- Composed by John Powell
- Relativity Music Group / 2014 / 69m
After How to Train Your Dragon took a few people by surprise in 2010 by just how good it was – and then just how successful it was – there was no surprise at all when Jeffrey Katzenberg announced that there would be thirty-six sequels. The production team wasted no time in spending several million dollars on a firm of marketing consultants to come up with a title for the first of the sequels; they spent two years in a darkened room eating nothing but each other, triumphantly emerging with long beards in 2012 to announce – much to everyone’s delight – that the second film, following the adventures of Hiccup and his friends in the wider world, would be called How to Train Your Dragon 2.
Film music fans were amongst the groups most excited by the prospect of sequels since it would give John Powell the chance to return to the world that inspired his most popular score to date; and he has squeezed writing the score for the film in between various sabbaticals as he tries to find more meaning in life. It’s interesting to look at different composers’ approaches to sequels – some just rewrite the first film’s score, some go off in a completely different direction, but the most satisfying are usually the ones that take the best elements from the previous score, build on those and add some new things too. Powell has adopted the latter approach.
The album gets off to an incredible start in “Dragon Racing”, in which the familiar main themes are paraded one after the other in a monumentally thrilling piece of music that’s probably the most spectacular five minutes this composer’s written for an animation. There’s a beautifully grand feel to the orchestration (including choir) and recording that gives it a rousing quality that will bring a smile to a great many faces.
The hits just keep on coming through the album, which features not a single dull moment. Within the next five minutes, we get the lovely “Together We Map the World” and the thrilling “Hiccup the Chief / Drago’s Coming”, the latter with some inspired brass writing and playing that’s just out of this world. “Toothless Lost” features a dramatic rendition of the familiar flying theme with a side to it we haven’t heard before, that of absolute desperation (as in the first score, the film’s emotional journey is told very clearly through Powell’s music).
“Should I Know You” makes up for its lack of correct punctuation with its delightfully triumphant statement of the swashbuckling main theme for its climax. “Valka’s Dragon Sanctuary” is just lovely, sweet wordless choir joining the orchestra through three different melodies, each more attractive than the last. Even better is “Losing Mom / Meet the Good Alpha”, the tender theme heard from the full choir before being reduced to a simply piano solo in a beautifully-judged moment. “Meet Drago” has a slightly Arabic theme at first in its arrangement (well, Arabic in the sense that it sounds a bit like The Mummy Returns – which is what Arabic music sounds like, right?) – and it turns into one of the score’s most dramatic pieces and a wonderful showcase for one of its main new themes (somebody will no doubt tell me that actually it isn’t a new theme, I’m just too stupid to remember it from the first score – thanks in advance).
Then in “Stoick Finds Beauty” we move from Arabia up to Russia, land of wolves and communists, with a slavic-flavoured choir heard in the opening moments before we (briefly) hear the bagpipes which were such a distinctive feature of the previous score for the first time in “Flying with Mother”, which turns into another sweet and lovely piece with no shortage of flair and panache. Then Powell’s main new theme gets the focus in “For the Dancing and the Dreaming”, which culminates in a slightly silly song but not before the composer wows us with a gentle orchestral and even whistled version of the tune.
Spectacular action music is quickly back to the fore – and how, dear boy – in the lengthy “Battle of the Bewilderbeast”, which would get bonus points for having such a good title if it weren’t for the fact that it already had maximum points thanks to its heart-stoppingly thrilling nature, culminating in its Lawrence of Arabia-style percussive finale. The action introduces a glorious version of Drago’s Theme in “Hiccup Confronts Drago” before stark pipes presumably announce Hiccup’s arrival – the repeated figure accompanied initially only by savage percussion before deep brass and then choir join in too, the action becoming ever more intense and exciting. “Stoick Saves Hiccup” keeps up the celtic mood, but this time in much more introspective mode, one of Powell’s great achievements in these scores – the injection of genuine grown-up emotions – coming to the fore. This very much continues in “Stoick’s Ship”, with a gorgeous choral version of the beautiful new theme. Make sure you have some onions around that you can frantically start chopping should someone see you burst into tears when you hear it so you have an excuse – it’s an exceptional piece of music, the most moving I’ve ever heard from this composer.
The cleverly-constructed “Alpha Comes to Berk” gradually builds on little motivic fragments, themes coming to life over the course of the cue leading to an explosion of unfettered joy, joy which is then grows an order of magnitude further in “Toothless Found”, which does send the listener through a little suspense before it gets to the glorious moment itself and everyone’s favourite theme is unfurled once more, having been absent through much of the score. The score draws to a close with its beautifully rousing finale “Two New Alphas” and it’s hard to believe over an hour has passed since it began – it breezes by in no time. There’s still time for a song by Jónsi, “Where No One Goes”, which is nice enough and features some of Powell’s themes but feels a little insubstantial after the festival banquet which has preceded it.
There’s nothing here not to like, absolutely nothing. How to Train Your Dragon 2 takes the first score, does all the good things it did, adds even more great ones. There’s Wagnerian theatrics, genuine emotion, rousing action, thrilling adventure, an endless array of bright colours. Some people may slightly favour the first score (after all, there are nutcases out there who favour Pepsi over Coke, so nothing should come as a surprise in life); I think the second one’s slightly better. The long and short of it is that if you loved the first one then you are absolutely guaranteed to love the second. The best thing John Powell has ever written? The best score for an animated film this side of Mulan? An action/adventure spectacle that’s as good as all the old ones I forever complain about us not getting the likes of today? Yes, yes and yes again.
How to Train Your Dragon John Powell