HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 – John Powell
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
John Powell received his first – and, to date, only – Academy Award nomination for the surprise smash hit animated film from Dreamworks, How to Train Your Dragon, in 2010. The film was almost universally well-received, and grossed over $400 million worldwide, so a sequel was inevitable: so here we are, four years later, with How To Train Your Dragon 2. The film picks up five years after the events of the last film, and finds the heroic Viking dragon rider Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), his girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrara), and his dragon Toothless, happily exploring and mapping out new lands on behalf of his father Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler), the chieftain of Berk. However, on one of their expeditions, Hiccup and Astrid discover a terrible potential threat: an insane warrior named Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou) who has been capturing and enslaving dragons of his own for years, in order to help him conquer neighboring villages. Worst of all, Drago has a ‘bewilderbeast’, an alpha dragon which can control all other dragons it encounters – including Toothless… The film has an impressive voice cast, including Cate Blanchett, Craig Ferguson, Jonah Hill and Kit Harington from Game of Thrones, and – thankfully – sees John Powell returning to the scoring stage after his brief personal sabbatical last year.
Not many sequel scores rival, let alone surpass, the original. The Empire Strikes Back over Star Wars, maybe. The Two Towers and The Return of the King over The Fellowship of the Ring, perhaps. So it is with absolute joy that I report that How to Train Your Dragon 2 is just as good as the original – and, depending on your mood, you could even consider it an improvement. The original How to Train Your Dragon had several outstanding recurring themes, many of which were so good that lesser composers would simply be content to restate them forever, without much need for development or variation. But not John Powell; instead, he takes these core themes, restates them several times, but also takes them off into new and exciting directions, adding layers of complexity and nuance that you couldn’t have imagined were even there. Not content to rest there, Powell also introduces several completely new themes, including one for the new central character Drago, and tops it off with some soaring emotion, as well as several helpings of some of the most vivid, powerful, creative action music I have heard in quite some time. In short, it’s superb.
The score opens in spectacular fashion with the knockout “Dragon Racing”, a full-throttle performance of each of the score’s main themes, one after the other, each in their most heroic settings imaginable, but with a sense of freedom, lightness and joy achieved by way of the bagpipes, dulcimers and soft choral accents that frequently come to the fore. This is a hallmark that pervades much of the entire score: even when things are at their darkest, most intense, and most dramatic, Powell has a sense of his orchestra, and the spaces between the instruments. He gives them all time to breathe, which in turn allows the intricacies of the score to express themselves fully. It’s this clarity that makes Alexandre Desplat’s action scores so compelling for me, and I’m overjoyed that Powell is continuing down the same road; compare the sound of this score to the aural sludge of his X-Men score – it’s like night and day.
“Hiccup the Chief/Drago’s Coming” introduces the new choral-inflected theme for the evil dragon warrior, before moving into a setting of the Berk theme in a tense, insistent new variation with an increased percussion section to ramp up the anxiety. It is re-stated in the intimidating “Meet Drago”, where the melody is initially underpinned by metallic percussion and a staccato beat, but grows into something much more commanding, with a dominant male voice choir, a vaguely Arabic lilt, and forceful performances by the violas. It also features prominently in “Hiccup Confronts Drago”, an unexpectedly dark piece which concludes with an astonishing sequence for brutal percussion, male voice choir, and the massed ranks of the Red Hot Chilli Pipers bagpipe group, skirling away for all they are worth.
The score’s second new main theme is for Valka, the mysterious Viking woman Hiccup meets on his travels, and whose persona is characterized by welcoming, sentimental female vocals in cues such as “Should I Know You?” and the magical, ethereal “Valka’s Dragon Sanctuary”. The gorgeous “Flying With Mother”, which really should come with a spoiler alert before its name, combines both Valka’s theme and the Flying theme into a magical moment featuring light metallic percussion and dancing, effervescent vocal work. The zenith, though, is the astonishingly moving “Losing Mom/Meet the Good Alpha”, which attains enormous choral heights, then allows you to taste the bittersweet through more gentle piano solos.
The action music in this score is truly sensational, beginning with the mind-boggling “Battle of the Bewilderbeast”, a cue of gargantuan proportions, featuring new settings of both Hiccup’s theme and Draco’s theme, all dressed up with forward-thrusting orchestral lines, fanfare-calling brasses, and swooning and swooping string writing that never fails to delight. The thrills continue in the lively, effusive “Alpha Comes to Berk” and the triumphant “Toothless Found”, while the conclusive “Two New Alphas” is epic in every sense of the word.
But it’s not all bombast and belligerence; cues like “Together We Map the World”, or the lovely “Hiccup the Chief” are tender and intimate, often containing understated and calming performances of Hiccup’s theme, the Flight theme, or the main Berk theme in sentimental settings. The Flight theme is flipped on its head entirely in “Toothless Lost”, a cue which rips Hiccup and his dragon apart, and then desperately cries out for their separation. The most powerful emotional moments of the score come during “Stoick Saves Hiccup” and “Stoick’s Ship”, pieces which speak of heroism, noble self-sacrifice and desperate, tragic sadness; the moment where the bagpipes and choir rise as one is nothing less than perfect.
The score is augmented by two songs, both co-written by Powell and Jón Þór Birgisson of the Icelandic rock band Sigur Rós, who contributed to the last HTTYD film, and even appeared in the most recent season of Game of Thrones. “For the Dancing and the Dreaming” features amusing vocal performances by Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson and Mary Jane Wells, while “Where No One Goes”, which concludes the album, features vocals by Birgisson in his ‘Jónsi’ persona. I can only repeat what I said about his contribution to the first film: I like Sigur Rós, and having an actual Scandinavian artist contribute to the project makes sense, but the downbeat introspection and morose style of Birgisson’s music seems even gloomier considering the nature of the music that preceded it. So it goes.
John Powell hasn’t scored a non-animated film since Knight and Day in 2010 – his cartoony compositions since then have encompassed scores as varied as Mars Needs Moms, Rio, The Lorax, and sequels in the Kung Fu Panda, Ice Age and Happy Feet franchises – and I often have wondered whether he was getting burned out on them, pining instead for a serious drama or the opportunity to write something a little less flamboyant. However, if How to Train Your Dragon 2 is anything to go by, Powell is nowhere close to running out of ideas, or of falling out of love with the medium. This score is spectacular – by far the most enjoyable romp of 2014 to date; anyone who loved the first score in this series will surely have the same reaction here, and anyone who loves good, old-fashioned, proper orchestral music, written by a composer who knows what he’s doing, performed by an ensemble of musicians at the top of their game, and containing an overwhelmingly positive sense of life, joy and enthusiasm will love it too.
Buy the How to Train Your Dragon 2 soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Dragon Racing (4:34)
- Together We Map the World (2:19)
- Hiccup the Chief/Drago’s Coming (4:44)
- Toothless Lost (3:28)
- Should I Know You? (1:56)
- Valka’s Dragon Sanctuary (3:19)
- Losing Mom/Meet the Good Alpha (3:24)
- Meet Drago (4:26)
- Stoick Finds Beauty (2:33)
- Flying with Mother (2:49)
- For the Dancing and the Dreaming (written by John Powell and Jón Þór Birgisson, performed by Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson and Mary Jane Wells) (3:06)
- Battle of the Bewilderbeast (6:26)
- Hiccup Confronts Drago (4:06)
- Stoick Saves Hiccup (2:23)
- Stoick’s Ship (3:48)
- Alpha Comes to Berk (2:20)
- Toothless Found (3:46)
- Two New Alphas (6:06)
- Where No One Goes (written by John Powell and Jón Þór Birgisson, performed by Jónsi) (2:44)
Running Time: 68 minutes 02 seconds
Relativity Media Group (2014)
Music composed by John Powell. Conducted by Gavin Greenaway. Orchestrations by Rick Giovinazzo, Andrew Kinney, Tommy Laurence, Dave Metzger and John Ashton Thomas. Additional music by Paul Mounsey and Anthony B. Willis. Featured musical soloists Peter Lale, Bruce White and Lorne MacDougall of The Red Hot Chilli Pipers. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Thomas Carlson and Tom Kramer. Album produced by John Powell.