A pleasingly old-fashioned throwback melodrama directed by Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend), Water for Elephants is adapted from Sara Gruen's novel. It tells the story of a young veterinary student, Jacob (Robert Pattinson) who, following the death of his parents, joins a travelling circus and promptly falls in love with its star attraction, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon). Filtered through an evocative, nostalgic lens, the film is undeniably a triumph of visual beauty and design but the show is stolen by the magnificent Christoph Waltz as the unpredictable circus ringleader, August. Returning to collaborate with Lawrence for a second time is James Newton Howard, whose graceful touch with romance and drama adds an extra element of rose-tinted warmth.
Imagine a whole score sounding like "Beautiful" from Howard's very own King Kong and one imagines the delicacy on display in Water for Elephants. It's an enchanting and delightful effort, placing melody and harmony right at the forefront of a quietly expansive orchestral set-up. Twinkling celeste and harp is a prominent feature throughout, lending an irresistible, fairy tale edge to proceedings, whilst piano and strings meander exquisitely in and out. Although the score owes something of a debt to the gentler works of Alexandre Desplat, Thomas Newman and James Horner, Howard's romantic voice is notably strong. The opener, "Did I Miss It?" is appropriately wistful and flowing, as the elderly Jacob (Hal Holbrook) appears in a framing narration device, giving rise to the story that follows. The Newman influence is especially apparent in the lively "The Circus Sets Up", which carries an almost Celtic sound in its lively acoustics and percussion.
The score's standout piece is "Circus Fantasy", a truly heavenly piece of scoring that ranks alongside Howard's best. Following a spine-tingling rendition of the "fantasy theme" on strings and barely audible choir (lending an other-wordly sense of magic to Jacob's first sight of Marlena), Howard then introduces the score's principal idea: the surging, achingly romantic love theme for the two lovers, one that will weave its way throughout the remainder of the music.
In deference to the film's Depression-era setting, Howard also throws in a bit of jazz, which helps prevent the score feeling monothematic ("Barabra's Tent"); there are also some careful source music selections (including Bessie Smith's "I Need a Little Sugar in my Bowl"). Mostly though, the score maintains a haunting sense of nostalgic optimism, especially in cues such as "Rosie", "Speakeasy Kiss" and "Sanctuary". The latter three tracks put the love theme upfront, underscoring the difficult love triangle at the film's heart.
Completing the musical picture are those sections dealing with the difficult, tempestuous character of August. Much as he comes into conflict with the two lovers in the film itself, Howard's scoring of the character follows suit, comprised of brooding string figures which add a palpable sense of danger to the otherwise featherweight nature of the score. The soundtrack reaches its apex in the climactic "The Stampede/I'm Coming Home", as the toiling, rumbling strings finally erupt in dark anger, almost akin to "Watch the World Burn" from The Dark Knight. After the darkness has subsided, the music returns to a more positive joyous key, ending the score on the same wistful note with which it began - a tender reprise of the love theme on piano.
James Newton Howard has always excelled at tender romance and "Water for Elephants" does little to refute the claim. It's a beguiling and hugely attractive effort, blending soothing melodies and darker sections in one smoothly melodious package. Undoubtedly one of the best scores of 2011. The soundtrack album can be found at the following links: Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.