WOLF TOTEM: JAMES AND THE WOLF
Their first meeting dates back to 1981, when Wolfen, a horror thriller by Michael Wadleigh (Woodstock) saw Indians-turned-wolves create havoc in the streets of New York. Distressing brass embodied the wolf’s dark side and its sharp fangs, continually threatening tender and innocent flesh.
This musical darkness was reprised a few years later with Aliens (1986), where it evoked the stifling atmosphere created by James Cameron, illustrating the tension created by a profound and persistent fear of the xenomorphs lurking behind every corner. Very early on, the composer incorporated into his discourse the cacophonic experiments of Krzystof Penderecki, most notably the sound of humming and blasting trombones, spelling nightmare like no other music can. Horner logically returns to the idea for Wolf Totem (2015), especially in the opening of Scaling The Wall, when a pack of wolves is about to attack a flock of sheep.
Following the same expressive pattern, the snowstorm, split into two pieces on the album (Wolves Attack The Horses / The Frozen Lake) is a new opportunity for the composer to render palbable, through jolts of cymbals, trumpets, trombones, the fear inspired by the ferocious appearance of hungry creatures emerging from the darkness. On screen, the music is a perfect fit for the representations of animal savagery intended by Jean-Jacques Annaud, who in this case reveals the most terrifying aspect of the wolf.
Indeed, the only moments of closeness and tenderness occur during the first scenes with the cub, which has yet to find its place in this world. Growing up, "Little Wolf" is constantly chained to a leash or locked up in a cage, placing it in a very different world than Jeremy Kagan’s film. This does not prevent James Horner, painter of emotions, from conjuring up colors brimming with sweetness (Chen Saves the Last Wolf Pup / Little Wolf) to express the compassion Chen Zhen feels for his protégé. As in the Farewell cue from Journey Of Natty Gann, the warm colors of the French horn announce the orchestral swell accenting the final goodbye (Return to the Wild).
The human aspect of the story thus takes a backseat, somewhat like the animated film Balto (1995), whose heroes were sled dogs whose wolf-dog protagonist (in reality a pure Siberian Husky breed) dug deep to find the courage to save lives. Likewise, the brave characters in Wolf Totem are the wolves, who choose their own death rather than suffer human bullets (Suicide Pact). The hero of Wolf Totem is the pack leader, on a desperate and exhausting forty-kilometer run from the motorized hunting party (Hunting the Wolves). The composer’s adagios work to magnify the animals’ drama and pay tribute to the victims of the destructive folly of man.
Wolfen: © Warner Bros
Balto: © Amblin Entertainment – Amblimation – Universal Pictures