Raya and the Last Dragon – James Newton Howard

If there is one thing I try to avoid on this website, it is reviewing multiple soundtracks by the same composer in a short period. With COVID going on, however, the amount of movies being released has decreased significantly, and when James Newton Howard composes the music for two high-profile movies, I think I can justify reviewing his music for the most recent Disney movie Raya and the Last Dragon so soon after my review for News of the World, for which Newton Howard received an Oscar nomination.

Raya and the Last Dragon is Disney’s latest animation movie, using computer animation technology like they have done for Tangled, Frozen and Moana1. The movie introduces the new Disney princess Raya, who lives in a China-themed imaginary world. In this world humans used to live in harmony with dragons, but things went bad and all the dragons turned to stone, leaving the humans behind in distrust and dividing them in different tribes. While the animation style is the same as in other recent animated Disney movies, there is one major difference with Raya and the Last Dragon: This movie does not have any songs. All the music for the movie has been written by James Newton Howard, except for the end credits song “Lead the Way” by Jhené Aiko.

When I think about Disney movies and their music, the songs are the first things that pop up in my mind, and since this movie itself does not have songs, the musical identity has to come from the film music. James Newton Howard’s solution for this was to come up with a strong main theme. The first time you can hear it is in “Young Raya and Namaari,” beautifully performed on the flute at the one-minute mark. As can be expected from a main theme, it resurfaces from time to time on the album, with beautiful versions in “Enter The Dragon,” “Running on Raindrops,” and at the end of the movie in the last tracks “Return” and “The New World.” It is a wonderful theme: simple, elegant and gorgeous at the same time. 

One thing I like about Newton Howard is his gift of enhancing emotional scenes with magnificent, wonderful and big-sounding orchestral pieces. There is a brilliant cue at the end of “Betrayed” that just shouts James Newton Howard to me. The same goes for the finale of “Into the Shipwreck”. “Brothers and Sisters” is another example in which the orchestra and choir take the emotion of the scene to the next level with Newton Howard’s music. The same melody can be heard again in “The Druun Close In,” which is an excellent way of telling the story by using music. 

In addition to the main theme and these emotional cues, a lot of music was written to support the images, and, if you listen to them closely, you can hear repeating thematic ideas, representing certain aspects of the movie. To find them all would take me hours of listening and exploring, and reviewing scores is still only a hobby for me. But to give you a small example, there is a pattern representing Namaari and her tribe The Fang, which can be heard very clearly at the end of “The Druun Close In,” and being chanted by multiple women in ”Fleeing from Tail.”

Some tracks on the album are wonderful and uplifting, like “Sisu Swims,” with its swaying melodies. There are others that contain music to support action sequences, like the previously mentioned ”Fleeing from Tail,” but also “Spine Showdown,” and “Storming Fang,” with chants and percussion instruments. A handful of tracks are meant to support comedy on the screen, like “Captain Boon,” and “Noi and the Ongis,” with happy-sounding tunes. In “Plans of Attack” Newton Howard goes all in to support the cheesiness of the images with weird synth sounds, electric drums, a high flute and an organ at the end.

There are many different tribes as well as individual characters with different characteristics in the movie, and it looks like Newton Howard tried to support all those identities with his music, but I am not convinced he has succeeded completely. It is hard for me to identify them without spending a lot of time analyzing the scenes. There are also many action sequences in the movie, resulting in many tracks for which the main focus is to support these sequences with music, making them less interesting on their own. When you listen to the soundtrack carefully, however, you can find many hidden gems in there, with the beautiful main theme and the big emotional orchestral pieces as prime examples. While I think this soundtrack is not Newton Howard’s best, it contains some wonderful tracks and I would happily listen to these on this album.

1 Also known as Vaiana in some countries 

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The highlights are in bold.

  1. Lead the Way (3:49)
  2. Prologue (5:44)
  3. Young Raya and Namaari (3:26)
  4. Betrayed (4:34)
  5. Search for the last dragon (1:13)
  6. Into the Shipwreck (2:52)
  7. Enter the Dragon (0:52)
  8. Fleeing from Tail (1:22)
  9. Captain Boun (1:02)
  10. Journey to Talon (1:19)
  11. Sisu swims (1:44)
  12. Dragon Graveyard (2:53)
  13. Escape from Talon (3:42)
  14. Noi and the Ongis (2:32)
  15. Being People is hard (4:04)
  16. Spine Showdown (3:26)
  17. Running on Raindrops (2:11)
  18. Plans of Attack (1:15)
  19. Brothers and Sisters (3:58)
  20. The Meeting (3:19)
  21. Storming Fang (4:09)
  22. The Druun close in (2:58)
  23. Return (4:58)
  24. The New World (2:35)

Total length: 1 hour and 9 minutes
Walt Disney Records (2021)

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