag in “Jacob’s Bakery” is a celebration of languid muted trumpets and clarinets; this segues into the buoyant end credits sequence, “End Titles – Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” which presents huge statements of Newt the Hero, the Thunderbird theme, and Newt’s theme, to close out the album.
The reasons Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them appeals to me so much are threefold. Firstly, the overall style of the score is just up my Diagon Alley, pardon the pun; at a time in film music history when large scale orchestral-and-choral scores are as rare as occamy eggs, it’s so refreshing to hear one that makes such glorious use of the entire ensemble, while simultaneously including a number of choral, electronic, and specialist instrumental ideas as the score demands. Secondly, the density and application of Howard’s thematic ideas show a composer who is clearly in tune with the needs of his film; the interplay between all the different motifs appeals to me on an intellectual level, and the way he uses the ‘Friendship motif’ especially to illustrate different facets of Newt’s personality is conceptually brilliant. Finally, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is not afraid of emotion; whether the score is conveying excitement, romance, playfulness, danger, or joy, James Newton Howard wears his heart on his sleeve, allowing his audience to truly feel something, and that alone is something worth celebrating.
Note: This review is of the regular release of the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them soundtrack. There exists also a 2-CD deluxe edition of the soundtrack featuring around 20 minutes of additional score. Most of the additional music is similar to that heard on the regular CD, with a couple of interesting variations on the core themes, and one cool brief action cue in “Billywig”. The deluxe edition also includes an original jazz song, “Blind Pig,” written by composer Mario Grigorov and featuring lyrics by J. K. Rowling herself; it is performed on-screen by vocalist Emmi during the speakeasy sequence, where she plays a glamorous goblin chanteuse entertaining the patrons.
Buy the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Main Titles – Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2:55)
- There Are Witches Among Us/The Bank/The Niffler (6:54)
- Tina Takes Newt In/MACUSA Headquarters (1:57)
- Pie or Strudel/Escaping Queenie and Tina’s Place (3:06)
- Credence Hands Out Leaflets (2:04)
- Inside the Case (9:09)
- The Erumpent (3:29)
- In the Cells (2:11)
- Tina and Newt Trial/Let’s Get the Good Stuff Out/You’re One of Us Now/Swooping Evil (8:00)
- Gnarlak Negotiations (2:58)
- The Demiguise and the Occamy (4:07)
- A Close Friend (1:52)
- The Obscurus/Rooftop Chase (3:49)
- He’s Listening to You Tina (2:06)
- Relieve Him of His Wand/Newt Releases the Thunderbird/Jacob’s Farewell (12:34)
- Newt Says Goodbye to Tina/Jacob’s Bakery (3:27)
- End Titles – Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2:22)
- A Man and His Beasts (8:32) – Deluxe Edition Only
- Soup and Leaflets (2:20) – Deluxe Edition Only
- Billywig (1:32) – Deluxe Edition Only
- The Demiguise and the Lollipop (0:59) – Deluxe Edition Only
- I’m Not Your Ma (2:05) – Deluxe Edition Only
- Blind Pig (written by Mario Grigorov and J. K. Rowling, performed by Emmi) (1:30) – Deluxe Edition Only
- Newt Talks to Credence (2:14) – Deluxe Edition Only
- End Titles, Pt. 2 – Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (1:23) – Deluxe Edition Only
- Kowalski’s Rag (5:13) – Deluxe Edition Only
Running Time: 72 minutes 51 seconds – Regular Release
Running Time: 98 minutes 35 seconds – Deluxe Edition
Watertower Music (2016)
Music composed by James Newton Howard. Conducted by Pete Anthony. Orchestrations by Pete Anthony, Jeff Atmajian, Peter Boyer, Chris Egan, Philip Klein, Jon Kull and John Ashton Thomas. Recorded and mixed by Peter Cobbin and Shawn Murphy. Edited by Jim Weidman. Album produced by James Newton Howard.