A reworking of the classic Sleeping Beauty story from the point of view of its villainess, Maleficent stars Angelina Jolie in the title role with support from Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley and Sam Riley. The film explores Maleficent's transformation from angelic Queen of the Moorland realm to vengeful villain, one who places a curse on Princess Aurora after being cruelly stripped of her wings by her supposed true love. However, as Aurora grows into adulthood, Maleficent forms a bond with her supposed enemy and her cold heart is gradually melted... Directed by Avatar art director Robert Stromberg, the film's sweeping, visually dazzling canvas is ideal material for composer James Newton Howard, who makes his long-awaited return to the area of soaring fantasy. The genre has always allowed Howard to stretch his musical wings – and after several years of largely dabbling in contemporary-sounding action scores (Salt; The Bourne Legacy; The Hunger Games), 2014 will likely be cherished as the year in which fans once again get to hear what Howard is really capable of.
The composer's command of a large orchestra, often in combination with ethereal choir, is brilliantly evocative of magical, far-off worlds – one need only think of scores such as Waterworld, Dinosaur, King Kong, Lady in the Water and The Last Airbender to be reminded of Howard's triumphs in this genre. Maleficent is similarly impressive – orchestrally robust and vocally evocative although, unlike the aforementioned scores, there isn't a clear thematic anchor, Howard instead favouring a host of strong musical ideas that float around each other in the manner of the film's fairy-tale characters.
Nevertheless, there's a richness and depth to the recording of the score that infuses it with a palpable sense of magic, making the need for repeat listenings a pleasurable task. Things begin with the "Maleficent Suite" in which Howard's typically detailed orchestrations become immediately apparent – twinkling chimes for a bit of fairy tale magic, choir and fluttering woodwinds. The suite also introduces two of the score's principal ideas including the eerie, undulating four note choral theme for Maleficent's curse, which then builds into a majestic depiction of Maleficent's theme, resplendent in rich brasses and resonant timpani hits.
The theme is heard early on in the score as Maleficent soars over her Moorland realm, Howard painting the character as a proud and powerful being prior to the tragic turn of events that deprives her of her wings. The theme gets notably lovely airings in "Welcome to the Moors" and "Maleficent Flies", the multi-faceted choral work ranging from oohs and ahhs to piping, whimsical interludes. "Battle of the Moors" is the first piece of rambunctious Howard action music, the composer introducing thunderous timpani hits and low brass tones to represent the war-mongering humans who become Maleficent's greatest enemies. After a couple of minutes of anxious build-up, Howard lets rip with a rhythmically powerful action piece reminiscent of King Kong – in comparison with the lightweight nature of the earlier tracks, it's positively earth-shattering. As the score progresses the dark theme for the humans is primarily aligned with the increasingly deranged character of Prince Stefan (played by Sharlto Copley) – the man responsible for stealing Maleficent's wings to aid his ascension to the throne.
The score flows wonderfully – after this aggressive interlude, Howard calms things down with the sprightly duo of "Three Peasant Women" and "Go Away", both of which call to mind the composer's masterpiece Restoration in the flighty, period-pastiche interaction of strings and woodwinds. "Aurora and the Faun" runs the gamut from beauty to the imposing human theme before one of the score's key set-pieces gets underway in "The Christening". After a noble brass introduction, darker material gives way to an overwhelming interpretation of the curse theme as Maleficent promises that the infant Princess Aurora will meet a terrible fate on her 16th birthday (although the few contemporary bars of synthetic percussion midway through represent the score's sole misstep).
The curse theme becomes increasingly prominent from here on, notably in "The Spindle's Power" (in which the increasingly dramatic orchestrations cleverly reflect Maleficent's newly formed desire to protect Aurora from the spell); and "The Curse Won't Reverse". And there are yet more themes to be discovered in the score. The tender love theme, representing the tentative relationship between the teenage Aurora and Prince Phillip (Brenton Thwaites) first appears in "Prince Philip" and adds delicate grace to later track "Philip's Kiss" (recalling Howard's underrated melodic material in The Sixth Sense).
The score's final principal theme represents the burgeoning connection between Maleficent and Aurora. First introduced tentatively in "You Could Live Here Now", the theme takes flight in the gorgeous "Aurora in Faerieland" where the gentle interaction of flute, piano and choir carries a definite Celtic air, even if the similarity to James Horner's Enemy at the Gates is definitely apparent. The theme gets a more tragic statement in "Are You Maleficent?" as the connection between Aurora and Maleficent deepens. The emotional complexity gains even greater depth in "True Love's Kiss", which reinstates Maleficent's theme to remind listeners that in this revisionist take on Sleeping Beauty, the real love story exists between Maleficent and Aurora.
Rounding off the score are a handful of thunderous action tracks - "Path of Destruction", "The Wall Defends Itself", "The Army Dances" (adding an unexpected jig variation to the rhythmic material) and "Maleficent Is Captured". The latter represents the score's action highlight, Newton Howard's orchestrations reaching furiously frenzied proportions during the all-important climactic showdown between Maleficent and her close enemy Prince Stefan. Everything is then brought to a satisfying conclusion with a heartfelt statement of Maleficent's theme in "The Queen of Faerieland", the orchestra and undulating choir lending a cathartic sense of release as peace is restored to the land, before one final crescendo sends the score out on a high. Lana del Ray's moody, sombre take on classic song "Once Upon a Dream" finishes everything off – it's a risky move to reinvent such a beloved musical number (itself derived from Tchaikovsky) but del Ray's interpretation is surprisingly effective, matching the film's aesthetic.
For some years now, fans of James Newton Howard have been patiently for him to return to the rich, orchestral fantasy sound that won him so many fans in the 1990s and 2000s. Although he has undoubtedly produced several strong scores in the last few years, Newton Howard clearly finds his strongest inspiration in the realm of make-believe, a genre that, as with other composers throughout the history of film music, allows the orchestral and choral forces to be fully unleashed. When he gets the opportunity, Newton Howard is among the best fantasy composers in the business and Maleficent does little to buck the trend. It's an enjoyably old-fashioned film score experience, one perhaps lacking a defining identity, but a beautiful return to form for the composer nonetheless.