Among James Horner's fans, Willow is one of his most popular soundtracks. It generally ranks just below others such as the new-age sounding score accompanying a fictional account of a true Scottish historical figure, Braveheart; the synth-propelled score of doomed love story on board a doomed ocean liner, Titanic; and the boy's choir-assisted score of the heartbreaking Civil War drama, Glory. I like this better than Braveheart and Titanic but Glory is in a class of it's own, and a completely different vein to be sure, but this isn't a review of Glory, so we'll leave it at that.
This soundtrack is absolutely adventurous. The tone of the music usually has something to do with battling evil-do'ers and monsters, which coincides with most typical fantasy/adventure films, but don't let this statement fool you, because Horner's score is anything but typical. Plus, I believe that this particular soundtrack had a large impact on video game composer Yasunori Mitsuda. The generally fast-paced music is almost always surrounded by a very intense feeling but there are plenty of calm passages in the music as well, so I can't see too many people not liking this. Many of those that dislike Horner claim to find his music boring, and Willow is far from boring, so detractors of the composer may be knocked for a loop in this instance.
The reason I believe this is one of Horner's best lies in two themes, which I personally feel are the two best themes he's written so far. First is Willow's own boisterous and fanfarish theme, and then there's what I consider to be Horner's absolute masterpiece - as far as melody goes - Elora Danon's theme. This is one of the most incredibly lush and awe-inspiring themes ever, right on par, if not superior to, all of John Williams' best (except maybe Han and Leia's love theme from The Empire Strikes Back). It's a soft, dreamy melody, which, whenever it shows up, is run through three times, gaining power every time until it finally surges in the most dreamy, tear-jerking way possible. By now you know that I really love this theme. I recommend buying the soundtrack just for this reason. My favorite sections of this theme are contained in the main title and the end credits.
Another great thing about this soundtrack is that it doesn't stop at just those two themes, there are many different little motifs scattered throughout. A couple worth mentioning are the "silly" theme that shows up from time to time with a tuba solo being accompanied by a harpsichord, and also a harsh theme for the evil Queen, Bavmorda.
One small section during the last track, when Willow returns home to his wife and friends, is definitely worth mentioning. After a short run of Elora Danon's theme, a small ensemble in the orchestra suddenly breaks out into what sounds like a fiddle hoe-down, only with whistles, an acoustic guitar, and of all instruments, bagpipes! Don't let this scare you away though, because the song they play is actually quite entertaining, even with the pipes, and I believe that this particular section was what inspired video game composer Yasunori Mitsuda's ethnic songs like "Millennial Fair", "My Village is Number One", and "Another Termina". Fans of Chrono Trigger and Xenogears will know what I'm talking about, even if Horner's work sounds a bit more "folksy". To be honest though, if there's one video game score that this is most like I would have to say it's Motoi Sakuraba's Star Ocean: The Second Story, just minus the techno and pop influences. It is also of note that Horner's more lush string work sounds quite similar to that of Joe Hishaishi.
The dwarf hoedown previously mentioned continues for a couple of minutes when you hear the strings of the orchestra creeping in from underneath, until eventually, the orchestra completely takes over and bursts into Willow's adventurous brass theme, eventually leading into yet another incredible rendition of Elora Danon's theme. The whole thing then quiets down and a women's choir sings wordless, ethereal chords over the sound of a cascading waterfall and the whole thing quietly fades into the mist of eternity. An incredible way to end an incredible musical score.
The interesting and almost funny thing about this is that the action music is probably the absolutely most raucous action music that I have ever heard. These jarring sections are most notable in "Escape from the Tavern" and especially "Sir Asleen". There's not one other score out there with so many gigantically pounding orchestra hits, complete with anvil and large percussion section. Also, the first three minutes of Track 7 make up one of the most vicious uses of dissonance I've ever heard. Imagine hearing all of the strings in an orchestra clashing with one another and tubas belching out low notes as loudly as possible, add to that random nasty outbursts from trumpets and you'll get the idea. This is definitely the kind of music that makes you wanna really crank up the volume and annoy the neighbors. If you like action music, this stuff should certainly keep your boat afloat.
With all of the great things about this soundtrack that I've mentioned, there are two very agitating facts. One is the use of the harsh four-note trumpet motif that symbolizes General Kael, which actually fits the context of the film, but was ripped straight from Horner's own Khan's theme from "Star Trek 2" of six years earlier. This was actually originally from Richard Wagner's Ring operas, and has been used by Horner repeatedly in just about fifty percent of his scores (maybe more). The other annoying thing is the ridiculously long track lengths. I think that the editors of the CD could have broken the tracks up themselves at least a little. The shortest track (which is only a concert version of the main themes, not contained in the film) is four minutes, and the longest track, "Bavmorda's Spell is Cast", is almost twenty minutes long!
Regarding borrowings that the composer is infamous for, there are some unoriginal moments throughout the score's running time. There are snippets of the "glaive" theme from Krull in track 3, and a large part of track 5 is made up of the main theme from Aliens, which is in turn partially borrowed from a Aram Katchaturian's Gayane ballet. I've also read in different places that the exciting main theme is derived from a Schumann symphony, and I'm not exactly sure which one, though I've read in another place that it was borrowed, not from Schumann, but from somewhere else. Overall, however, this is one of Horner's more (not most) original works.
Even with the small complaints, don't let them stop you from purchasing one of James Horner's most awe-inspiring soundtracks. I really love it to death and probably wouldn't get rid of it even if my life was at stake (unless of course a two-CD expanded release is issued, but for now I'm very happy). If you haven't gotten the message, if you can find Willow, get it! Now! I will not be satisfied until all have heard the power of this majestic musical work.