Home > Reviews > HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON: THE HIDDEN WORLD – John Powell

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON: THE HIDDEN WORLD – John Powell

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Prior to its premiere in 2010, I had never heard of How to Train Your Dragon. I knew nothing of Cressida Cowell’s book series, had pretty much zero interest in watching the film (I assumed it was a silly thing for children), and I certainly had no expectations about John Powell’s score. I thought it might be a fun diversion – Powell had scored several excellent animated films before it, including Antz, Chicken Run, Shrek, Kung-Fu Panda, and several entries in the Ice Age series – but beyond that, my anticipation levels were low. Flash forward nine years and How to Train Your Dragon is a beloved animated franchise boasting not only a trilogy of films but a slew of straight-to-DVD shorts, a television series, video games, and more. The three Dragons films have grossed a combined $1.5 billion worldwide, both the first two films were nominated for the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, and Powell’s scores are now regarded as some of the finest film music written anywhere in the world over the last decade.

The third and final film in the series is How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, and is again directed by Dean DeBlois. It picks up the story several years after the events of the second film; the reluctant one-legged hero Viking Hiccup has become chief of the island of Berk following the death of his father Stoick, has been reunited with his long-lost mother Valka, and remains in a relationship with fellow Viking warrior Astrid, but is reluctant to propose marriage. With the help of his best friend, the night fury dragon Toothless, and his fellow Dragon Riders, Hiccup continues to rescue captured dragons and bring them home. However, Hiccup has problems; Berk is overflowing with both humans and dragons, with little room for expansion, and Dragon hunters continue to encroach upon Berk’s territory. Things come to a head when infamous dragon hunter Grimmel the Grisly arrives, having been hired by a trio of warlords to capture Toothless. In order to solve the overcrowding problem, and to avoid Grimmel, Hiccup suggests searching for the fabled ‘hidden world,’ a dragon utopia where he believes humans and dragons can peacefully co-exist. In response, Grimmel pulls out a secret weapon: his female white Night Fury, with whom he hopes to tempt Toothless away. The film features the voices of Jay Baruchel, America Ferrara, Cate Blanchett, Craig Ferguson, and Gerard Butler, among many others returning from the previous films, and adds F. Murray Abraham to the mix as the evil Grimmel.

Like all the previous How to Train Your Dragon films, The Hidden World is a mix of bawdy knockabout humor (some of which I don’t care for), genuine heart and emotion, and some truly spectacular animation. Some of the set pieces in this film – the opening and closing Armada battles, the flying sequences, the Toothless/Light Fury courtship scenes, and especially the scene inside the hidden world itself – are, with no exaggeration, among the best and most beautiful pieces of animation I have ever seen. The hidden world sequence, a stunning extravaganza of neon and bioluminescence, is one of the best depictions of an ‘alien civilization’ I have seen since Avatar, while the near photo-realism of the human environments raise the bar for all animated films yet higher.

Musically, too, John Powell’s score is simply a masterpiece. Three of the things I love the most about film music are interesting orchestrations, emotional depth, and thematic density, and this score has all those things in spades. As the How to Train Your Dragon series has developed, Powell has created a tapestry of musical themes to rival even the most complex Wagnerian leitmotif scores; as part of my research for this score I counted more than twenty distinct musical phrases representing different characters, locations, and concepts, which spread like a tapestry across the entire trilogy. This kind of attention to detail and musical world-building is virtually un-heard-of outside of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, but what Powell has created for these characters is simply extraordinary. For this film alone Powell created at least seven brand new musical ideas – he calls them the Furies in Love Theme, Grimmel’s Theme, the Hidden World Theme, the Heroes Theme, the Village Hymn, the Fate Theme, and the March of the Warlords – plus a smattering of other motifs and riffs, all of which sit alongside numerous existing themes from the first two films, including the famous Berk theme, the Test Drive theme for the friendship between Hiccup and Toothless, the glorious Flying theme, Hiccup and Astrid’s Love Theme, and the Lost and Found theme which tends to revolve around Hiccup’s relationship with his mother Valka.

Hearing how Powell plays around with these ideas, changes the orchestration, alters the tempos, and plays them in counterpoint to each other, to capture the nuance and the development of the story is one of the most rewarding intellectual exercises one can have while listening to film music. But, of course, all this technical precision would be moot if the emotional content did not match it, and Powell has that in abundance too. The battle music is furious and exciting, while the flying music has a sense of scope and freedom. The romantic relationships between Hiccup & Astrid, and Toothless & Light Fury, is playful and whimsical but ultimately filled with heart and beauty; the sense of loss one feels when friendships end and bonds are broken is palpable, and powerful. That’s what makes How to Train Your Dragon so rewarding – even though they are only drawings on a page, pixels on a computer, Powell makes you feel what these characters are feeling.

The first cue, “Raiders Return to Busy Busy Berk,” introduces several of the new themes right off the bat, for the film’s opening action sequence in which Hiccup and the Dragon Riders rescue a host of captured dragons from the ships of the Warlords. The March of the Warlords is introduced right at the beginning of the cue as the very first thing you hear. The new Heroes Theme – which, confusingly, is split into three distinct thematic phrases – comes in three times, but not in the expected order, with the A Phrase at 1:44, the C Phrase at 1:57, and the B Phrase at 2:50. There is a quick flash of the Light Fury Motif at 3:52, all magical chimes and lilting strings, as she appears for the first time half-hidden inside a crate on the deck of the ship. All of this is surrounded by a rich and powerful blast of Powell’s vivid fully-orchestral action music. The rhythmic energy and instrumental dexterity in this music is quite superb – brass triplets a-plenty – and Powell has great fun dropping snippets of previous themes into the mix too: listen for the fantastic statement of the Berk theme arranged as an action motif for brass underpinned with swirling strings and snare drums at 4:19, and the similarly-arranged subsequent statement of the Test Drive theme, as the triumphant heroes return home with more dragons in tow.

The theme for Grimmel the Grisly is introduced, appropriately, in the second cue “Dinner Talk/Grimmel’s Introduction”. It’s a menacing and ruthless-sounding 7-note idea for low strings and voices doubled by bassoons that perfectly captures the uncompromising nature of the character. Tonally the theme is similar to the one Powell wrote for the dragon hunter Drago from How to Train Your Dragon 2, which makes sense considering that they are essentially twists on the same character. The deep, resounding choir that carries through much of the cue – and in subsequent scenes where Grimmel is present – gives him gravitas. Further statements in cues such as “Night Fury Killer” and “Killer Dragons” are quite massive – listen to that brass! – and earmark him as a powerful and dangerous adversary.

Three more new thematic ideas are introduced in “Legend Has It/Cliffside Playtime”. The Fate Theme, which Powell uses as an overarching idea to represent Hiccup’s musings about his life as the chief of Berk, opens the cue with a wistful statement for flute and choir. The Village Hymn, which is a more specific idea related to Hiccup’s affection for his home and is not related to the more rousing Berk theme, weaves in and around the Fate theme, and has a pseudo-medieval sound that is appropriate for the setting; it first comes in at 1:20, and returns after 2:35 with an especially moving statement for solo violin. Finally the Hidden World Theme is introduced on solo flute at 3:00, as Hiccup reveals to Astrid the maps his father made when he began his own search for the hidden world, years previously. This cue has so much going on within it, and it’s a perfect representation of all the thoughts floating around in Hiccup’s head: his love of his home, his lack of confidence in his ability to lead, his worry for the future, his half-formed plan to save the dragons, and his affection for Astrid, the latter of which is represented by a lovely statement of their love theme on woodwinds at 3:30. Powell somehow manages to make musical sense of all these conflicting thoughts and emotions, which is why he is such a genius at this sort of thing.

The final recurring idea the score introduces is the Furies in Love Theme, which Powell uses liberally to musically describe the burgeoning relationship between Toothless and his potential mate. In three extended cues – “Toothless: Smitten,” “Third Date,” and “Furies in Love” – Powell takes this theme and blends it with both the Light Fury Motif and an additional idea called the Mating Riff, in a series of gorgeous cues that are by turns playful, pastoral, whimsical, and sweetly romantic, all with a sort of new-agey vibe. Some of the string textures Powell uses have a beautiful Golden Age sensibility, the instrumental textures (harp, chimes, guitars, pizzicato, prancing flutes, bagpipes, and pennywhistles) are light and magical, and some of the rhythmic devices recall the series’s first ‘courtship’ scene between Hiccup and Toothless in the “Forbidden Friendship” sequence from the first score. The shy, hesitant, but playfully inquisitive attitude adopted in “Third Date” is infectious and becomes more raucous as it develops (the trumpets from 4:51 onwards are a particular favorite); the religioso culmination of it all in “Furies in Love” is just glorious.

“Exodus!” – which underscores the scene where Hiccup and the entire population of Berk leave their island home on the backs of their dragons in search of the hidden world and other pastures new – has a wonderful, upbeat, can-do spirit that blends the Fate theme, the Heroes Theme, the Village Hymn, and the Furies Love theme together with spirited orchestrations including, for the first time, the famous Berk bagpipes. There is an infectious optimism running through the entire piece, conveyed with a mass of repeated major key brass triplets and soaring choral vocals, which make this cue an album highlight, especially for those who prefer the more joyous Dragons sound.

With Toothless and Light Fury having left Berk together at the end of their ‘third date’, Hiccup and Astrid track them to the waterfall at the end of the world, and find the fabled Hidden World; this gorgeous, spectacular environment is underscored with the cues “With Love Comes a Great Waterfall” and “The Hidden World,” wherein Powell allows his astonishing Hidden World theme – hitherto only hinted at – to come to fruition in glorious musical technicolor. In the first of these cues Powell blends the Hidden World theme and the Fate theme with Valka’s Lost & Found theme – more terrific musical storytelling – before allowing the Hidden World theme to explode with near-religious choral grandeur as Hiccup and Astrid make a leap of faith and dive into the maelstrom. Once they are in the Hidden World itself, Powell’s music picks up the ethereal vocals of Icelandic singer-songwriter Jónsi, who lends a mystical other-worldly quality to the scene’s striking visuals.

However, this idyllic sanctuary for all dragon-kind is threatened by the presence of Grimmel, whose barbaric theme shatters the beauty and leads to the film’s final sequence, where Hiccup, Toothless, and all the Dragon Warriors of Berk engage in an epic seafaring battle with Grimmel and the Warlords. The 8-minute “Armada Battle” is staggering in its scale and complexity, as Powell weaves an elaborate and unrelenting tapestry of thematic density and action music power. There are times when Powell is essentially playing between 5 and 10 themes off each other almost simultaneously as the action shifts between Hiccup and Toothless, Astrid, Grimmel and Light Fury, the Dragon Riders, and Valka; it’s quite staggering, and almost impossible to un-pick, but several moments stand out. The statement of the Berk theme at 2:55 as the Dragon Riders charge at the warlords – remember, Berk is people, not a place – is monumental. The performance of the Furies in Love Mating Riff as an action motif at 4:53 finally cements their relationship while underlining their prowess as battle-dragons. The statement of Valka’s theme at 5:36, again rendered in action mode and underpinned with heroic horns, reminds us that she too is a formidable warrior. The whole thing is just astonishing, film scoring of the highest order.

Grimmel is finally vanquished during the opening minute of “As Long As He’s Safe” – yet more vivid and thrusting action music, more virtuoso performances from the brass section – and, as a reward, Powell gives us a huge, celebratory statement of Hiccup and Toothless’s friendship theme. However, this is quickly taken over by the realization that, although Grimmel is gone, the dragons will never truly be safe while they remain living with humans, and Hiccup makes the devastating decision to allow Toothless, Light Fury, and all the other dragons, to leave Berk for the safety of the hidden world. To underscore these pivotal moments Powell gives us deeply-felt statements of the Furies in Love theme, the Fate theme, Valka’s Lost and Found theme (something is definitely being lost here), and eventually the Hidden World theme, all performed at their most emotionally resonant, and often with choral embellishments to add to the pathos. It is testament to Powell’s skill as a dramatist and a manipulator of emotions that these final moments between Hiccup and Toothless, a simple boy and the dragon he trained, are so moving.

The score concludes with an epilogue, “Once There Were Dragons,” set several years later. A gorgeous quasi-medieval choral version of the Village Hymn underscores Hiccup and Astrid’s wedding, confirming them as the new king and queen of Berk. Even later, having become parents, Hiccup and Astrid quietly set sail for the hidden world with their small children, hoping to reunite with Toothless and Light Fury; their initial trepidation eventually turns to joy as the friends reconnect and Toothless allows Hiccup to enjoy one last test drive, as Powell’s stirring music accompanies them on one last exhilarating cruise across the sky. The album ends with “Together From Afar,” a new original song performed by Jónsi, and “The Hidden World Suite,” an all-encompassing piece which brings together most of the score’s main themes over the film’s end credits.

I don’t think that anyone in their wildest dreams expected the music from the How to Train Your Dragon trilogy to be this brilliant when the first film came out – I certainly didn’t. However, over the course of the last decade, I personally think that John Powell has created what might be his defining film music legacy. Of course he’s still young, and so he still has plenty of time to write something that will top it; also, for the sake of argument, some people may say that his music for the Bourne films is just as influential. From my own personal point of view, however, the entire How to Train Your Dragon series is a bonafide masterpiece, a gloriously bold and colorful fantasy of Viking life, heroes and dragons, honor and friendship and grand adventure. Everything points to How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World being the last film in this series and, if so, Powell has ended on a high. It won’t get an Oscar nomination, because sequels like this never do, but I have no doubt in my mind that, come December, this will still be riding high as one of the scores of the year.

Buy the How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Raiders Return to Busy, Busy Berk (5:26)
  • Dinner Talk/Grimmel’s Introduction (3:53)
  • Legend Has It/Cliffside Playtime (4:21)
  • Toothless: Smitten (3:15)
  • Worst Pep Talk Ever (2:40)
  • Night Fury Killer (3:35)
  • Exodus! (4:38)
  • Third Date (6:48)
  • New New Tail (1:28)
  • Furies in Love (3.03)
  • Killer Dragons (5:04)
  • With Love Comes a Great Waterfall (2:08)
  • The Hidden World (5:16)
  • Armada Battle (8:40)
  • As Long As He’s Safe (6:29)
  • Once There Were Dragons (5:45)
  • Together From Afar (written by Jón Þór Birgisson, performed by Jónsi) (3:17)
  • The Hidden World Suite (6:40)

Running Time: 82 minutes 35 seconds

Backlot Music (2019)

Music composed by John Powell. Conducted by Gavin Greenaway. Orchestrations by Rick Giovinazzo, Andrew Kinney, Jon Kull, Tommy Laurence, Geoff Lawson and John Ashton Thomas. Additional music by Batu Sener, Anthony Willis and Paul Mounsey. Special vocal performances by Jón Þór Birgisson. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy, Peter Cobbin and Nick Wollage. Edited by Jack Dolman. Album produced by John Powell.

  1. March 31, 2019 at 4:32 am

    Fantastic review and completely agree that this is film music of the highest intellectual and emotionally resonant order – completely thrilling in every respect and a rewarding treat for score collectors, that I hope will bring more people to film music appreciation as a result.

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