Wow, I haven't done one of these in WAY too long.
Anyway, film composer Jan A.P. Kaczmarek won the Oscar last year for his score to Finding Neverland, which I've been listening to a lot over the last few months. It couldn't be farther from the epic The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King score, which had won the Oscar the previous year. Finding Neverland is a smaller-scaled score with a tone that's more Mendelssohn than Wagner. It's also pure musical magic.
Finding Neverland, the film, is about English playwright J.M. Barrie, whose place in literary and fantasy history rests on his creation of Peter Pan. The film isn't a terribly factual biopic, though -- from what I've read, it takes considerable liberties with the historical truth of Barrie's life and is more of a "historical fantasia" of sorts. The film establishes that Barrie (Johnny Depp) is in a loveless marriage, and he becomes "involved" with a widow (Kate Winslet) who has been left with three sons. His relationship with this widow and her boys provides him with the inspiration for Peter Pan, his greatest triumph, and one of the delights of the film is in seeing the famous tropes of the Pan story pre-suggested to Barrie in fairly mundane ways (an old woman gesturing with the handle of her umbrella, for example, is the basis for a certain pirate captain's hook).
Kaczmarek's score shimmers and shifts through a lot of mood changes, but his touch is always very subtle. There is a cue at the beginning, scoring the film's opening credits which roll over footage of one of Barrie's plays opening, that forms a perfect "miniature overture" to the film, utilizing a chamber orchestra in a delightful way. This is the tone Kaczmarek generally uses for the "real world" scenes; he takes on a more dreamy sound-world for the various descents into fantasy that the film indulges. These passages sort of call to mind the work Danny Elfman has done with Tim Burton, but with more "light" and less ponderousness.
As the film progresses, the boundary between Barrie's real world of an unhappy wife and an impatient theater owner and a possibly scandalous relationship with a widow and his fantasy world of Neverland becomes more fluid, and Kaczmarek's score follows suit, reaching an emotional high in an amazing sequence in which the Kate Winslet character finally gets to see Neverland. To this point, Kaczmarek has been working with motifs and suggesting melodies without stating them outright, but here the sound of his score becomes almost spiritual in character. The score CD is well considered in this regard, reaching this rewarding climax at the perfect spot in the listening experience. The sense I get from this score isn't just one of magic, but of that special kind of nostalgic magic, of adults in a sad and real world looking back at the world of their childhoods and wondering what they've lost, and of seeking a way to get it back. Kaczmarek's ability to successfully evoke these kinds of feelings, subtly different from simple "stuff of dreams", is notable in a period when film music can not be said to be experiencing an uptick of subtlety or sophistication.
The score CD also includes several diversion-type pieces, in the form of piano improvisations on Kaczmarek's themes. I'm not certain that these are actually improvisations, but they have that feel, and they add to the general feel of the disc. This is not a score that pounds the listener with a long melody or two; instead, Kaczmarek develops a family of related motifs in a wonderful way that's similar to a leitmotif approach but less dramatically rigid. I'd also be remiss in not mentioning Kaczmarek's string writing; he has a way of achieving clarity of sound with his strings that puts me in mind of Vaughan Williams.
Returning to the contrast between this year's Oscar-winning score and last year's, if I were to make a food metaphor, I'd say that Howard Shore's LOTR work is a thick, heavy loaf of German pumpernickel bread, and Kaczmarek's Finding Neverland is a set of puff-pastry hors d'oeuvres.