There was a time when James Horner used to be the king among film composers. His Titanic soundtrack album sold in millions of copies and was the most popular score album in the history of cinema. Before that, there was Braveheart which also reached a similar levels of following. In recent years, however, the composer decided to withdraw from mainstream. Right after the release of the mega blockbuster Avatar, he started to work on fewer major projects and even started to publically criticise Hollywood and its tired practices of endless repetition. Somewhat ironic, given his own compositional tendencies, but still commendable.
Wolf Totem is the latest collaboration Jean-Jacques Annaud, with whom James worked previously on three other projects – The Name of the Rose, Enemy at the Gates and Black Gold. A story of Chinese student who tries to save a pack of wolves from extinction in vast wild epic landscape seems to be exactly the kind of subject matter this composer tends to exceed at. He responds with a vast symphonic scores, typically augmented with his usual eclectic mix of ethnic colours. And, despite obvious ingredients, it actually manages to impress.
The main theme James Horner composed for this film can be heard early in ‘Leaving for the Country (Main Theme)’. The mysterious vocal wailing sets the tone for the stark images of steppe landscape filmed by Annaud, after which we can hear the noble and warm melody introduced on French horns. The tune is not exactly one of his most striking creations. If anything, there is a slight hint of the hero idea from The Amazing Spider-Man, especially in its more noble brass statements. But, as usual with this composer, it’s well suited for numerous variations within the main body of Wolf Totem, where it suits both intimate and epic requirements of the plot.
As can be expected, the emotional material forms the majority of this soundtrack album. Thankfully, James Horner restrains himself from unleashing the overt sappy melodrama that he’s known for and allows for a slightly toned down and matured take on his style to underscore and address story’s themes and characters (‘A Red Ribbon’). Even though the majority of this score is quite earnest, the composers finds ways to inject some lighter touches into his music, even if such passages often end up being lost in between heavier material - the middle part of ‘Discovering Hidden Dangers’ serves as a great example, as does secondary woodwind theme found in ‘Little Wolf’.
Aside from dramatic portions, numerous enjoyable action setpieces can be heard. ‘Wolf Stalking Gazellas’ features a folky string-like action motif that serves as something quite new from Horner. This material is later reprised in the lengthy following track (‘And Offering to Tengger/Chen Saves the Last Wolf Pup’). The tense martial-like passages on brass and percussion of ‘Wolves Attack the Horses’ recall the suspenseful sequences from Horner’s 1995 masterpiece Apollo 13 as well as, to a lesser extent, his unused heroic Marine landing cue from Aliens. ‘The Frozen Lake’ is yet another and exciting track that is powered by exciting constant string ostinato, after which we are treated to a more action-oriented variations on his main theme. The infamous danger motif, known from composer's countless scores, makes an appearance towards the end of this cue.
The tone of Wolf Totem tends to be significantly darker than one might expect from a film like this, much like Horner's score to kid's film The Spiderwick Chronicles from 2007. ‘Scaling the Walls’ features some really tense passages that, as does the action music heard in ‘Hunting the Wolves’. But even at its more desperate, the music never turns unlistenable or sacrificed in terms of structure. Indeed, that last thing was always this composer's strongest asset and translates extremely well into solid album experience. Things are being nicely wrapped up in a lengthy suite at the end (‘Return to the Wild’), where the main theme goes through numerous variations and the entire score reaches its point of maturation and denouement.
In the end, Wolf Totem doesn’t offer anything earth-shatteringly new from James Horner, nor it really needs to. It’s an extremely well structured and pleasant score that doesn’t offend with too many obvious self-references and helps to remind film music fans just what it is like to experience a properly composed music that is able to both serve its picture and please on its own terms. Thus, the healthy hour-long presentation, as heard on Milan Records album, should satisfy the majority of listeners. Another early highlight of 2015.
Wolf Totem is out now as a digital download from Milan Records (and is expected to be released on CD later this year)