Playing on themes of Magic and Nostalgia
A brief analysis of the opening cue from the soundtrack to “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”.
John Williams, in creating the leitmotif for “Hedwig’s Theme”, created yet another iconic musical theme that has stuck with generations of movie goers. The Harry Potter series has gone through many composers as the films matured but Hedwig’s theme was ever present. It was the through line that reminded us how innocent everything in the Wizarding world once was. It refreshed the sense of wonder we all felt the first time Harry understood that magic was real. It brought a sense of calm in the times of tragedy, the times of despair, the times of uncertainty.
It created nostalgia.
For anyone who saw the first film, it’s an impossible theme to forget. As cemented in pop culture history as the Jaw’s, Indiana Jones, or Star Wars theme.
But now we are on Fantastic Beasts (still waiting on the hip hop remix album, Fantastic Beats, we’ll get there). Still part of the Harry Potter universe, the Harry Potter name is nowhere to be found. This is a story of the Wizarding World, not the boy who lived. As a composer for this film, the first question you ask is where do we go? Where should we go? Do we eschew the leitmotifs of the saga in favor of crafting something new for our characters or do we draw influence to create a sense of cohesion?
You could go either way and be equally successful but in this case our composer, James Newton Howard, has chosen to breath in the Harry Potter scores and infuse them with new life. Not straying too far from the beaten path but deviating just enough to create a more scenic journey.
Let’s begin with the opening theme:
We begin with the Hedwig leitmotif to let you know that you’re home. ‘Welcome back!’ the score says, ‘It’s been a while but we have something wonderful for you.’ And then the score tells you what to expect from the film. At 0:15, the score swells into a duple meter pattern played by strings, woodwinds, and glockenspiel, backed by a choral and brass pad. ‘This is going to be an adventure!’ we hear the music tell us, ‘Just you wait and see.’ At around 0:39, it tells you that we can’t dive right in, there’s something you need to know first. ‘Voldemort wasn’t the only dark wizard.’ The music plays out over some shots of wizard newspapers to help set up the world, letting us know that these are dark times we are witnessing.
Around 1:40, we hear the ‘America’ leitmotif.* This is different from what we are used to hearing in the rest of the series but still has a sense of familiarity. The percussion and strings almost sound like the engine of the ship Newt is arriving on. It reminds us that our new character is on an adventure of his own, and we’re along for the ride. The energy echoes Newt’s frenetic behaviour. We feel a sense of warmth as he enters the country, as he speaks to his case, as we see him do his first bit of magic and I feel that it is precisely because of how the piece began and how it ended.
The opening theme to Fantastic Beasts is bookended by similar emotions. On one end we have the motifs for our new protagonist and at the front we have the connecting idea that tethers it to the Wizarding World. We go into the film looking back on the exploits of our heroes in the Harry Potter series, jolted out of that reminiscence by an anthemic fanfare, disturbed by the tension in the middle section, and grounded again with the America motif. The America motif is along the lines of what we expect for the Wizarding World but James Newton Howard has pushed the boundaries of it just enough to create something that is not only incredibly interesting to the ear but also persistent in our memory. It builds off our nostalgia to create new magic.
Throughout the film he peppers in Hedwig’s theme. In moments of majesty, curiosity, exploration, or pure wonder we hear the leitmotif echoed in some way. It makes everything around it feel wonderful as it is tapping into that well of good vibes that nostalgia provides. It cements Fantastic Beasts in the Wizarding World and keeps us coming back for more.
I sincerely hope that James Newton Howard continues to work on Wizarding World films, and also that he brings me in to work on a few cues, as he has something to say about this universe and I believe it’s worth listening to.
And now, something to head home to:
*I have not yet listened to the rest of the soundtrack after seeing the film. I am waiting until I can get a decently high fidelity version to really dive in and pick the score apart. When I finally do, the leitmotif name’s I am using could change.