The Dinosaur soundtrack provides many of the qualities I'm coming to expect of composer James Newton Howard's work - memorable themes, interesting orchestrations, and trace elements of favorite other works - while throwing in a nice mix of new sounds for the film.
As with other excellent film scores like Hans Zimmer's Prince of Egypt and Howard's own Waterworld, Dinosaur mixes traditional orchestrations with ethnic influences. In this case, there is a good deal of tribal African choral work, occasionally giving the score a slight similarity to Zimmer's The Lion King. The instrumentation also takes on an ethnic feel, most commonly in the background percussion, which at times bears similarity to the exhilaratingly rapid percussion in Waterworld, and at others exhibits a more rhythmic quality. We get a nice dose of airy wind instruments like pan pipes as well. Howard does his usual solid job with the more traditional orchestral instrumentation, which usually carries the more somber moments and the loud action cues.
The standout tracks make up a good half or so of the CD. "Inner Sanctum / Nesting Grounds" is a perfect introduction for the soundtrack, using traditional orchestrations like soft winds and strings with subtle low brass, plus some lovely choral work, to establish the nature setting in beautiful fashion. "The Egg Travels" marks the onset of the ethnic elements, with its African-sounding deep male "Hoo-uh"s and other chanting. It also introduces the film's main theme, which is melodically pleasing and triumphant in tone.
The other prominent theme comes along in track 7. After an initial segment of action music with thick, powerful blasts of brass and rapid tribal percussion, this "Stand Together" theme holds true to its name as a rousing, epic call to action, issued forth with blasting horns. The more subdued arrangement of the theme in "Across the Desert" keeps the epic quality while shifting to a mood of oppression and perseverance.
Though "The Egg Travels" introduces the ethnic elements of the score, it's "The Courtship" that brings them on in full force, beginning with a segment of playful ethnic percussion that should remind Chrono Trigger fans of the prehistoric scenario music in that game. The eventual onset of the courtship theme, with its lively choral accompaniment, is unabashed in positive, festive energy.
The latter half of the disc consists mostly of action cues, less prominent mood-setting passages, and reprises of earlier themes. The action cues are similar to Waterworld in sound but don't feature the memorable melodies of other pieces; they're only decent as far as action music goes. The reprises of earlier themes are quite welcome though, and tracks 12 and 13 feature a noticeably different sound from the rest of the score and are of high quality.
Dinosaur holds some similarities to previous works by Howard and others, but they are varied and brief enough to be as much an attribute as a fault. More importantly the score introduces a number of memorable new themes skillfully arranged in a variety of styles. It's hard to imagine any soundtrack fan not enjoying it.