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MALEFICENT: MISTRESS OF EVIL – Geoff Zanelli

October 25, 2019 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The 2014 film Maleficent, a revisionist re-imagining of the Sleeping Beauty fairytale told from the point of view of the story’s ‘villain,’ was an unexpected box office hit for Walt Disney Pictures, and so it was inevitable that a sequel would follow. That sequel is Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, and it once again stars Angelina Jolie and her razor-like cheekbones in the title role, bringing back her cut glass English accent to terrorize elocutionists the world over. It is a continuation of the original film’s story and sees young Aurora – newly crowned the Queen of the Moors – falling in love with the handsome Prince Philip of Ulstead. After Philip proposes marriage, Aurora and Maleficent are invited to Philip’s home castle by the king and queen, John and Ingrith; however, unknown to all, Ingrith has been hiding a deep lifelong hatred of fairies and moorland people, and has a plan to destroy them all. The film co-stars Elle Fanning, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Harris Dickinson, and is directed by Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Rønning, who took over duties from Robert Stromberg.

The film is a visual feast, especially the scenes which take place in the sylvan society of the Moors, which bursts with color and life and all manner of imaginative flora and fauna. The film also has an excellent score by Geoff Zanelli, who worked with Rønning on his last film Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, and who is stepping into the over-achieving shoes of composer James Newton Howard, who scored the first film. Zanelli is a composer who, in my opinion, has not had the breaks his talent should have provided. He has written some truly terrific stuff over the years – titles like Into the West, Delgo, The Odd Life of Timothy Green, the William Tell finale from The Lone Ranger, and last year’s Christopher Robin – while also contributing additional music to literally dozens of major Media Ventures and Remote Control projects. The problem for me is that, by and large, Zanelli has never really been given the opportunity to develop a personal musical voice, and it doesn’t help matters that on his two biggest box-office hits – this film, and the fifth Pirates movie – he has been essentially asked to ape the styles of the composers who scored earlier films in the series. As such, and although it might appear to be a backhanded compliment to say it, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is the best impression of James Newton Howard you are ever likely to hear.

I really do mean my preceding statement as a compliment. Maleficent was one of the best scores of 2014, and Zanelli re-captures the essence and musical language of the original perfectly. At least two of Howard’s original themes are carried over from the first score, including the theme for Maleficent herself, as well as the motif associated with Aurora’s ‘sleeping beauty’ curse. Zanelli builds out from these blocks with some new thematic material of his own, including some powerful and percussive tribal material for the race of ‘dark fey’ that Maleficent encounters on her travels, and surrounds it all with a wonderful array of vibrant orchestral textures that range from light and playful, magical and wondrous, to impressively action-packed. Throughout it all Zanelli picks up and runs with many of Howard’s compositional stylistics, some of which seem to directly reference his best writing for M. Night Shyamalan (things like Lady in the Water and The Last Airbender), as well as fantasy-action-adventure works like King Kong, Peter Pan, Dinosaur, Waterworld, and the two Fantastic Beasts scores.

Throughout the score Zanelli uses his orchestra to its fullest potential, augmenting it with a choir, appropriate electronics, some more unorthodox world music textures, and some unique instrumental touches including passages that feature a dulcimer (notably towards the end of “Poachers on the Moors”) and what may be a duduk (around 1:50 in “Ulstead”), in what seems to be a representation of the dastardly alchemy being created by Queen Ingrith’s goblin Lickspittle. Cues such as the opening “Mistress of Evil” are swimming in broad orchestral strokes, lush and expressive, while cues like the aforementioned “Poachers on the Moors” are darker and more intense, with bold brass triplets, a chanting choir, and a heavier percussion content.

The first of Zanelli’s new themes appears to be a love theme for Aurora and Philip, which is first introduced in the magical cue “What Is Going on Here?” that underscores the scene where Philip proposes marriage. Zanelli uses a heavenly choir, magical chimes, playful dancing woodwinds and luxuriant strings to capture the bucolic nature of Aurora’s realm, and builds the whole thing to a big, romantic ending. The second of Zanelli’s new themes, as I mentioned earlier, appears to be related to the concept of Queen Ingrith’s secret army, her goblin Lickspittle, and the mysterious laboratory in which the goblin is creating a concoction from a rare Moorland flower; you can hear it strongly in the second half of “Ulstead,” where it is carried by warlike chanting and prominent metallic percussion.

The use of metallic percussion here is interesting because this ties in directly with the musical component of the third and most important new theme, which represents the Dark Feys. The Dark Fey are the race of outcast magical creatures to which Maleficent belongs, and in an interview with Film School Rejects Zanelli explained that he saw them as sort of “homeless refugees,” separated from society. One of the interesting things about the Dark Fey – and all the Moorland creatures – is their extreme intolerance to iron, and Zanelli took this into account when writing the music for them; he says “I used instruments from parts of Asia, Africa, India, and Japan” and that, because of their issues with metal, “when the Dark Fey are on screen you won’t hear a single pang from a tool forged of that metal. The sound has to appear indigenous to their culture.” Zanelli also implemented 80 different drums to accompany the Dark Fey, saying that “something about the power and the force of their wings implied a rage of percussion. These are winged creatures, they live on the wind, so wouldn’t it seem like that would be what they’d start with for their own musical inventions?” It’s a clever bit of musical foreshadowing to one of the central ideas in the film’s action finale – the Dark Fey have no metal in their own music, whereas the music for Queen Ingrith’s army is by contrast highly metallic.

The music for the Dark Fey appears in several cues, notably “We’re Dark Fey,” “It Is Love That Will Heal You,” and “Origin Story.” The theme for the Dark Fey itself is mysterious and noble, featuring a choir and orchestra underpinned by chugging strings, duduk and pan flutes, and the aforementioned heavy percussion. It also has the capacity to play with deep emotion, especially when it combines with hints of the Maleficent theme in “It Is Love That Will Heal You”. Later, “The Dance of the Fey” is a huge tribal piece which augments the multiple drums with rough choral chants, what sounds like a didgeridoo, and statements of the Dark Fey Theme intercut with Queen Ingrith’s military ideas.

Other cues of note in the score’s mid-section include the delightful action in “Pinto’s Recon Mission,” which oscillates between being playful and flighty, but also deadly serious. It is full of scampering movement, with wonderfully effervescent string runs accented by light chimes, and concludes with the dark cimbalom motif for Lickspittle the Alchemist for the moment where the poor little sprite falls into the goblin’s clutches. I also very much like the sentimental piano performance of Maleficent’s theme in “You Don’t Have to Change,” which is played softly and gently with enticing choral embellishments.

However, despite all this, many people will gravitate strongly towards the score’s action music, and the 20-minute sequence that begins with “Back to the Moors” is mightily impressive in that regard. This is where Zanelli brings out all his big guns, blending multiple statements of the Dark Fey theme, Queen Ingrith’s military theme, and Maleficent’s theme into an all-out action extravaganza. In many of these cues Zanelli intentionally references the action stylistics James Newton Howard used on some of his most popular and acclaimed works – the rampant rhythms and potent brass in “Back to the Moors,” for example, is clearly inspired by King Kong. Throughout the sequence Zanelli just doesn’t let up, playing multiple themes contrapuntally as different characters do battle, and ratcheting up his orchestra and choral power to maximum.

I especially like the dark, nervous sound of “Our Fight Begins Now!” and the way Zanelli uses pennywhistles, throat singers, and brass triplets in creative ways. I love the clattering percussion and roaring trombones in “Your Majesty, They’re Coming from the Sea”. I appreciate the intense build-up, dramatic crescendos, and moments of introspection in “I’ve Made My Choice, You’ll Have to Make Yours”. “Protecting Our Kind” is all kinds of epic, with notably thunderous percussive writing. The enormous, heroic statement of Maleficent’s theme at 1:55 in “Maleficent Returns” is one of the most powerful moments of the entire score, and the subsequent confrontation between Maleficent and Ingrith on a parapet high above Ulstead builds to a fantastic finale featuring some strong dissonance. Perhaps the most outstanding cue is the sequence’s conclusion, “The Phoenix,” which is underpinned with tragedy but then uses a wonderful statement of the Curse Theme to underscore Maleficent’s magical resurrection – the whole thing is dramatic and powerful, and makes superb use of chimes and a snare drum riff underneath the orchestra and chorus.

The finale of the score begins with “Hello, Beastie,” a warm, emotional, uplifting combination of Aurora & Phillip’s love theme, Maleficent’s Theme, and the Dark Fey Theme, as the formerly warring factions make peace with each other. The conclusive “Time to Come Home” continues the style with a warm horn version of the Dark Fey Theme, a reprise of the verdant Moors ideas, a final statement of Aurora & Phillip’s love theme, and a huge version of the ‘flying variation’ of Maleficent’s theme for the full orchestra and chorus as the ‘mistress of evil’ soars over the forest. The album concludes with an original song, “You Can’t Stop the Girl” performed by Anglo-Albanian singer Bebe Rexha. It’s fine, I suppose.

There is a heck of a lot to like about Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. Yes, it’s true that Geoff Zanelli is essentially doing a James Newton Howard impression for most of the score, but you can’t hold that against him, especially when Howard established such a strong musical identity for this world in the first film. Not only that, making the score convincing enough to follow the precedent while also giving it enough original musical content to be enjoyable in its own right is no mean feat, and Zanelli succeeds at it admirably. The Dark Fey material is excellent, as is the conceptual thinking behind it all as it relates to the relationship between the Dark Fey and Queen Ingrith’s duplicity. Add to this some excellent and enjoyable action material, and plenty of emotional resonance, and you have a score which works on all levels. I just hope that the success of this movie and this score gives Geoff Zanelli the opportunity to write something like this again in the future – and that, next time, he’s allowed to use nothing but his own voice.

Buy the Maleficent: Mistress of Evil soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Mistress of Evil (1:33)
  • Poachers on the Moors (4:24)
  • What Is Going on Here? (4:31)
  • Ulstead (2:39)
  • Etiquette Lessons (2:05)
  • All He Wanted Was Peace (4:50)
  • We Have Her (3:49)
  • We’re Dark Fey (3:53)
  • Pinto’s Recon Mission (1:52)
  • It Is Love That Will Heal You (2:07)
  • Origin Story (2:30)
  • You Don’t Have to Change (2:01)
  • The Dance of the Fey (2:11)
  • Back to the Moors (1:14)
  • Our Fight Begins Now! (1:45)
  • Your Majesty, They’re Coming from the Sea (2:16)
  • I’ve Made My Choice, You’ll Have to Make Yours (3:33)
  • Protecting Our Kind (2:42)
  • Maleficent Returns (5:09)
  • The Phoenix (4:41)
  • Hello, Beastie! (3:42)
  • Time to Come Home (5:49)
  • You Can’t Stop the Girl (written by Aaron Huffman, Alex Schwartz, Bleta Rexha, Evan Sult, Jeff Lin, Joe Khajadourian, Michael Pollack, Nate Cyphert, and Sean Nelson, performed by Bebe Rexha) (2:39)

Running Time: 71 minutes 55 seconds

Walt Disney Records (2019)

Music composed by Geoff Zanelli. Conducted by Nick Glennie-Smith. Orchestrations by Mark Graham, Jon Kull, Tommy Laurence, Geoff Lawson and John Ashton Thomas. Additional music by Phill Boucher and Zak McNeil. Recorded and mixed by Peter Cobbin and Dennis Sands. Edited by Lisa Jaime. Album produced by Geoff Zanelli.

  1. Marco Ludema
    October 27, 2019 at 10:16 am

    Geoff Zanelli seems to be the next John Debney in his chameleonic score writing. Not that I’m complaining, his work on Pirates 5 was magnificent.

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