James Newton Howard delivers a quite literally magical score with Fantastic Beasts, and while it doesn’t quite hit the heights of Harry Potter, it still makes for a highly enjoyable and well crafted album.
Honestly, I’ve been holding off reviewing this score. The draft for the review has been sitting gathering dust for a long time, and this is mainly because I just never liked the concept or execution of the Fantastic Beasts franchise. I think it’s just Warner Bros. trying to scrape more money from the Harry Potter barrel, a theory that was reinforced when I managed to get halfway through the first Beasts movie before giving up. There was just something off about it. It felt like Harry Potter but without the magic (this being metaphorical magic, there was of course actual magic) and I didn’t find Scamander or really any of the main characters particularly compelling, certainly not on the level of the previous franchise.
I also felt the same way about the score. I’ve listened to Fantastic Beasts once before today (way back when it came out in 2016), and while I respected how well crafted it is and how expertly Howard had woven the themes, it sat solidly in the pile of “meh” scores in my mind. Unfortunately, John Williams set an incredibly high bar for the magical franchise with his music for Harry Potter, and Howard’s really paled in comparison (as did the other five non-Williams Potter movies honestly). No matter how much I tried, I couldn’t listen to Fantastic Beasts without thinking “the other guy did it better.” It was most definitely a bias, but then again it is a bias that I imagine most fans of the series had. It also wasn’t helped by the Main Titles track for this album.
With the sequel movie looming however I decided enough was enough, and so began my second listen through for the score. The album opens with Main Titles (fairly obviously), and I pretty much immediately rolled my eyes. I won’t lie, the first fifteen seconds of this track coloured my view of the entire score for my first album listen. It just really rubbed me the wrong way. Essentially, the first thing that we hear on this score are the opening notes to John Williams’ Hedwig’s Theme.
Why did you do this, Warner Bros? For a start, it completely undermines the rest of the track, and honestly the rest of the score too. Suddenly, you’re not listening for the cool new themes Howard might have composed, you’re listening for any and all possible hints or scrapings of John Williams’ iconic Harry Potter scores. Certainly that’s what I did anyway. It’s a similar thing to what they did with the music for Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. You have to make a decision either way. You either go all in with the old music, or go all in with the new. You can’t have it both ways, or you’ll just end up disappointing everyone.
It also doesn’t help that unlike Jurassic World the music from Harry Potter isn’t relevant here at all. Fantastic Beasts is set a hundred or so years before, and Hedwig’s Theme is the music for an owl that won’t be borne for a very long time yet. Don’t get me wrong, I know exactly why they did it; nostalgia. They want people to reminisce about Harry Potter and get them to feel the same way that they did with that franchise with Fantastic Beasts. For score fans such as myself however, it just comes across as desperate and incredibly annoying.
Anyway, rant over. The music that then follows the atrocity has a somewhat dark edge to it, and is highly enjoyable as Howard uses great sounding percussion and strings to get this mood across. He then switches up after a few seconds into a much lighter tone, and one of the main themes of the score; Newt’s Theme. It’s a very heroic piece, reinforced by vocals and powerful brass. We only hear a snippet of it here, but it makes for a very good start.
Tina Takes Newt In then introduces a dramatic and incredibly powerful new theme. I’ve read a few reviews and analyses about this score, and nobody can seem to really decide what exactly it is that this theme represents. To some it’s the main Fantastic Beasts theme, to others it’s the Magic theme. Certainly for a main theme it doesn’t appear very much on the score, having a pretty major presence in the first half before disappearing almost altogether (on the non-deluxe edition anyway), but for clarity purposes that’s what I’ll call it. The music itself is very bold, with loud vocals and incredible brass making for a deep and magical set of notes. This theme has some serious presence, so it is a bit of a shame it doesn’t get used much.
The action then begins with The Demiguise and the Occamy, and this is where Howard really gets going with this score. Loud, rousing and rapid brass takes the forefront for some epic playthrough’s of Newt’s Theme. This is the first track that honestly really impressed me, (I’m a massive fan of action music) and I’ve listened to it a great many times since. The brass certainly towards the end of the track also reminded me of Alan Silvestri’s The Mummy Returns, which for reference is an amazing action score so whether deliberate or not Howard’s similarities in composing here make for some highly enjoyable score.
Howard it seems was hell bent on action at this point, as much of the back half of the album is heavily this. The Obscurus is the next one of real interest, as once again the composer makes expert use of fast strings and prominent brass in a heart-racing piece. Relieve Him Of His Wand continues this with some explosive renditions of Newt’s Theme along with some very heroic and dramatic vocals. All-in these tracks make for a very enjoyable twenty minutes of expertly-weaved James Newton Howard action, which almost makes up for using the Harry Potter theme at the beginning (kidding, of course it does). The action then fades into sadder territory in Newt Says Goodbye To Tina, which has some solemn strings taking centre stage, making for a rather depressing end to the album in all honesty.
The standout cue then comes in End Titles, a welcome rousing finale that leaves the depressing previous track in the dust. Loud and proud brass comes back with a passion, and Newt’s Theme then gets a gloriously heroic playing before the track then comes to a rather short yet still satisfying close.
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by Fantastic Beasts. Before this review I remembered it as a fairly boring score, but two years later I found myself very nearly loving it. Maybe my tastes changed or I was finally able to get over the resentment I had towards Warner Bros and bias towards John Williams. Having now listened to it a good few times for this review I’ve a newfound respect for the score, and look forward to hearing Howard’s magical themes again in The Crimes Of Grindelwald.
Fantastic Beasts was a damn good score, that I unfortunately just took far too long to see.
Standout Cue: 17. End Titles