- 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.
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.