Technically, I'd rather give the soundtrack 4.5 stars, but since I can't on Amazon's rating system and I'm just so happy with the soundtrack, I rounded it up to a solid 5.
As a huge James Newton Howard (JNH) fan, I have to admit that I've been rather disappointed with his soundtracks as of late. All of his recent compositions - even the well-crafted Hunger Games - never really achieved the caliber of brilliance that his earlier films were able to so effortlessly emulate. Which is why Snow White and the Huntsman is a chance for JNH to return to form. Howard's best soundtracks tend to be scores that include a touch of fantasy, whether it's the whimsical, fantastic nature of his Disney scores and other fantasy films or the supernatural aspects and magical realism of M. Night Shyamalan's films, JNH is always in his element when he composes for films that are either made for children and/or contain magic. Of course, Snow White and the Huntsman is not a typical children's story. Even the tagline of the film is "this is no fairy tale;" but still, the film is - however loosely - based on a fairy tale story that despite its action scenes, epic battles, and dark magic, still has foundations in the magic and wonder of fairy tales: a story setting that JNH absolutely thrives in.
Clocking in at about an hour in length, the Snow White and the Huntsman soundtrack contains nineteen tracks, including a track by Ioanna Gika and concluding with a song from the British alternative band Florence + the Machine. It's a sizable soundtrack for JNH: four of the tracks are over four minutes in length, with the longest clocking in at almost seven minutes. Many of the tracks feature a variety of solo instruments, including piano, oboe, harp, violin, and cello, which just makes it all the more appealing.
Snow White and the Huntsman is interesting in that the score has moments that are strikingly musically similar to other JNH scores. The soundtrack is its own entity and stands on its own, but every now and then, there is a bit of music tucked in the middle of a track that sounds like it's almost paying homage to other JNH scores, if you listen for it: chordal progressions similar to The Last Airbender, lilting flute reminiscent of Peter Pan, quiet violin moments from The Village. And it's completely fine. All of the similarities are minor and sometimes rather subtle, and - most importantly - all are derived from classic JNH scores - so definitely no catastrophic Green Lantern tribute. The melody is new and beautiful, JNH just uses his traditional method to create his recognizable style. And it works. My only qualm with this soundtrack is that it lacks the beloved "epic JNH track." Lady in the Water had "The Great Eatlon," The Last Airbender had "Flow Like Water," Blood Diamond had "Soloman Vandy/London," The Village had "Those We Don't Speak Of;" essentially, most of Howard's scores contain a single track that is so gorgeously composed, even people who don't care for soundtracks adore it, as it can only be called epic. Despite this, there are many fantastic tracks that balance out the mediocre ones and that certainly make up for lacking the epic JNH track.
"Snow White" is the perfect first track. Opening with a french horn solo playing the main theme, it changes fluidly to an appropriately magical piano melody with hints of a darker undertone. It had the mystical sound of the quiet and too often understated and under-appreciated Lady in the Water chimes and piano duet, but evolves into something even more with absolutely gorgeous music consisting of powerful cello, sensuous oboe, and darker overtones woven in to create an absolutely stunning opening track that contains power, magic, and the right amount of apprehension and wonder. I have to say, the moment I listened to the first track, I knew that this was the JNH score that I had been longing for for the past few years, confirming that JNH hasn't lost a thing - and more importantly, he's back!
After the opening track, the first few tracks that follow consist mostly of the "evil" music that will be showcased in the film. That being said, none of it is particularly special or worth too much to really note. Mostly consisting of the villain melody, the tend to rely on tremolo strings, horn blasts, and harmonics to make eerie scene music. There aren't any stand out themes or moments that really make them to die for. "I'll Take Your Throne:" contains some menacing, blaring, brazen horns and some violins on harmonics to create an eerie scene that no doubt features the Evil Queen, Ravenna. "Tower Prayers" begins with a similar sound then morphs into a subdued piece with the haunting Snow White melody on piano. "Something for What Ails You" offers a bit of a change. Beginning with a cello solo that is sad, high-pitched, overly legato it weaves in and out of more violin harmonics and general eerie music. But as the soundtrack continues, the tracks get steadily better and better, especially in the middle.
But as opposed to the loud, menacing evil queen tracks, there are quieter tracks as well like "I Remember That Trick" and "Gone," which features vocalist Ioanna Gika and sounds appropriately haunting and sad. "You Failed Me Finn" contains sorrowful cello and violin solos that change from minor to notes of diminished minor to give it an additional edge of tension and building apprehension. Morphing into piano and then orchestra, the track progresses to a singular sad sound to the main Snow White theme. The track "Journey to Fenland" has a subdued sound to it, filled with apprehension and uncertainty that is representative of the journey, until growing into another sorrowful theme with the cello.
The real beauty of the soundtrack is right in the middle where, judging from the track list, most of the magical moments really occur. The middle of Snow White and the Huntsman is where JNH really gets to shine, as he's entirely in his element: the tracks range from quiet and sad, dramatically emotional, and hauntingly magic, which are three of sounds he practically specializes in. It was almost a relief to hear these tracks, as it showed that JNH is still able to make some of the most brilliant and powerful music in the industry - an ability I was sadly beginning to doubt, given the last few scores he composed.
"Snow White:" hauntingly beautiful tune that invokes the right amount of magic. Begins delicately, but grows into a powerful musical force in true JNH style as chimes, strings, and a cello soloist are layered onto it before evolving into the full "Snow White" theme that echos throughout the film.
"Escape from the Tower:" offers the first action track of the score. Action cues have never been Howard's strong suite and begins predictably with staccato horns and racing drums. Nothing particularly spectacular at first, until you reach the middle of the track. JNH brings in the choir, roving strings, heroic horns - oh, and did I mention the choir? While not a mind-blowing operatic choral arrangement, the choir does give a certain almost epic quality to the track, all by being driven relentlessly forward by the bright, heroic horns and the full strings, making it a truly enjoyable track to listen to.
"Fenland in Flames:" a gorgeous, emotional track with full strings, horn swells, and beautiful minor chordal progressions that is one of the most powerful tracks of the score.
"Sanctuary:" the first truly whimsical track on the soundtrack. Featuring a playful melody, the track contains no notes of danger, only of wonder.
"The White Hart:" is a track that contains beautiful - but diverse - moments of music. The result is a beautiful track that is constantly shifting and moving forward in its building, and that offers almost a bit of a sampler of what the rest of the soundtrack will be. Similar to the opening "Snow White" track and "Sanctuary," but more developed.
"Death Favors No Man:" begins with a minor theme before fading into a quiet and subdued tune that features haunting vocals, chimes and a harp solo, and then grows once again into a triumphant Snow White theme. It took me a few listens to grow on me, but it has its merits.
Snow White and the Huntsman delivers the beautiful, emotional music that we've come to expect from JNH and represents a celebrated return to form for him. By using his traditional methods to create a beautiful theme and hauntingly magical sound while at the same time continuing to cultivate his musical methods, the soundtrack is an absolute joy to listen to. While lacking any singular epic quality tracks that most of JNH's soundtracks tend to, the Snow White and the Huntsman soundtrack is nevertheless a soundtrack that is masterful in its own right and that any JNH fan will want to own.