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How to Train Your Dragon
  • Composed by John Powell
  • Varèse Sarabande / 2010 / 72m

After years of churning out animated “comedies” full of pop culture references and not aiming particularly high, Dreamworks Animation surprised pretty much everyone in 2010 with their Pixar-esque How to Train Your Dragon, following the adventures of the young Viking Hiccup and his fire-breathing new friend.  A delightful film appealing to people of all ages, it was a smash hit critically and commercially and at the time of writing in 2014, the first sequel is about to appear in cinemas.

This was John Powell’s eleventh score for an animated film but, somewhat surprisingly, the first he wrote solo for Dreamworks, which until that point had been the exclusive domain of Hans Zimmer and his team.  His rousing music quickly turned out to be one of his most popular efforts to date and even snagged him an Oscar nomination (no mean feat for a film like this that isn’t made by Disney); and it’s very easy to see why.

John Powell

John Powell

The score is anchored around several main themes, most of which appear in the first cue (“This is Berk”) – but its centrepiece is the swashbuckling main theme which, while not exactly recalling Erich Wolfgang Korngold in terms of style, certainly has the same fantastic free-spirited feel to it as those wonderful Golden Age adventure scores even while it clearly retains a very modern identity in the recording and performance.  That theme forms the basis for many of the score’s most exciting moments (I especially love its thrilling use in “New Tail”, a cue which also features a gorgeous melody inspired by an old film composer favourite, the same Vaughan Williams which was pilfered by David Arnold for Stargate and James Horner for Troy).

Perhaps even more attractive is the soaring secondary theme used to represent flying, again in the finest of film music traditions.  The spectacular “Test Drive” sees it fly especially majestically.  With a hint of one of the themes from Shrek, there’s a more romantic melody used a few times too, most notably in “Romantic Flight” – this is effortlessly charming, very sweet and beautiful and its appearances are always welcome.  The other element worth noting is the fair amount of Scottish-flavoured music, bagpipes first appearing (most surprisingly, first time you hear it) in “Downed Dragon”; while it’s a very Hollywoodised sound and seems curious indeed in its placement in this film (about Vikings), I assume Powell drew his inspiration simply from the fact that much of the voice cast is Scottish – and in that context it certainly works very well in the film.  When he occasionally turns the Scottish side into a kind of manic Celtic jig, it works quite brilliantly.

Amongst all the great themes, there’s a host of fantastic action music, full-bodied and serious and frequently spectacular.  Powell certainly has a great talent for exciting action material but of course is most renowned for it in the very modern Bourne style; here he shows he can deliver it too in a far more traditional orchestral setting – writing such madcap music as “Focus, Hiccup!” while staying so musically coherent and choosing against the more common mickey mousing, is a really special gift, demonstrated fairly rarely in the world of animation – James Horner’s handful of forays in the late 1980s and early 90s spring to mind.  How to Train Your Dragon doesn’t quite have the balletic quality they do at their best, but it’s pretty close.

The New Age pop-inspired “Forbidden Friendship” is curiously beautiful, the sort of music that might inspire you to stick a flower in your hair and dance naked around a meadow.  (Or perhaps that’s just me.)  “See You Tomorrow” is the sprightliest of jigs, just as delightful as Chicken Run‘s “Building the Crate” in its own way.  Later, “The Kill Ring” is a darker piece of action: quite thunderous; quite wonderful.  This is followed by the dramatic “Ready the Ships” (with a hint of John Williams!) and a pair of first-rate action cues, “Battling the Green Death” (full of triumphant heroism) and “Counter Attack”.

How to Train Your Dragon is a joyous album, full of so much warmth and delight it can’t fail to entertain all but the most miserable of listeners.  The album flows so well, Powell telling his own story through his music, which covers a gamut of styles and emotions but never feels even slightly disjointed.  It’s wholehearted, frequently stirring, simply delightful.  John Powell has written many fine scores and it’s very easy to see why this is amongst the most well-considered of the lot; beautifully-judged, it’s a wonderful album, probably his finest for an animation – at least until the sequel comes around.

Rating: **** 1/2

Note: this review was re-written on 19 May 2014.  Comments posted below refer to a previous “review”, the less said about which, the better.

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  1. JNH (Reply) on Thursday 1 April, 2010 at 19:06

    In my opinion this is Powell’s best solo score to date.

  2. e (Reply) on Thursday 1 April, 2010 at 22:07

    You’re nuts. It deserves much more than 3 and a half stars.

  3. Mastadge (Reply) on Friday 2 April, 2010 at 00:07

    I agree with Southall here. I find the music enjoyable, often very enjoyable, but have trouble listening through its entire length. It’s certainly in his top handful of scores, but I would still rank Paycheck and probably Hancock higher. This is about on par with X3, though going more for the epic fun than the epic tragic in tone.

  4. Broxton (Reply) on Saturday 3 April, 2010 at 01:41

    Ironically, this is one of the few 70+ minute albums that *doesn’t* feel too long to me. The whole album just flies by. I love it.

  5. Sup (Reply) on Monday 3 May, 2010 at 15:00

    I would say this is a harsh review. Personally I think it deserves 5 stars. 3.5 seams very rough. This score has some great highlights and variation and is high quality across its whole length.

  6. Carol (Reply) on Wednesday 1 September, 2010 at 05:04

    Eh, I hardly ever agree with this reviewer, and that goes with this review as well. HTTYD is a five-star score all around, perhaps the best of the year.

  7. Fraley (Reply) on Friday 15 October, 2010 at 15:25

    My first listen to the HTTYD, I came to the same conclusion as Southall — a pleasant 3.5 star score. However, the more I listened to it, the more it grew on me, and the more interesting things I found in the music. I’m now on board with the ***** crew! I’ve found something to love in every single track, and wouldn’t drop a single minute of its runtime.

  8. RobertFan (Reply) on Wednesday 27 October, 2010 at 21:49

    Yeah, HTTYD is a great score indeed but perhaps it won’t receive any awards.
    I hope not to have reason.

  9. Juanki (Reply) on Wednesday 29 December, 2010 at 09:56

    I think this is the finest score John Powell has composed but still not his best. My favourite of his is “Rat Race” which I would love to see reviewed by Southall. Look forward an Academy Award nomination for “How to Train Your Dragon”.

  10. Edmund Meinerts (Reply) on Wednesday 29 December, 2010 at 10:00

    The finest but not his best, Juanki? What do you mean by that? This is Powell’s finest, best, greatest and most superior score, a career achievement, the best score of the year and a shining jewel no matter which way you look at it. 😉

  11. john mansell (Reply) on Saturday 1 January, 2011 at 17:17

    I too love this score, its full of bold and bright themes. I saw the composer conduct this or at least a suite from the score at the concert for care, it was thrilling to see the orchestra wade into the it. Superb.

  12. Hasta (Reply) on Tuesday 16 August, 2011 at 04:44

    James, did you see the film yet?

  13. James Southall (Reply) on Thursday 18 August, 2011 at 00:29

    I have. Thought it was quite good!

  14. Tom Daish (Reply) on Monday 19 November, 2012 at 13:32

    Only just caught this review… clearly you’re outvoted as to how much everyone else loves it, but I am amused that some genuince Scottish pipers have in fact played HTTYD at the Edinburgh Tattoo last year. It was bloody marvellous too. OK, so they weren’t from Stirling so maybe you’re technically correct 😉

  15. Brendan Cochran (Reply) on Monday 17 March, 2014 at 03:37

    The “Zimmer Sound” can sound good in certain context…..this actually doesn’t sound very much like Zimmer. Powell score for this is possibly his best to date. Still, I respect your opinion and agree Zimmer’s sound doesn’t appeal to everyone. Good review though! 🙂

  16. Edmund Meinerts (Reply) on Monday 19 May, 2014 at 21:54

    F*CKING FINALLY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    You forgot the last half-star, but we’ll let that slide. 😉

  17. spielboy (Reply) on Monday 19 May, 2014 at 22:45

    can’t remember previous review, should be interesting to compare. How many stars?

  18. K.S. (Reply) on Sunday 12 March, 2017 at 13:54

    An alternate soundtrack review of “How to Train Your Dragon” by John Powell:

    https://soundtrackbeat.com/2017/03/11/how-to-train-your-dragon-john-powell/