James Newton Howard’s magical score to this movie is both classical and modern, combining elements of Tchaikovsky’s famous Nutcracker ballet with Howard’s signature musical style.
The Nutcracker And The Four Realms is yet another reboot of the original 1892 Nutcracker ballet, this time created by Disney and primarily featuring live action characters. It’s certainly not a film I blinked twice at (although, honestly that’s probably more to do with my general disinterest in fairytale movies more than anything else), that is until earlier this week when I saw a great many people in the soundtrack community raving about the score. With my interest piqued, I decided to have a look and was pleasantly surprised to see that James Newton Howard was scoring it. Having never really listened to this style of score and wanting a chance to hear more of Howard I decided to expand my horizons a bit and give Four Realms a chance. To cut a long story short, I was not disappointed.
Before I get into the deeper analysis of the music here, I feel I should point out that I am no expert in Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. I’ve heard it before and so can mostly pick it out when I hear it (as it does crop up a few times in Howard’s score here) but beyond that I know nothing, so if you’re looking for a deep analysis into the use of Tchaikovsky for this movie, you’re not going to find it here. What you will find is an analysis of the best tracks as well as an overview on how good I think the album is.
The score opens with The Nutcracker And The Four Realms, and presumably acts as the “Main Titles” for the film. Howard captures the fairytale magic you would expect from this kind of movie pretty much immediately, introducing a very classical sounding strings and piano combination that then plays out the main theme. I caught a little bit of Tchaikovsky towards the end of the piece, but the main theme sounds fairly original to me (could be wrong, but don’t think I am) and if so then it is a pretty great motif by Howard. It’s uplifting and rather pleasant, and a pretty great way to open the score.
Presents From Mother is a much slower and softer piece, with much more modern sounding score elements taking the forefront. It opens with slow and melancholic strings backed by some simple yet effective percussion, which continue in that vein for a minute or two before vocals come into play in the background and Howard moves over to a more classical setting. Overall, the result is an enchanting and very Christmas-y piece of music, which unlike the previous track features a well executed blend of modern and classical musical styles.
This style then continues through into Clara’s New World, which opens with a few seconds of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker before moving back into more traditional Howard territory with modern sounding brass and strings. This is how Tchaikovsky is treated for most of the album; a few seconds of his well known ballet music that is just enough to get you to recognise it and then it is whisked away. As to whether this is a good thing or not, I would honestly say that it is – simply because I enjoy Howard here far more than Tchaikovsky. He is an expert in his field and hearing his take on classical music is far more interesting (at least for me) than having to listen to the original Nutcracker, as we’ve heard it before.
Giving Howard the majority of the spotlight is thankfully a recurring theme throughout this album, as we get some simply fantastic sounding score. Mouserinks is the first to step into the action setting, and the combination of classical vocals and rapid brass makes for a highly enjoyable piece. This album is also incredibly well mastered, and as a result we get some incredible sound, which is just the icing on top of the cake.
Four Realms then switches up completely into a welcome action style for the back half of the album, starting with Clara Finds The Key and culminating in The Machine Room Fight. These tracks are a treat; essentially being twenty minutes of rapid strings, epic sounding brass and a great combination of Tchaikovsky’s classical and Howard’s modern styles. Things then start to draw to a close in The Machine Room Fight, as the music gradually slows down and the vocals take centre stage, leaving the brass behind. The track then ends with a rather victorious sounding strings and vocal combination that continues through into Queen Clara. The track opens with some very upbeat and “fairytale ending” style brass and vocals, that then quiet back down into Howard’s more modern style strings for a slow and peaceful finale.
The Nutcracker Suite then closes out the album, and just so happens to also be the standout cue of the score, simply because it’s a highly enjoyable collection of the best musical elements of Four Realms and is primarily played by renowned pianist Lang Lang. The main theme returns as well as a short selection of some of Tchaikovsky’s work, and all-in it makes for a very classical (being primarily strings and piano based) and pretty fantastic piece of music.
Overall, The Nutcracker And The Four Realms is a pretty amazing album. James Newton Howard expertly blends modern score styles with the classical setting of the original Nutcracker, and even goes so far as to include some of Tchaikovsky’s motifs too. They don’t appear much though, which is probably a good thing as it allows Howard’s new music to shine that much brighter. What could have been better perhaps was the action section of the album, which while highly enjoyable lacked thematic elements and as a result was a tad lackluster at times when it could have been incredible. This is only a minor grievance however, as overall Howard’s score here is simply sublime.
The Nutcracker And The Four Realms is very nearly perfect.
Standout Cue: 16. The Nutcracker Suite