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Expectations can sometimes be a really bad thing. When it comes to film music, it can be something really bothersome (at least to some extent). Throughout the years we have been manipulated by the musical usage of Hollywood movies to know what to expect from each film we are going to see and hear. Romantic and period movies are often accompanied by the piano/woodwind/strings combo, comedy is often scored with lighthearted bouncing around, superhero movies should contain a larger than life musical accompaniment, epic movies have huge orchestras and wide, sweeping themes, etc. If anything, it is music from films in the fantasy genre that carry the greatest importance as regards music and how it is supposed to sound like. Films by the likes of say Willow, Edward Scissorhands, or more recently, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, are by default movies that should (and do) have wonderful musical accompaniments that evoke the strange enviroments they are supposed to represent. When things don't go exactly how we expect them to, then it will cause some head scratching. And this is what Harry Gregson-Williams' score for The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe made me do.
The first cinematic adaptation of C.S. Lewis Narnia novels, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the story of the four Pevensie children Lucy, Edmund, Peter and Susan, who are forced to evacuate from wartime London in 1940 to the calmer countryside mansion of a relative of theirs, Professor Kirke. While playing hide and seek one day in the house, Lucy happens to hide inside a wardrobe and soon finds herself transported to the fantasy land of Narnia. The place is ruled by the tyrannical White Witch, who is causing Narnia to be covered in a perpetual state of winter. It's not long before the rest of the children also come across to Narnia that eventually results in Edmund being captured by the White Witch and the rest of the kids have to journey across Narnia to find the help of Aslan, the lion king on the side of good, if they want to beat the witch. Directed by Shrek's Andrew Adamson, the first Narnia movie is a wonderfully filmed adventure that contains some state-of-the-art (or somewhat) CGI effects, dazzling cinematography and production values trying to go after The Lord of the Rings in quality. If anything, the subject matter has been much compared with that of Lewis' contemporary J.R.R. Tolkien and his creation of The Lord of the Rings. This comparison has become even greater since Peter Jackson's adaptation of Tolkien's trilogy has become so hugely popular, and with Narnia following so close behind this wave, it can be assertained that to make Narnia now was nothing more than a shameless attempt to cash in on the fantasy-craze. And just as with the film, comparisons have also been automatically drawn between the music and how Harry Gregson-Williams' score for Narnia copes with Howard Shore's thematically rich score for LOTR. And this is where we get to my initial statement about the dangers of pre-conceived ideas. In many respects The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is completely different from the Lord of the Rings and as such should be listened without thinking of its close brethren, for they are completely different alltogether despite similarities in the story.
Harry Gregson-Williams has of late been getting a lot of attention as one of the brightest new stars in the film music sky since his newly found independence from the Media Ventures stable of composers under Hans Zimmer. His best known work thus far has been as the co-composer of the Shrek movies with John Powell (which is why Gregson-Williams was selected for Narnia), followed by an adventure score for the 2001 animated film Sinbad (a flop that was quickly forgotten), and his biggest solo score before Narnia, Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven, a choral-heavy, medieval piece that has divided opinions in the film score community as to its merits. Therefore Narnia can really be considered as only his second really large-scale score for a big, box-office movie and expectations were naturally high. Beginning with the cue "The Blitz, 1940," we are immediately thrown into the war time bombing of London with a rhythmically oppressive piece that uses a lot of synthesised percussion and simulated noises of airplane engines. The following "Evacuating London" then begins with a heartfelt and sorrowful melody on flute and strings to which a piano offers its own ruminations (this being the theme for the Pevensie children). Ah, so beautiful, but then the mood changes into something completely different that really took me back the first time I heard it: a pop beat in the style of some '80s disco number along with the vocals of Lisbeth Scott. You know, I'm all for trying something new, but this is just inappropriate. How something like this is supposed to fit seamlessly within a 1940s setting is beyond me. As it is, these two opening tracks pretty much set the tone for whatever follows, meaning a lot of generic orchestral writing, an unnecessary amount of synths à la the best and worst of Media Ventures scores, and a mysterious lack of what can be termed as "fantasy".
There are quite a few themes jotted in the score, but they suffer from a generic style that is neither distinctive or very memorable. The melancholy theme for the Pevensie children was already heard in a veiled form in the opening track and more distinctly in "Evacuating London," and this theme appears in fragments throughout the music. Then there is the theme for Narnia itself, first heard in "The Wardrobe," which is more exotic in tone in a very Hollywood sort of way, meaning it really doesn't suggest a far distant fantasy land in a way that would render that world at all interesting. The third major theme is perhaps the most easily recognisable, being the huge "heroic" theme that is most readily associated with Aslan that is big, bold and very generic, best heard in the tracks "To Aslan's Camp," "The Battle" and "Only the Beginning of the Adventure." All these themes are functional, but their main problem is that they are melodically pretty elusive, and I'd say it would be a stretch for anybody to remember the first one after only a couple of listens.
The biggest problem with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is that HGW seems too reluctant to forsake his Media Ventures roots, which manifests in many instances in the thematic material and instrumentation. The cue "Lucy Meets Mr. Tumnus" contains the ever weird electric violin (second only to the electric cello) that is one of those instruments I just don't understand the purpose of. In "A Narnia Lullaby" we can hear another Media Ventures standard, the ancient Armenian fiddle duduk, that has appeared almost everywhere since its introduction in Gladiator, and thus creates another link to the composer's past, though I have to admit it is quite an effective cue. The new age vocals of Lisbeth Scott return in "From Western Woods to Beaversdam" and makes for more of the kind of ethereal singing heard from Lisa Gerrard in Gladiator and Moya Brennan in King Arthur, again "enhanced" with a deep synthesised beat. And the most blatant over-usage of synthesised percussion and rhythms is something that I always feel really degrades films of this nature, since unless they are used with the greatest skill, they will cause anything sound cheap and contrived. There are also a couple of moments where the music becomes more dissonant and less easy to listen, such as in "The White Witch" and the first half of the lengthy "The Stone Table," the former that would not being out of place in a horror movie and the latter featuring some deep throat singing of a male choir and a lot of understated droning that quickly gets very uninteresting during its eight-minute duration. On a more interesting note there is the cue "Father Christmas" that contains some of the much-needed sense of magic and fantasy, which so unfortunately is missing from so much of the score. The seven-minute cue "The Battle" for the penultimate fight for this film's finale is also one of the highlights of the album that mixes in some quite fantastic statements of the main themes in a tour-de-force scene that gives glimpses of what the score could have been like if HGW had wanted to make it so. With its liberal use of the choir and orchestra it is a very enjoyable track, somewhat reminiscent of the action scenes from Kingdom of Heaven, though it is again hindered somewhat by the constant synths in the background that take away much of the power the music could otherwise have had. The final score cue "Only the Beginning of the Adventure" then rounds out all the main themes in a very effective way, proving to be arguably the best track on the album.
The score album is capped off with four songs that you are either going to like or they will make you gringe. I'm of the latter disposition, thinking these songs are terribly misplaced and in no way enhance the album. The first "Can't Take It In" was written and performed by Imogen Heap and is rightfully terrible, like one of those mixes of new age vocal usage, bland melodies and insufferably fluffy childishness often found from pop music today. The second song is perhaps even worse. The always overrated Alanis Morissette performs her song "Wunderkind" that doesn't differ too much from her usual songs and contains the most ridiculous pronounciation of the word "Wunderkind" (she sings it "wanderkind" as in to "wander" around aimlessly and "kind" as in being nice to someone). I had a little argument with another person about this fact, to the effect that Morissette apparently speaks fluent German and pronounced the word like this on purpose to give it some kind of a double meaning, but I still think that is just plain stupid (if you spell it Wunderkind, it's not going to change into anything else). "Winter Light" by Tim Finn is your basic teen ballad by an artist I have never even heard of (he sounds like a cheap knock-off of Ozzie Osborne's recent lighter efforts to be honest), and finally there is HGW's own "Where," which is performed by Lisbeth Scott to the music of the Childrens' theme and containing another one of those annoying pop beats.
It may come across that I'm needlessly bashing this score for wanting it to be different than what it is, but the fact of the matter is that there is absolutely nothing that distinctive about the entire score. There are some painfully misplaced musical styles included (the pop beats of "Evacuating London", the electric violin in "Lucy Meets Mr. Tumnus," the cheap synths), themes that are on the whole pretty unmemorable, and overall there is a slight lack of cohesion (at least on album) that causes the music to jump around a little too much with no sense of consistency. Also the fact that the mixing is pretty flat and bland, causing the 75-member orchestral ensemble and 140-member choir to sound like it's a 55-member orchestra and 75-member choir and has some pretty bland orchestrations, makes one crave for some re-mixing of the different elements and a little more imagination as reagards instrumentation. In addition to the original album, there is also a special "Limited Edition" version available, which contains an extra DVD (with some interviews by the director and composer) along with the standard album. Avoid this at all costs! It is nothing more than Walt Disney Records' attempt to cash more from the unsuspecting consumer with a fancy leather packaging and the words "Limited Edition," of which you have to pay a lot more dosh just to get a DVD that is quite useless. There is also another basically pointless album released for Narnia that contains a bunch of Christian songs from a number of artists, that has absolutely nothing to do with the movie itself. Pointless and not worth your trouble. So all in all, Harry Gregson-Williams' The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is functional, but nothing really spectacular. I have to say I was looking forward to this score, but was really disappointed. The sheer generiqueness and cheap sound completely diluted the awe-inspiring and wondrous fantasy elements that the score should have been full of. It's still a pleasant listen, but overall I don't think there is anything of real interest to sustain repeat listens for more than three or four times at most.
1. The Blitz, 1940 (2:32)
2. Evacuating London (3:39)
3. The Wardrobe (2:54)
4. Lucy Meets Mr. Tumnus (4:11)
5. A Narnia Lullaby (1:13)
6. The White Witch (5:31)
7. From Western Woods to Beaversdam (3:34)
8. Father Christmas (3:20)
9. To Aslan's Camp (3:13)
10. Knighting Peter (3:48)
11. The Stone Table (8:07)
12. The Battle (7:08)
13. Only the Beginning of the Adventure (5:32)
14. Can't Take It In (performed by Imogen Heap (4:43)
15. Wunderkind (performed by Alanis Morissette) (5:20)
16. Winter Light (performed by Tim Finn) (4:13)
17. Where (performed by Lisbeth Scott) (1:55)
Produced by Harry Gregson-Williams
Music Composed and Conducted by Harry Gregson-Williams
Performed by The Los Angeles Recording Arts Orchestra, The Bach Choir, The Choir of the King's Consort & Sylvia Young Theatre School Choir
Featured Vocalist: Lisbeth Scott
Featured Musicians: Chris Bleth, Hugh Marsh & Timo Väänänen
Orchestrated by Bruce Fowler, Ladd McIntosh, Walter Fowler, Suzette Moriarty & Rick Giovinazzo
Music Recorded and Mixed by Joel Iwataki, Shawn Murphy & Pete Cobbin
Recorded at Todd-AO Scoring Stage, Los Angeles & Abbey Road Studios, London
Music Editors: Adam Milo Smalley & Bryan Elliott Lawson
Walt Disney Records, 2005 (0946-3-47667-2-2)
© berlioz, 2006