James Horner’s wondrous fantasy score for Willow has finally gotten the loving expansion and remastering it deserves this year, courtesy of Intrada Records. With many an exquisitely crafted theme and explosively dramatic action setpiece, now coupled with a considerable amount of previously unreleased music, it’s simply one of Horner’s finest scores.
It has been an unfortunately long time since I’ve reviewed a James Horner score on this site. At long last though we’re back, and where better to resume than with a soundtrack that has not only been very recently expanded and remastered upon, but will also be receiving a thirty-years-in-the-making sequel in just a few short weeks. Expanding on the above then, Intrada Records is the company that lovingly took on the expansion of Horner’s exquisitely orchestrated, highly thematic score for 1988 fantasy movie Willow back in June of this year, with a good number of unreleased cues finally seeing the light of day as well as the entire album having received a well-deserved, high quality remastering. In Horner’s stead, James Newton Howard and Xander Rodzinski are then going to be scoring the sequel to Willow, a Disney+ series debuting in November this year, and the composers have already promised many a thematic reprisal from Horner’s original score, so the anticipation for the next chapter there is already through the roof. For now though we’ll stick to this original; it’s one of Horner’s classics, featuring many a gorgeous theme and rapidly orchestral action setpiece, and so with the stage set; let’s dive right in.
The eight minute “Elora Danan” opens Willow, with wistful, ethereal vocals and gently hopeful strings establishing quite a mysterious tone. It isn’t long though before you know for certain that this is a James Horner score, as his infamous four note danger motif comes into play at just under a minute in, used in this instance as a villain theme for the evil Queen Bavmorda of the film. The ominous mystery then continues for another minute or so until a new theme is introduced, this time for the track’s titular character Elora Danan, the princess prophesied to bring about the downfall of Bavmorda. Elora’s is a much more gentle, hopeful piece that utilises proudly romantic strings and tranquil woodwinds, establishing a grand sense of hope and optimism for a little while until the danger motif then crashes back into the fray at the four minute mark. Loud, aggressive brass and crashing drums then call the music to action for much of the next minute, with a crash of angered percussion then closing this section out on a rather defeated note. With the eight minute cue starting to draw to a close, Horner then introduces yet another new theme; this time a quietly optimistic, woodwind-heavy motif for the Nelwyn people of which main character Willow is part (thematically though, we’ll get to him later). This peaceful hopefulness then continues to cue’s end, finishing up the opening setpiece overall on a gentle strings-based note.
“The Nelwyns” and “The Nelwyns No. 2” then lean very heavily into folk-like music, with rapid string instruments and cheerful woodwinds establishing a particularly optimistic, party-esque tone for much of the five minute combined runtime of both tracks. These two are very much source cues in the film itself, but that doesn’t stop them from being pretty enjoyable in their own right. “Death Dogs” then returns to the score proper, with a crash of drums and bursts of aggressive brass diving into the action straightaway as the two and a half minute track begins. For the next minute or so the action then builds to a frenetic fever pitch, with a final crash of drums crescendoing it out at the ninety second mark. Anxious strings then take over for the final few seconds of the piece. “Willow’s Journey Begins” then opens slowly and hopefully, with Elora Danan’s gentle theme playing on optimistic strings until some rather enjoyable bagpipes then start playing at the two minute mark, surging the score’s newfound optimism forward. A rumble of drums near the three minute mark however then signals danger, with of course the four-note danger motif playing not far behind. This doesn’t last for long either however as Elora’s wistful theme then returns once again towards the end of the cue, playing grandly on stirring strings and wondrous woodwinds to then close out the piece on a surgingly hopeful note.
The minute long “Bavmorda’s Castle” then pulls the tone down into moody, morose orchestral atmosphere, with the subsequent “Airk’s Army” continuing in a similar vein initially with anxious woodwinds, before swirls of stirring brass and building percussion then slowly start to build hope again in the background, with a gentle rendition of Elora Danan’s theme then playing quietly yet rousingly on additional woodwinds. A burst from the danger motif does briefly hammer this building tranquility, but the hopeful Nelwyn theme then helps to settle the music back down for the cue’s final few seconds. “The Enchanted Forest” then debuts Willow’s theme, the mischievously adventurous motif for Warwick Davis’ dwarven sorcerer, and main character of the film. This new motif doesn’t stick around for long in its starting track here, opting instead to save its big heroic entrance for subsequent action setpiece “Escape From The Tavern”. Frantic strings open this one, with playful brass and crashes of dramatic percussion surging the increasingly frenetic pace forward. Willow’s now rather grand theme then bursts through at the thirty second mark, playing briefly at first before then thundering back into play later on in the cue for a loud and thoroughly heroic rendition, with the action then reaching a loudly grandiose finishing crescendo a minute or so later.
Twinkling percussion opens “The Island”, with quietly ethereal woodwinds building to occupy the background. A gentle melancholy then settles all the way through this five minute cue, with the peaceful Nelwyn theme also playing in tandem with the calming atmosphere. This tranquility however is then shattered by subsequent action piece “Willow Captured”, where a crash of percussion and thundering brass sets a particularly fast-paced, worrisome tone right off the bat. Tense strings then start playing the Nelwyn theme in an unusually panicked manner followed closely by an anxious flurry from Willow’s theme, with the two minute cue then drawing to a sudden pensive close a few seconds later. The short “Arrival At Snow Camp” then re-introduces the four note danger motif alongside bursts of aggressive brass, which then leads rather seamlessly into the eight minute “The Sled Ride”. Quietly tense brass notes and strings occupy the first few minutes of the piece, with the orchestra slowly building in volume and intensity with quiet hints toward Willow’s theme until a loud burst of brass kicks off the action proper with the danger motif at the five minute mark. Willow’s theme then plays loudly and heroically on triumphant brass as the orchestra continues to build in pace, clashing several further times with the danger motif until everything then comes to a crashing crescendo in the final few seconds of the cue.
Horner then treats us to a suite-like theme cue with “Willow’s Theme”, a four minute setpiece that (as you’d probably expect) features Willow’s theme in all its proudly orchestral glory. The motif jumps and swirls on loud, triumphant brass and crashes of thunderous percussion in a happily lengthy rendition through the first half of the piece, before Elora Danan’s theme then briefly takes over at the halfway point for a typically gentle, serene playthrough, and Willow’s motif then crashes back into the fray to finish things off toward the end. The score then returns proper in “Canyon Of Mazes”, with a burst of aggravated brass kicking off the eight minute cue. The music then descends into quiet, moody orchestral ambience for much of its runtime, with occasional riffs from the danger motif playing moodily in the background save for one particularly proud, heroic rendition of Willow’s theme at the track’s midpoint. Subsequent and nine minute cue “Tir Asleen” then jumps straight into action territory, with moody woodwind flairs and low-pitched, ominous brass opening the piece before an anxious rendition of Willow’s theme then arrives followed by several increasingly villainous playthroughs of the danger motif. This worrisome action orchestra then continues for much of the cue, with Willow’s theme thundering infrequently through for several increasingly worried appearances as the action builds to multiple loud crescendos until one final, crashing one then ends the track.
“Bavmorda’s Spell Is Cast” is the longest cue of the album by far, coming in at a whopping eighteen minutes long, and it begins with a rather ominous whistle from quiet, moody woodwinds before low brass then takes centre stage. The orchestra then slowly establishes itself for a few minutes before hints toward Elora Danan’s theme start to build quietly at the five minute mark. After a few further minutes of woodwind-based build-up with intermittent danger motif, Elora Danan and Nelwyn theme renditions, action then kicks off proper at just shy of ten minutes in with Willow’s heroic theme leading the charge loudly and grandiosely through crashing brass and thunderous percussion. The increasingly frenetic pace then continues for much of the cue’s remaining runtime, with Willow’s theme playing through several anxious further renditions until a near deafening danger motif crescendo is reached just as the eighteen minute piece comes to a close. Ten minute final cue “Willow The Sorcerer” then concludes the score, with the thunderous yet anxious action continuing initially before another dramatic crescendo occurs three minutes in, and the cue then plays the gentle Nelwyn theme one last time before triumphantly blasting Elora’s motif, and seguing into the film’s end credits suite. The suite begins with an upbeat orchestral harkening back to the rather joyous party-like strings music from the earlier “The Nelwyns” cues, before moving into concluding playthroughs of both Willow and Elora Danan’s themes a la “Willow’s Theme”. All-in, pretty perfectly concluding the score in typical Horner end credits fashion.
Overall, James Horner’s simply wondrous score for Willow is thoroughly entertaining from start to finish. The main themes are gorgeous (especially Elora Danan’s) and the way the composer expertly weaves them throughout the heroic action highs and quietly morose lows of the album is just a joy to listen to, and it makes for some fantastically enjoyable and happily lengthy setpieces as a result. Intrada’s excellent expansion here has also not only finally added in a bunch of the missing music from the original 1988 score album, but has given the overall score a loving remaster resulting in the orchestra now sounding crisper then ever before. It’s difficult to pick a standout cue when they are so many standout moments across this album (see the rollicking action heroics of “Escape From The Tavern” or the quietly emotional opening from “Elora Danan” for excellent runner-ups) but for me it’s got to be “Willow’s Theme” and “Willow The Sorcerer” as the winners here. They both feature exquisite reprisals of all the score’s main themes wrapped together in a simply gorgeous-sounding orchestral bow, overall displaying the very best of Horner’s Willow in exquisite suite-esque style. I mean, what more could you want?
All-in then, I for one am very much looking forward to hearing what James Newton Howard and Xander Rodzinski have in store for us with the score for the sequel series, as if nothing else, we’ll get to finally hear James Horner’s exquisite Willow themes again.
Standout Cue: 14. Willow’s Theme/18. Willow The Sorcerer
Buy Intrada’s 2-CD expansion and remastering of Willow right here.
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