Disney is still pursuing their strategy releasing remakes of their older animation movies with enormous success; “Maleficent” started that modern trend back in 2014 with Kenneth Branagh’s wonderful “Cinderella” and the 2016 adaption of “The Jungle Book” to follow. Admittedly, they have all been really good in terms of film making and in terms of film scoring (just think of Doyle’s “Cinderella” – more on this one soon!). By now, Disney continues this development with a live adaption of “Pete’s Dragon” and the upcoming “Beauty and the Beast”.
Howard Shore – who earned himself a seat in the Olympus of film scoring with his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy – was originally attached to score this movie, a really wonderful choice everyone was looking forward to (okay, I’m talking about myself…). Unfortunately, there had been no other information regarding this assignment in his interviews for a long time, so everyone was wondering what the hell had happened to the Canadian composer and his involvement in this project. Out of nowhere, violinist and composer Daniel Hart, whose previous scoring credits include “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” and “The Orientalist”, was announced as the film’s composer. Quite disappointing for the ones like me who had been incredibly excited to hear a new fantasy score written by Shore. But while the movie itself received almost universally critical acclaim, same goes for the score which has constantly been described as one of the best out of 2016 since its release date.
Hart builds his score around two recurring leitsmotifs, the first of these subtly introduced in the relaxing “Are You Gonna Eat Me?”. It is a very beautiful, simple but effective four-note melody, more a motif than a theme, that wonderfully illustrates the growing relationship between Pete and his dragon friend Elliott. Luckily, Hart really gives his theme enough time to develop, going through a lot of variations. You can hear its first real orchestral breakout in the second half of “Reverie” during which the composer lets the musicians play with incredible power, leading the score into a joyous arrangement of the “friendship” theme. He even uses it as a counterpoint in the action cues and offers lots of other passages where the theme explodes in its pure orchestral force, the best one undoubtedly featured in the score’s last cue, “The Bravest Boy I’ve Ever Met”.
One of the score’s songs, “The Dragon Song” (wow, now that’s a creative title…), builds the basis for another secondary theme heavily influenced by Irish folk music that is used in Hart’s music and which can be heard in “Brown Bunny” as well as “Gavin Knows What He’s Doing”.
Speaking of the orchestration, I have to admit that it is truly wonderful (okay, Kevin Kaska serves as main orchestrator here, so I shouldn’t be surprised!): In addition to a 94-piece orchestra, Hart incorporates guitars, mandolins, fiddles and hand-claps into the score which futher contributes to the music’s vivid, lively character. Also noteworthy is the contribution of popular violinist/dancer Lindsey Stirling who had been asked to record some of the violin solos heard on the score – check out the video below!
Some cues just flow by despite being very pretty; they lack a specific emotional connection by missing a fully-developed melody. Nevertheless, the overall amount of the material gives you chills and puts a smile on your face. Hart’s action scoring is graced with orchestral beauty although some of it is rather simplistic in its execution (reminds me of Debney’s “Jungle Book” – to a certain degree!). However, he always keeps it engaging and interesting by blending his musical ideas with the already established themes in very intelligent ways.
After the incredibly well-structured “Elliott at the Bridge”, Hart offers probably the score’s most emotional piece, the almost heartbreaking “Abyss”, which then turns into another variation of the “friendship” theme and leads into the final three cues that finish the album with some beautiful string writing, presenting the themes one last time before the orchestral outburst of the main theme closes the score in an almost triumphant way.
And yes, it is a triumph, at least for composer Daniel Hart who has ultimately proven that he is more than capable of handling a big budget movie by writing a beautiful orchestral score and incorporating some unexpected, yet wonderful Irish folk music influences. However, that impression is slightly diminished by the action material sometimes being rather simplistic and some pieces being too unfocused on the musical storytelling, at least in certain parts – but luckily, this affects only a small amount of the music presented on the album.
For me, it is always a pleasure to hear such a great score written by a relatively unknown composer; hopefully, “Pete’s Dragon” will get Hart more recognition in the film scoring business. So far, it definitely counts as one of the best soundtrack entries in 2016 and will surely end up on some people’s best of lists at the end of the year.
Score composed by Daniel Hart. Music conducted and orchestrated by Kevin Kaska. Album produced by Daniel Hart.
1. The Dragon Song – Bonnie “Prince” Billy
2. Something Wild (feat. Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness) – Lindsey Stirling
3. Nobody Knows – The Lumineers
4. Something on Your Mind – St. Vincent
5. So Long, Marianne – Leonard Cohen
6. Gina Anne – Bosque Brown
7. An Adventure
8. Are You Gonna Eat Me?
9. Brown Bunny
11. Tree Fort
12. North Star
13. Bedtime Compass
16. Gavin Knows What He’s Doing
17. You Are Not Alone
18. Elliot Gets Lost
20. It’ll Be Just Like It Used to Be
21. Follow That Dragon
22. Elliot at the Bridge
24. Go North
25. Saying Goodbye
26. The Bravest Boy I’ve Ever Met
27. The Dragon Song Revisited – Bonnie “Prince” Billy
28. Candle on the Water – Okkervil River
Album available on Walt Disney Records.