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How to Train Your Dragon 2 (John Powell)

June 16, 2014

cover_httyd2HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2

John Powell, 2014, Relativity Music Group
20tracks, 71:32

Four years in the making, “How to Train Your Dragon 2” is receiving rave reviews from critics and audiences alike. Will John Powell’s score be able to live up to the hype that’s surrounding it?

Review by Pete Simons

WINNER “Best Overal Score”, 2014 Synchrotones’ Soundtrack Awards.
WINNER “Best Animation Score”, 2014 Synchrotones’ Soundtrack Awards.

What is it?

The sequel to the immensely popular “How to Train Your Dragon” (2010) is set some five years after the original story. I read a full synopsis of the story that made it all sound rather eventful and made me wonder how they’re going to cover all that ground in just over a hundred minutes. Reactions to the film have been incredibly positive though. The production team has remained largely unchanged with Dean DeBlois at the helm. Jay Baruchel stars as Hiccup, Gerard Butler as Stoick and Cate Blanchett joins the cast as Valka. I’m not going to summarise the story, but rest assured there is plenty of action and drama. John Powell has some mighty boots to fill; namely his own! His score for the first film has become a fan favorite and went on to receive several award nominations including one for an Oscar; was named ‘Film Score of the Year’ by the IFMCA; won an Annie award and won an ASCAP award. The score was, and still is, lauded for its strong memorable themes. How is Powell going to match that – let alone surpass it?

What does it sound like?

Triumphant horns and trumpets welcome us back to Berk, as “Dragon Racing” opens the album. Featuring all the key themes from the first film, it’s a nice way to marry the two scores together. There are some rousing performances to be found here; and it’s nigh impossible not to get excited. It does irk me slightly that this cue is clearly edited together. It’s a minor gripe, but some cross-fades are a little too obvious for my liking. For me it’s the musical equivalent of a continuity error, or seeing the camera man’s reflection. It temporarily takes some of the magic away. I also would have liked the percussion to be a little more prominent in the mix. For the most part this cue is missing that ‘little bit extra’. Having said all that, the last thirty seconds have me jumping up and down for joy!

“Together We Map the World” presents the score’s first new theme – presumably a friendship theme as Hiccup and Toothless fly around, discovering new places. It’s beautiful and lush, though it seems Powell struggles to find a satisfying resolution to it; as after its core statement it starts to meander a little. “Hiccup The Chief/Drago’s Coming” opens with a variation on one the franchise’s key themes (which, so wonderfully and powerfully, featured in “Coming Back Around”). Before long the cue turns into a dark action cue with surging strings, thrilling brass and chanting choir. It’s almost Zimmer-like in how dense the sound is here.

“Toothless Lost” is a magnificent track with some of Powell’s most interesting string writing to date. When off-set against eerie choral chord it’s borderline John Adamsy or John Williamsy – it must be a name thing. Toothless’ capture by Drago is marked by a heart-breaking choral rendition of the main theme; with the harmonium adding to the feelings of loss and despair. “Should I Know You?” initially continues to the downtrodden mood, but soon picks up; whilst “Valka’s Dragon Sanctuary” is filled with wonder, through sparkling sounds, lush strings and running woodwinds, superficially reminding me of Danny Elfman’s modus operandi. It reprises the theme introduced in track 2; whilst the sinister variation on the Vikings’ theme towards the end is a nice touch.

“Losing Mom/Meet The Good Alpha” offers a clear statement of one this score’s new themes – presumably Valka’s theme. When hummed by female choir it, again, has an air of Elfman about it. The second half of this cue presents yet another new motif; this time for the Alpha (which is some sort of Dragon god). It’s appropriately reverential; something Maurice Jarre might have written for a Biblical epic. It’s absolutely stunning and very wriggley as it moves down the scales and up again. Beautiful though it is, it is lacking a satisfying conclusion.

“Meet Drago” introduces the bad guy’s theme. With it being a kid’s movie it’s nothing too scary, though is marked by some dramatic tonal shifts. There are also variations on established themes to be found here. “Stoick Finds Beauty” offers a beautiful, choral variation on one of the new themes; whilst “Flying with Mother” very neatly combines the old and the new themes. And if they’re not remarkable enough in and by themselves, John Powell has them orchestrated for rousing orchestra with quirky rhythms and even quirkier (though absolutely stunning) choral voices. This cue is totally mesmerising; and you could say it’s this album “Forbidden Friendship”. (As a sidenote I’ll mention that “Forbidden Friendship” does not return on this album. There are a few very slight hints to it, but it’s never reprised in full.) And by now… it’s become impossible to tell the new themes from the old. Powell has to be commended for introducing several new melodies that sit so comfortably amongst the established ones. It is as if they’ve always been part of the Berk universe, we just didn’t get round to hearing them until now.

“For the Dancing and the Dreaming” is one of the album’s three songs. It’s based on (or rather: develops to become) one of the new main themes; and is really quite lovely. It sounds like a Gaelic folk tune, with the Scottish accents initially adding a sense of melancholy; but as the song picks up they (equally successfully) enhance the comedy. (And I’m a sucker for that little joke at the end.) “Battle of the Bewilderbeast” is a mammoth action cue with full orchestra and choir presenting one theme after another, after another and another! It really highlights how leitmotivic “HTTYD2” really is. Perhaps even more so than the first one. Where I struggled with the editing of “Dragon Racing”, the construction of “Battle of the Bewilderbeast” is phenomenal. The variations on the themes are clever, and cleverly used.

“Hiccup Confronts Drago” is a suitably menacing cue that utilises the ‘dancing and dreaming’ melody, the Drago theme and the Vikings’ theme. The harmonium adds a heartbreakingly beautiful touch to “Stoick Saves Hiccup”. As the violins swell, I find myself thinking that this may be the most (traditionally) beautiful thing Powell has ever written. Even without having seen the film, it’s not hard to imagine what happens during this scene; and it’s not hard to squeeze out a tear or two. It’s a magnificent cue that reaffirms what an excellent storyteller Powell is. But it doesn’t stop there. “Stoick’s Ship” beautifully reprises the ‘dancing and dreaming’ song to spine-tingling effect. Maybe this is the most beautiful thing Powell has ever composed. Again, I bet there won’t be a dry eye in the cinema during this scene. Who would’ve thought to find such depth and beauty in an animated kids’ movie?

Surprisingly “Alpha Comes to Berk” doesn’t seem to use the Alpha theme; though Berk’s theme makes a further appearance. “Toothless Found” is the other side of the coin to “Toothless Lost”. The same techniques are applied (that sort-of post-modern string ostinato is chilling), but the resolution is an altogether happier affair. The last 80 seconds or so are just brilliant. Old and new themes go hand in hand, accompanied by a steadfast rhythm. It is beautiful, it is confident. This, to me, is truly epic. The score portion comes to an end with “Two New Alphas”. All the themes are reprised, particularly the Alpha theme; and it all culminates in a glorious finale – I’m talking an epic, Golden Agey, all-Christmasses-have-come-at-once type of finale. The album as a whole concludes with the song “Where No One Goes”. Like the song from the first film, it’s nice enough. It’s got a good vibe to it and, sonically, fits in quite nicely. Oh, and it incorporates Powell’s main theme. It is, unfortunately, a bit short. Just as you expect it to kick into the next gear, it ends. Note: the European release includes the bonus song “Into a Fantasy” by Belarusian-Norwegian composer Alexander Rybak. It is a lovely song with a folksy sound to it; though it lacks the infectious energy of “Where No One Goes”.

Is it any good?

Most of the time it is nothing less than magnificent; stupendously fantastic! The writing is inspired. The variations on the existing themes are more than satisfying. The new themes feel instantly familiar, as if they’ve always been part of the “HTTYD” universe; not to mention they are stunningly beautiful. The orchestrations are fantastic. The action cues are rousing; and the quieter ones are simply heart-breaking. Need I go on? I am dumbfounded at the depth of emotions, the sheer beauty of the themes and the detail in the writing.

The first “HTTYD” score is adored by many film music fans. It received glowing reviews across the board; not to mention it landed the composer his first Oscar nomination. For me… I still revisit “HTTYD” at least once a month. Even after four years! And I know I’m not the only one. Writing a satisfying sequel score was always going to be a hellishly difficult task, but Powell has pulled it off… and then some. I don’t know how, I didn’t think he would, but by George he has! He may take as many hiatuses as he wants, if it means he returns from them with scores like this. If anything, some editing choices don’t sit too well with me; and some of the new themes lack a clear and convincing conclusion. There are occasions where the melodic line becomes muddled and starts to drift. But truth be told, those moments are few and far apart and they are only minor gripes. Overall “How to Train Your Dragon 2” is an absolute triumph!

Shame about that title though. They could’ve gone for something a little more inspired than simply sticking a ‘2’ at the end of it. Numbers are so overrated. Speaking of numbers and ratings…

Rating [5/5]

Tracklisting HTTYD 2:

01. Dragon Racing (4.34)
02. Together We Map the World (2.18)
03. Hiccup The Chief/Drago’s Coming (4.44)
04. Toothless Lost (3.27)
05. Should I Know You? (1.55)
06. Valka’s Dragon Sanctuary (3.18)
07. Losing Mom/Meet The Good Alpha (3.23)
08. Meet Drago (4.26)
09. Stoick Finds Beauty (2.32)
10. Flying with Mother (2.48)
11. For the Dancing and the Dreaming (3.06) (Lyrics by Shane MacGowan / Music by Jon Thor Birgisson and John Powell)
12. Battle of the Bewilderbeast (6.25)
13. Hiccup Confronts Drago (4.05)
14. Stoick Saves Hiccup (2.18)
15. Stoick’s Ship (3.47)
16. Alpha Comes to Berk (2.19)
17. Toothless Found (3.45)
18. Two New Alphas (6.05)
19. Where No One Goes (2.45) (Lyrics by Jon Thor Birgisson / Music by Jon Thor Birgisson and John Powell)
20. Into a Fantasy (3.32) (By Alexander Rybak)

Availability

Visit the Relativity Music Group website for more information.

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4 Comments
  1. Jim Hicks permalink

    Thank you for your in-depth review. HTTYD was a revelation to me, a magnificent achievement in musical scores. The joy that pores through that music betters the movie. I think that HTTYD REQUIRED that soundtrack to achieve its eminent charm.
    HTTYD2, with more complex emotional themes, doesn’t seem to rely on the cues as much – the tender and tragic moments certainly, but there is no “Test Drive” here. The grand moments in the film are visual, and the music supports it. I think that Powell’s work was done well. The soundtrack serves the movie, but I miss the innocent power of the score present in the first.
    A similar process happened with the Star Wars films. The first scores were anthemic and broad. By the time we got to “The Phantom Menace,” Williams’ work was darker, more complex, somewhat less accessible.
    But I listen to “Stoick’s Ship,” achingly gorgeous, and acknowledge a job well done.
    He is an artist with interesting combinations of instrumentation, no? Test Drive utilizes an electric guitar on the bottom end. Isn’t that an electric bass in “Flying with Mother.”

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