By Vikram Lakhanpal
Notable works: Mulan, Small Soldiers, The Haunting, The Mummy, The 13th Warrior
This right here is the equivalent of Michael Jordan’s ’97-’98 season. You have the aging superstar, still one of the best in the business, making one final attempt to capture glory. And from the grandeur of Mulan and The 13th Warrior, to the tense horror of The Haunting, to the wall-to-wall action of The Mummy, to the militaristic/comedic pastiche that is Small Soldiers, Goldsmith did exactly that. Jordan was so good that, on his last basket of the Finals (and with the Bulls), he shoved his defender before sinking it, and no one cared. Just like how none of you care that The 13th Warrior isn’t actually a fantasy film. Eh, it sounds like one. Oh, and like Jordan, we kinda forget about the 2000s and treat this as his final triumphant campaign before his ride into the sunset.
Other contenders: Goldsmith’s high tide raised a few other boats. David Arnold’s Godzilla may not have elevated, let alone saved, Roland Emmerich’s disaster of a film, but it’s certainly a terrific listen on its own. Wojciech Kilar’s The Ninth Gate delivered the kind of brooding menace one would expect from a Polanski supernatural thriller, and John Williams’ The Phantom Menace delivered the kind of epic adventure one would expect from a Star Wars film.
Notable work: Chicken Run, Shrek
“It’s The Great Escape, but with chickens. And kazoos.” – A wildly thrilled film score fan in 2000, trying to explain the madly brilliant Chicken Run to a terribly confused friend. As the Disney animated renaissance faded, the battle between Dreamworks and Pixar for animated supremacy began to heat up. While Pixar churned out the better films (early on, at least), Dreamworks’ reliance on Powell and Gregson-Williams (sometimes together, sometimes solo) led to more fruitful musical results. This is also the only time the Belt has gone to a pair, and deservedly so. These two were the Malone and Stockton, the William and Mary, the Abbot and Costello of composing teams. (Apologies to Super Danna Bros. as well as Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross)
Biggest Contender: James Newton Howard
Howard made his first attempt to seize the belt with a pair of Disney scores, unfettered by songs: Dinosaur and Atlantis: The Lost Empire. Also not to be discounted is his second collaboration with M. Night Shyamalan for the so-underrated-it’s-almost-overrated Unbreakable. Rest assured, we’ve not heard the last of him.
Other contenders: Joe Hisaishi delivered his delightful Spirited Away, and Trevor Jones crafted a sinisterly slow-simmering soundtrack for the Victorian horror film From Hell.
Notable works: The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
I know what you’re protesting. “Vikram, have you lost your mind?” you exclaim.” John Williams wrote two Harry Potter scores AND a Star Wars score! How was he topped?” Or maybe “How is James Newton Howard not extending his regime of the genre when he gave us Atlantis, Treasure Planet, Signs, and a Peter Pan in those three years?” A few of you may even be screaming “Elliot Goldenthal wrote a score literally called FINAL FANTASY and you didn’t give him the Belt?” And some of you (actually, probably most of you) are eagerly anticipating which clips I use to counter those straw men, because we all know this is one of the Towering (heh) achievements in film music. Let’s do one per film, how about that?
This Is Why there should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that the Belt is Shore’s for this period. And I didn’t even get into the cultural/awards arguments.
Biggest Contender: James Newton Howard
Outlined in the last paragraph. I’m always caught by surprise at how consistent Howard has been for over a decade and a half. He’s almost like the Tim Duncan of film music, secretly being one of the best over and over.
Other contenders: Williams continued making his mark on a new generation of impressionable children in theaters with his endlessly hummable Potter and Star Wars scores. In addition to the guys mentioned earlier, Alan Silvestri conjured a pair of good scores for dumb sequels in the form of The Mummy Returns and Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, Gregson-Williams returned to the Dreamworks well for the inspired Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, and Edward Shearmur rode a safe premise (dragons) to creative heights with Reign of Fire. Meanwhile, the superhero genre began a revival with quality scores for Spider-Man and X2: X-Men United from Elfman and John Ottman, respectively.
Notable works: The Village, King Kong, Lady in the Water
Shore came oh-so-close to owning the title belt for all of 2001-2005, but Peter Jackson dumped Shore’s music for King Kong late in post-production, and Howard took Howard’s place, whipping together a terrific score in only 6 weeks. Combine that with a pair of excellent scores for Shyamalan duds, and Howard finally clinches the Belt after a long period at #2. Seriously though, if you haven’t heard Lady in the Water, do not let the film’s reputation deter you from listening to this score.
Biggest Contender: Dario Marianelli
While the young Italian (I keep calling composers young but they always seem to be in their 40s when the big breaks come) made his introduction to the mainstream with music for period dramas like Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, he concurrently impressed fantasy fanatics with The Brothers Grimm and V for Vendetta.
Other contenders: John Williams wrapped up two trilogies with his fantastic Prisoner of Azkaban and the slightly underwhelming Revenge of the Sith for Star Wars and Harry Potter, disrespectively. Patrick Doyle picked up the maestro’s baton and delivered a great, but different score for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire while also lending his pen to Eragon, a film that wanted so much to be the next Harry Potter that, ironically, had the same plot as Star Wars. Javier Navarette also wowed with his weighty music for Pan’s Labyrinth. Meanwhile, Silvestri continued his perpetual bridesmaid streak with Van Helsing, The Polar Express, Night at the Museum, and Beowulf. One feels for the guy, but if he’s feeling bitter, he has plenty of homemade wine to drown his sorrows in.
Notable works: Kung Fu Panda, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Angels and Demons
“Finally, a name I recognize!” the person sitting next to you exclaims. Zimmer had a quality 2006 with the crowd-pleasing Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and big-screen adaptation The Da Vinci Code. While unable to compete during Howard’s reign, Zimmer doubled down on the two, crafting a pair of strong sequel scores while continuing his steady output in the animated genre in his collaboration with John Powell for the hyperactive Kung Fu Panda. Fun fact: if you look at the highest grossing films worldwide for this three year period, 12 of the 25 highest grossing films were scored by either Zimmer or someone who worked at his studio, which basically makes Zimmer the Bill Walsh of modern film scoring.
Side note: Some of you may be asking “Why did you include Batman Begins and The Dark Knight in Howard and Zimmer’s record?” That’s due to the nature of those films; while other Bat-films have strong elements of implausibility and fantasy, these two adopt the tone and style of crime dramas more than fantasy films.
Biggest Contender: Andrew Lockington
The young (38! He was under 40!) Canadian announced his arrival with the double dose of Journey to the Center of the Earth and The City of Ember. Honestly, I’m glad Dandy Andy didn’t take the Belt here, because he has yet to break into the Hollywood top tier and I would have been even sadder about it if I had to say he even held the Belt.
Other contenders: Michael Giacchino made his first appearance on the fantasy radar with the delectable Ratatouille, Danny Elfman returned once again to his well of superheroes with Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, and making his big American splash in 2007 was Alexandre Desplat with the thinking man’s fantasy score for The Golden Compass. Sadly, the next two books in Philip Pullman’s series never received their film adaptations, robbing Desplat of the opportunity to grow his great solo score into an all-time great trilogy. Didn’t seem to hurt him, however, as by the end of 2009, the Belt had been claimed by…
Notable works: The Twilight Saga: New Moon, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Rise of the Guardians
Okay, I know. I’m sure some of you are outraged. Maybe you’re already racing to the comment section or tweeting mean things about me. Bear with me for a moment. First of all, I’ll probably never see the mean tweets, so you’re wasting your time there. Second off, do you realize how hard it is to write a Harry Potter score? Patrick Doyle wrote a stunning score for Goblet of Fire, but it still has its detractors for not meshing with Williams’ precedents. In addition to treading that fine line, Desplat also had to stick the landing and bring closure to the entire series. No one would have forgiven him if he had screwed it up. And when you can take another composer’s musical seed and put a garden like that on display, the Belt is yours. New Moon and Rise of the Guardians were practically cherries on the icing on the cake.
Biggest contender: JOHN POWELL
Between How to Train Your Dragon and Kung Fu Panda 2, our favorite English composer was at the top of his game. A cue like “Test Drive” is one of those perfect meldings of sight and sound.
Others: Starting in 2009, everyone came out swinging, many returning to past successful director collaborations. John Williams unretired in ’95 Jordan style to reunite with Spielberg and drop the spectacular The Adventures of Tintin, Elfman reached back to his roots to conjure vintage Burton-Elfman magic in Alice in Wonderland, while Howard returned to his muse to create one redeeming quality of Shyamalan’s disasterpiece The Last Airbender, another soundtrack whose bad film robbed it of two great sequel scores. Andrew Lockington returned to the Journey franchise with his fantastic The Mysterious Island. Christopher Young re-teamed with Sam Raimi for another helping of thrills and chills in Drag Me to Hell, while also joining Howard in the “elevating dreck” category for the action-packed Gothic delight Priest. Perhaps Priest was Young’s attempt at emulating Debbie Wiseman’s formula for 2009’s Lesbian Vampire Killers: ignore the schlocky aspects of the film and play the Gothic horror completely straight. I wish both of them were hired for bigger projects. Why not have Young score Doctor Strange? Or Wiseman score Wonder Woman? Get one of them on a Mark Whalberg movie, or something the Rock is cooking!
Notable Works: The Hobbit trilogy
A great many things went wrong for Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit. Filming at a different frame rate was controversial, much of the violence and action lacked any sense of weight or tension, and the run time was bloated with filler, subplots, and allusions to Lord of the Rings to justify stretching a 300 page novel into 3 separate films. One thing that didn’t go wrong was Howard Shore’s music. Caught in a position similar to John Williams with his Star Wars prequels, Shore crafted a trio of scores that, while not as cohesive or stylish or perfect as his LOTR trilogy (though honestly, what is?), still stood above a packed field of challengers to give Shore another 2 year reign as champion.
Biggest Contender: Brian Tyler
Brian Tyler may not have written the best fantasy scores, but he wrote the most high-profile scores. Film composing’s Marilyn Monroe (pigeonholed into mostly one genre, but very talented, and drop-dead gorgeous) churned out pair of splendid superhero sequel scores with Iron Man 3 and Thor 2: The Lost Subtitle with magic caper Now You See Me and action romp Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in between.
Other contenders: John Ottman offered the spirited Jack the Giant Slayer, while Abel Korzeniowski and Ramin Djawadi impressed in very different ways in 2013 with Escape from Tomorrow and Pacific Rim, respectively. 2014 turned out to be a Home Run Derby of fantasy scores. Powell’s How to Train Your Dragon 2, Howard’s Maleficent, Desplat’s Godzilla, and David Newman’s Tarzan were enough to make Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa blush and mutter “Sheesh, guys, cool it off a bit!” [Editor’s note: The author realized much too late in the writing process that there was a string of Danny Elfman fantasy scores from 2012-2015, of which he had heard only 2. Profuse apologies for this omission.]
So who holds the Belt now? The irony of it is that it’s hard to tell until a composer has lost it. All of this has been based on reflection and the benefit of hindsight. But there are a few people that could claim the Belt now.
Michael “There is no ‘Next John Williams’” Giacchino might finally be the champion between Jupiter Ascending and the upcoming Doctor Strange. Then again, he seems to be thriving in the sci-fi world with pals Brad Bird, Matt Reeves, and JJ Abrams. Depending on what John Powell does in the next year, his last Dragon entry, as well as another coming up in 2018 and last year’s Pan, could form the dais upon which his throne will sit. Perhaps James Newton Howard will begin a new campaign with this year’s Huntsman: Winter’s War and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Nothing like contributing to the Potterverse to try and boost the credentials. Fernando Velazquez is trying his darndest to take up Christopher Young’s horror mantle, and with Avengers: Infinity War coming up, maybe Silvestri will finally seize the waistwear that has so long eluded him. Maybe I’ll do an update in 10 years and realize Elfman’s been Varys this whole time, secretly ruling the fantasy world for over a decade.
I, however, am placing my money on John Williams. Between The Force Awakens last year, The BFG this year, and another Star Wars movie next year, Williams could easily be in the middle of another title run. Plus, it’s a wonderfully poetic end to my article if he turned out to be the Once and Future Fantasy Champion.