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PETER PAN & WENDY – Daniel Hart

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

I have lost count of how many Peter Pan movies there have been since the work was first published by Scottish author J. M. Barrie in 1904, such is its enduring popularity with audiences across the world. It’s a timeless story of Victorian children who yearn for adventure, of pirates and fairies, of lost boys and native princesses, and of a little boy who can fly and who refuses to grow up. One of the most popular big-screen versions of the story was the 1953 animated film produced by Walt Disney, and now as part of their ‘live action remakes’ series that film has been re-imagined as the magical adventure Peter Pan & Wendy. The film is directed by David Lowery – who also helmed the live-action Disney remake of Pete’s Dragon in 2016 – and stars Alexander Molony and Ever Anderson as the title characters Peter Pan and Wendy Darling, plus Jude Law as Captain Hook, Yara Shahidi as Tinker Bell, and Alyssa Wapanatahk as Tiger Lily.

The score for Peter Pan & Wendy is by Lowery’s long-term composer Daniel Hart, who also scored Pete’s Dragon, as well as Lowery’s previous films Ain’t Them Bodies Saints in 2013, A Ghost Story in 2017, The Old Man & the Gun in 2018, and The Green Knight in 2021. Hart is a fascinating composer; when he first appeared in the scene in the mid-2010s his initial aesthetic seemed to be that of a minimalist, introverted but with a sort of orchestral indie-rock vibe. However, as he has displayed on numerous scores as his career has progressed, he is actually capable of a great deal of orchestral complexity, thematic beauty, and moments of real emotional power. Pete’s Dragon soared, The Green Knight dazzled with its originality, and his score for the TV series Interview With the Vampire last year was, at times, quite ravishing. Peter Pan & Wendy follows in the footsteps of those three scores and is, by turns, quiet and intimate, and fascinating and unusual, but then often emerges into moments of rousing, vibrant, energetic color.

There are several recurring themes that weave in and around the score, including one for Peter, one for Wendy and the Darling family, one for Captain Hook and the Pirates, one for Tinker Bell, one for Neverland and the Lost Boys, and one for Tiger Lily and the Indians, but what’s clever about what Hart does here is how he blends them together. In numerous cues two, and sometimes three, of the six or seven different themes and motifs play concurrently and in counterpoint, layered on top of each other in a variety of unexpected but excellent ways. Some of the combinations seem incongruous when written down, but Hart’s stylistic intelligence allows the score to develop in a way that constantly surprises and delights.

The opening cue, “The Darling Darlings,” acts as a sort of overture, and initially introduces the theme for Wendy and her brothers, John and Michael, which emerges from a rising three note motif awash in warm string and horn harmonies, and is filled with a sense of magic and wonderment. The subsequent theme for Peter really establishes the score’s overall tone, which is one of adventurous spirit, but also light and playful; the light and dainty strings, the darting woodwind runs, and the bold and heroic brass fanfares are just outstanding, and there even a is touch of John Williams-style sentiment in the use of celesta that reminds me of the score for Hook. Towards the end of the cue the prancing motif for the Lost Boys has the mischievous ‘neener neener’ sound of a playground taunt, while the brief introduction of the theme for Hook comes across as a sinister variation on a sea shanty – but more on that later.

The second cue, “My Shadow,” introduces one of the score’s other main ideas, which is the use of unusual call-and-response vocals. The voices Hart uses have a weird mix of children’s voices, yelping and shouting, but then the chord structures of the notes they are actually singing have a bit of Gilbert & Sullivan about them, as if Hart is intentionally channeling the sound of a Victorian music hall. It’s fascinating, but really excellent. This cue also establishes the score’s main action sound, which is fast and effervescent and often has an underlying comedic edge. This will be the make or break part of the score for some people; some will dismiss it as mickey mousing, and it’s true that there are some elements of that, but I personally find the darting, caper-like elegance and sprightliness of all the action music to be outstanding.

Once the music takes us to “Neverland” (initially via some darkly dissonant, almost Goldenthal-esque trumpet figures), Hart introduces his ideas for Tinker Bell and her community of fairies by adding hand claps, tambourines, and an underpinning bed of twittering woodwinds to the stylized vocals and the theme for Peter. If you remember your Barrie lore, Tinker Bell and the fairies can be revived from death by ‘believing in fairies,’ and clapping your hands to prove you believe. I love this idea even though, conceptually, some of what Hart is doing here reminds me of what Dan Romer did on his score for another Peter Pan variant, Wendy, in 2020.

The final main theme to be introduced is the theme for Captain Hook and his band of pirates, which first appears in “Never Say His Name” as a menacing march for clodhopping brass, martial percussion, and slithering string textures that hint at his duplicity. The vocals that also run through the cue have the sinister air of a sea shanty, and in the subsequent “Tea Time” these two ideas for Hook and the Pirates combine with the unusual vocals and the fairy hand-claps in the first of the score’s main action sequences in which different themes are set against each other; it’s perhaps a little scattershot, and as I mentioned before some may find it sounds a little too chaotic, but I found it to be impressively vibrant, and some of the string writing is especially fabulous.

The rest of the score from this point on is, essentially, a series of variations on this core collection of main themes, with different ones playing in concert with others depending on which characters are in focus. “It’s Not Half Bad Being a Pirate,” for example, pits Pirates against Fairies and Peter’s theme, while “Peter Pan Shall Perish Today” places Peter’s theme and the Fairy hand-claps in a bold action setting, while the Lost Boys motif dances underneath it all, carried by the brass.

One or two other cues offer something different. “Where You Go from Here Is Up” has a gorgeous, sentimental violin lament in its second half. “The Very First Lost Boy” features an angelic boy soprano and several variations on the initial three-note motif that are just magical, and have a similar emotional tone as “You Are the Pan” from Hook. “The Shadow Run” is a frantic action piece that builds on the same ‘shadow’ ideas from earlier in the score, and has a dramatic and flamboyant sound. Conversely, “The Brig” presents a despondent version of the main theme, arranged for slow solemn strings and a choir.

The score’s main action finale begins in “Faith, Trust and Pixie Dust,” and it’s here that Hart’s complicated leitmotivic writing really shines. The main heroic swashbuckling theme for Peter is the cue’s keystone, but Hart brilliantly surrounds it with one or more of the other themes – twittering strings for Tinker Bell, Wendy’s theme in heroic fantasy mode, the Hook motif, pirate shanties, and the undulating Lost Boys theme which, when arranged like a brass fanfare, almost sounds like James Horner in classic fantasy mode from the Star Trek II/Krull era. Not only that, Hart makes use of ticking clocks and tolling bells to acknowledge the presence of the crocodile that is continually stalking Hook, and regularly sprinkles in the Fairy hand claps, but then also introduces a brand new motif for yelping tribal voices that acts as an identity for the native princess Tiger Lily. It’s so good; the way that Hart keeps combining all the different thematic ideas one after the other in pairs is fascinating, and so impressive on a purely compositional level.

The action stylings continue in “Straight on ‘Til Chaos, which features more of those impressive classical strings, and comes to a head in the “Reckoning,” which blends Peter’s theme, Wendy’s theme, and Hook’s theme in a variety of dramatic ways, and by the end has become almost spiritual in nature. The final two cues, “Straight on ‘Til Morning” and “Goodbye Peter Pan,” offer a superb end to the score with several statements of both Peter’s theme and Wendy’s theme that are warm, reflective, and beautifully anthemic, and feature lovely writing for strings and choir. The final moments of the final cue have a wonderfully satisfying sweep to them.

Also included on the soundtrack are three original songs; one, “All Grown Up,” was written by Hart and is performed by actress Molly Parker, who plays Wendy’s mother Mrs Darling, and is quite lovely. The other two, “Behemooth” and “Ode to the Falling” are gruff pirate sea shanties written by Curtis Glenn Heath, and performed by actor Ian Tracey, who appears in the film as Sallyport, one of Hook’s pirate men. Sadly not included on the soundtrack is Sammy Cahn and Sammy Fain’s song “You Can Fly You Can Fly” from the original film, nor are any quotes from Oliver Wallace’s classic score. It’s a shame, because the moments that Hart uses them in context here are instant nostalgia bombs for anyone who remembers the 1953 version fondly.

It must be hard, trying to come up with something new for a Peter Pan film, when composers like John Williams, Oliver Wallace, James Newton Howard, and John Powell, not to mention Dan Romer, Maurizio Malagnini, and Joel McNeely, have already plumbed these depths and come up with excellent music that stands the test of time. However, despite all this impressive precedent, the music that Daniel Hart has produced for Peter Pan & Wendy is outstanding. The multiplicity of themes, the cleverness of their interplay, the rousing action style, the fun swashbuckling sound, and the emotional layers, all make for a deeply impressive score which fans of children’s fantasy music are sure to embrace. I know I do – for me, it’s up there among the best two or three scores from the first half of 2023.

Buy the Peter Pan & Wendy soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • The Darling Darlings (2:47)
  • My Shadow (2:53)
  • All Grown Up (written by Daniel Hart, performed by Molly Parker) (1:11)
  • Neverland (2:42)
  • Never Say His Name (1:21)
  • Tea Time (2:08)
  • No Clocks (2:52)
  • Behemooth (written by Curtis Glenn Heath, performed by Ian Tracey) (1:34)
  • It’s Not Half Bad Being a Pirate (1:20)
  • Peter Pan Shall Perish Today (1:43)
  • Where You Go from Here Is Up to You (2:43)
  • The Very First Lost Boy (2:53)
  • The Shadow Run (1:04)
  • The Brig (2:01)
  • Ode to the Falling (written by Curtis Glenn Heath, performed by Ian Tracey) (2:08)
  • Did Anyone Hear a Splash? (0:49)
  • Faith, Trust and Pixie Dust (6:48)
  • Straight on ‘Til Chaos (2:32)
  • Reckoning (2:32)
  • Straight on ‘Til Morning (2:12)
  • Goodbye Peter Pan (3:35)

Running Time: 50 minutes 16 seconds

Walt Disney Records (2023)

Music composed by Daniel Hart. Conducted by Mark Graham. Orchestrations by Mark Graham, Jeff Kryka, Tommy Lawrence and Trevor Motycka. Additional music by Mark Graham and Jermaine Stegall. Original themes from Peter Pan by Oliver Wallace. Recorded and mixed by Jake Jackson and Danny Reisch. Edited by Fernand Bos and Nevin Seus. Album produced by Daniel Hart and Jake Jackson.

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