Listening to Things: Finding Neverland, original score by Jan A.P. Kaczmarek

To: The Members of the Acadamy, circa 2004
Re: The winner of the 2004 Academy Award for Best Original Score, Finding Neverland by Jan A.P. Kaczmarek

What, pray tell, were you all thinking when you voted for this score? You had John Williams’ wonderfully quirky and dramatic score for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban sitting right there, and you voted for Finding Neverland? The score that’s as memorable as the background music at a shopping mall’s food court?

Academy, I am disappointed in you.

I don’t remember now if we saw Finding Neverland in the theater, or if we rented the DVD when it came out (in those days before Netflix was ubiquitous), but I’ve seen the film exactly once. It was fine. Emotional, with imaginative parts and Kate Winslet in yet another period drama. I remember finding it satisfying, but it’s not a film that really stuck with me in the end.

The music stuck with me even less. I had no real idea what I would be getting when I pulled up Kaczmarek’s score on Spotify.

What I got were pianos. And sweet orchestral music. And more pianos. And some more sweet orchestral music. And more pianos.

You get the picture.

So much piano music.

And it’s not like I hate piano music or anything. I love a good piano concerto as much as the next music nerd. What I don’t like is when a composer sits down and says, “Pianists can play such pretty and sweet music, so for this entire album, I will write pretty and sweet music and nothing but that.”

Listening to this album was like being handed a giant bowl of ice cream. The first bites are wonderful, but the more you ingest, the less enjoyment you get out of it. After listening to 3/4 of the Finding Neverland score, I stopped listening to it. It was so sentimental and the songs all sounded so similar that I couldn’t stand it anymore.

So I looked up the other Best Original Score nominees for 2004, and I got mad because here are two of the other scores that were nominated:

  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, scored by John Williams
  • Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, scored by Thomas Newman

Both of these scores are quirky and just dark enough to be a little creepy without going overboard, and both have their moments of humor and drama. And most importantly, they’re not the same sentimental idea over and over and over and over again.

My favorite of the two is the score for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. JK Rowling might be a lousy human, but Williams’ score for this film (the best of the franchise, in my opinion) is certainly not.

It opens with ‘Hedwig’s Theme’, that magical music played on the celeste, and dives right into the ridiculous ‘Aunt Marge’s Waltz’, whose theme is played by the tuba, for an extra ridiculous sound. Then, when Harry runs away from the Dursleys and ends up on the Night Bus, the music we hear is straight-up jazz. Where did John Williams begin his music career? That’s right. Jazz. Then we get the eerie ‘Apparition on the Train’ when the first Dementors appear, followed up by ‘Double Trouble’, which features Shakespeare’s famous witches’ speech sung by a creepy children’s choir (all children’s choirs are creepy). After that, we get the soaring music of ‘Buckbeak’s Flight’, and the nostalgic ‘A Window to the Past’ when Harry learns more about his parents.

And that’s just the first half of the soundtrack. There’s a lot more fantastic music ahead, but these first pieces establish the mood and leitmotifs for the entire film and showcase Williams’ ability to write a series of disparate tracks that– because Williams knows exactly when and how to use his leitmotifs– form a cohesive whole while not feeling like every piece is a slight variation on a single theme.

Can you tell that I’m annoyed that Finding Neverland somehow managed to beat Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban? And Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events? My suspicion is that the Academy voters back then were leery of genre films (the fact that The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King won eleven Oscars at the 2003 Academy Awards still blows my mind). They still are. I still almost can’t believe that last Sunday, the brilliant Everything Everywhere All At Once won for Best Picture over a war movie like All Quiet on the Western Front.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is a fantasy movie for kids. Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events was not a fantasy, but it felt fantasy adjacent and was also a movie for kids. Did the members of the Academy disregard the work done for both these films in favor of a more grounded and grown-up period piece because, “oh, well, we gave a fantasy film a bunch of awards last year and that’s enough for all the genre films for a while”? Or did they really think the banal score for Finding Neverland really was superior to John Williams’ or Thomas Newman’s?

I didn’t expect to be this disappointed by the music for an Academy Award-winning score, but here we are. Sentimental, saccharine sweet, and repetitive. That’s what I got out of Jan A.P. Kaczmarek’s score for Finding Neverland.

I’d skip it if I were you. If you need a soundtrack from the same year to listen to, cue up Thomas Newman’s score for Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, or the one that should have won in 2004, John William’s brilliant score for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

2 thoughts on “Listening to Things: Finding Neverland, original score by Jan A.P. Kaczmarek

  1. Oh, how I miss that background music at the shopping mall’s food court… such wonderful days.

    And I’m afraid I just can’t relate to the ice cream analogy. When I’m handed a giant bowl of ice cream I enjoy each and every wonderful spoonful! 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s