Before getting in to Arnold’s strong score for the third film in the Narnia franchise, a little history is needed. Public opinion concerning Harry Gregson-Williams’ scores for the first two Narnia films was relatively split. Many loved Gregson-Williams’ blend of orchestra, choir, and electronics while many found it inappropriate for the genre. To be fair, Gregson-Williams was faced with nearly insurmountable odds due to Howard Shore’s triumph for LOTR being fresh in many minds, making comparisons between the music of the two franchises inevitable. Therefore, he went in a direction that was not altogether unpredictable. It was immediately understandable (yet still slightly disappointing) that he wanted to separate his music as much as he could from Shore’s, making comparison more of an “apples to oranges” ordeal. That being said, it must be said that Gregson-Williams did handle himself quite well and managed to compose two or three very superb and very memorable themes for the series. In spite of the omnipresent electronic presence in those scores, the music still felt like it belonged in a fantasy world. That is no small feat.
Unfortunately, the lukewarm critical reception and poor box office performance of the second movie “Prince Caspian” eventually led to Disney backing down from financing the franchise. Fans were left in turmoil as a very dark cloud was cast over the future of the land of Narnia. However, 20th Century Fox (Fox 2000) stepped in and due to their financing we have a third Narnia film. At some point there was a creative overhaul as we now have a different director who brought in a different composer, David Arnold. Narnia fans could finally rejoice that after a long wait another film would be made, but fans of Gregson-Williams’ first two scores would be somewhat disappointed. David Arnold had some big shoes to fill and many questions lingered in the minds of his fans. Would he go the way of John Ottman for “Superman Returns” and bring back many of the themes that served to define the franchise? Or would he go the way of Nicholas Hooper and Alexandre Desplat for “Harry Potter” and largely abandon said themes? Would the score be completely orchestral or more along the lines of Gregson-Williams new-age blend?
David Arnold’s fans, though, rejoiced at the prospect. One of Arnold’s best-known and loved scores was for the early Roland Emmerich film “Independence Day”. The score was a triumph in nearly every way and stands as one of the few true classics of the modern era (his trilogy of Emmerich films, “Stargate”, “Independence Day”, and “Godzilla” are typically considered his best works). Arnold then went on to score some thrillers and low-key films which had serviceable-to-mediocre scores. He rose to prominence once again with his exciting score for the James Bond reboot “Casino Royale” and followed that up with “Quantum of Solace.” Sadly, though, he never quite managed to again reach the heights of “Independence Day”. When it was announced that Arnold would be scoring The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, fans salivated at the prospect. The thought of Arnold returning to his glory days with a fantasy film proved to be quite exciting. Therefore, anticipation and expectation has been relatively high.
Did Arnold deliver the goods? Well, yes and no. There are no doubt many who will be vastly disappointed by this score. Make no mistake, it is not the loud, bombastic, flighty fantasy score that some had no doubt hoped for. In fact, it is pretty slow-moving much of the time. Upon first glance, this will appear to be a bad thing, but this is an album that must be listened to repeatedly in order to fully appreciate. The multiplicity of themes and motifs is, frankly, surprising and staggering. The action music is suitably exciting, particularly the 11-minute finale. His use of choir is charming and magical. Technically, all of the pieces are in place for Arnold to have created a masterpiece. Is it a masterpiece? Perhaps not, but is it a very strong score that does stand above Gregson-Williams’ efforts in just about every way imaginable.
I’ll speak first of the main theme, rolled out in whimsical fashion from the get go in “Opening Titles”. This theme is a clear winner, perfectly capturing the bold and seafaring yet innocent and magical nature of the film. It is given quite the nautical treatment in “The Portrait” as the Pevensie children presumably first lay eyes on the grand ship. It is given various treatments throughout the score before given a heart-wrenching and beautiful statement in “Time to Go Home” as the children say goodbye to Narnia. There are at least four or five more identifiable themes or motifs woven into the score, such as one for the children, another which seems to be for the Dawn Treader itself, and another for the green mist (or white witch). Arnold clearly did not slouch concerning themes, nor thematic continuity.
While only one theme of Gregson-Williams’ returns (his theme for Aslan) for the Dawn Treader, its statement in “High King and Queen of Narnia” is perhaps one of the best treatments it has ever received. Arnold gives it a suitably royal, elegant, and majestic treatment and truly brings the theme to life. Arnold seems to subtly reference Gregson-Williams’ theme for Narnia at other points in the score, most noticeably in “Ship to Shore”. Some of Arnold’s themes also seem themselves to be offshoots of Gregson-Williams’ themes. It is comforting to know that Arnold did not simply adapt a superior attitude of “This is mine now!” and abandon what initially defined the musical franchise.
The action music, while relatively sparse, is still a highlight of the score. “The Portrait” is suitably rollicking, especially in its second half, while “Dragon Fight” conjures up images of just that, with a welcome and triumphant thematic statement at the end. “The Green Mist” is a harsh piece of action music, setting us up for the finale with its rhythms and choral chanting. Arnold saved the best for last though, giving us a phenomenal 11-minute piece of action music. “Into Battle” is harsh and abrasive at times, but very exciting throughout. Some of the brass writing is sensational. It must be said that when the brass kicks into high gear throughout the score it is reminiscent of Arnold’s more recent Bond scores. This is not automatically a bad thing but is slightly off-putting for a little while. The sound of the brass, though, can probably be contributed to the orchestrations of Nicholas Dodd and he and Arnold’s developing sound as a duo of film music. Another good aspect of this score is that it is quite clearly a fantasy score. Unlike the music of many composers fresh out of Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control production house, one cannot simply take this music and apply it to any modern film. Arnold, in his first fantasy outing, achieves a sound that Alexandre Desplat has not been able to conjure in multiple fantasy scores. In that sense, what Arnold has achieved here is remarkable. The use of certain instruments, like the glockenspiel, help to conjure this sound.
It all comes down to what you are expecting and if your mind is open. If you are expecting a masterpiece on the level of John Williams’ brilliant score for “Hook” then you may be disappointed. However, if you are looking for a suitably entertaining, tune-full, appropriately magical score for a fantasy film then this may be your lucky day, even if the score is slow-moving. If you’re an Arnold fan, then this should not disappoint you. If you’re a Gregson-Williams fan, then be prepared for a uniquely different, fully orchestral (very little electronics here) score. Overall, the score has something for everyone. Is it on the action and thematic level of Independence Day? Perhaps not, but Arnold should be commended for the obvious amount of thought and effort he put into scoring the film. This score comes highly recommended.