For a composer of such a great talent and skillset, John Powell has been unfortunately typecast in the scoring business as a go-to guy when it comes to animated features. It is true that the Bourne trilogy, United 93, and X-Men: The Last Stand serve as great examples of his range, but at the same time they never really helped him to branch out creatively. And while I would personally like to hear something completely new from him, there are a few notable projects of his from this area that any film music fan should know. One of them is 2010’s How To Train Your Dragon, a widely popular film that resulted in the Academy Award nomination for the composer (his only one so far). The score was a powerhouse, full of melodic content and undeniable energy. Now, four years later, after an extended hiatus we come back to this musical universe. Can this new work possibly satisfy the needs of his fans?
It depends on what you expect. The score, for the most part, expands upon what has been already established in the previous film, with few new notable themes to push the story forward. So if one craves brand new material, they may end up feeling slightly let down by How To Train Your Dragon 2. However, whatever it may lack in novelty, John Powell more than makes up for in terms of clever development. His previous work was very broad and epic, but still somewhat grounded in a youthful Media Ventures-like sensibilities. For the sequel, the composer takes a very interesting route in taking that base and giving it a considerable symphonic facelift. Part of that has probably to do with the fact that a large chunk of the score was recorded in one room (instead of now usual practice of capturing different sections separately). It must have London musicians, for they give a powerful and enthusiastic performance.
The first album track (‘Dragon Racing’) brings back all the themes from the first score and re-introduces the audience to the world of vikings and dragons. It serves virtually the same role as the corresponding “overture” from that first film. Four years have now passed and we’re back to Berk again, and it certainly feels like meeting a good friend after a long time of separation. The next few tracks (‘Together We Map the World’ and ‘Hiccup The Chief/Drago’s Coming’) reveal how the soundscape from this world has evolved. John Powell has found ways to develop his (very entertaining) thematic material with a greater care for orchestrations and harmonic depth.
One of the most impressive aspects of How To Train Your Dragon 2 is choral writing. The composer uses his mixed vocal ensemble in a great variety of ways - to create a true sense of awe and wonder not often experienced in modern films (‘Toothless Found’ and “Valka’s Dragon Sanctuary’). Powell has always had a soft spot for human voice, but he never before used it with such maturity and ease as here. The female chorus passages in ‘Stoick Finds Beauty’ are just gorgeous.
There’s a nice new major theme created for Valka, Hiccup’s mother. It also represents “lost and found”, a theme prevalent throughout the film. It gets gorgeous orchestral and choral statements in ‘Flying with Mother’ and ‘Losing Mom’, with the latter one of the biggest highlights on the album and appears several times within the fabric of score.Of particular note are the two quotes of melody in the climactic parts of this film - the emotional one in ‘Stoick Saves Hiccup’ and triumphant and redemptive variation in ‘Toothless Found’. Another notable theme has been composed for Drago, Hiccup’s opponent. It is often accompanied by male chorus and introduced early on in in ‘Valka’s Dragon Sanctuary’. It’s not until the self-explanatory ‘Meet Drago’ that it makes a full bodied appearance and goes through several different variations.
Along the way, we are treated to several lengthy set-pieces. ‘Battle of the Bewilderbeast’ is an action equivalent to the Green Dragon sequence from the previous films. Both pieces use a lot of thematic material in rapid succession, but in the latest cue Powell provides the same kind of bombast without ever succumbing to obnoxious overkill that plagued the How To Train Your Dragon finale. ‘Hiccup Confronts Drago’ is a fantastic piece with a stunning use of bagpipes (courtesy of Red Hot Chilli Pipers) to convey a truly menacing martial sound. Finally, the score reaches its climax in ‘Toothless Found’ and ‘Two New Alphas’. That first piece showcases some of composers’ finest brass writing to date.
Also of note are the two songs, both of which appear in the film. The second one marks another collaboration between Powell and Jonsi (who contributed 'Sticks and Stones' for the first film) and appears very early on in the film and employs Hiccup and Toothless flying material. The second song relates to Hiccup’s dad, played by Gerard Butler (‘For the Dancing and the Dreaming’). The tune has a more folksy vibe and is a basis for yet another theme used within the fabric of score (‘Stoick’s Ship’). There's also a third song that appears on the European release of the soundtrack (‘Into a Fantasy’), which is performed by Alexander Rybak, who provides a voice for Hiccup in the Norwegian version.
Overall, the score is a more matured and nuanced version of How To Train Your Dragon. Just as characters in the story grew older, so does the music with them. This project has a lot in common with the underrated Mars Needs Moms, where both works display an increased sense of coherence of writing from Powell, as opposed to the usual schizophrenic nature of animation film music. If you are a fan of the first score, you’ll be delighted by the impressive development of the familiar melodies with few new ones thrown into the mix. If you, like myself, liked the themes from How To Train Your Dragon, but felt the rest felt a bit heavy-handed in terms of development, you’ll love this one as well. The album presentation (which runs over an hour, not counting songs) is certainly a safe buy!
How To Train Your Dragon 2 is out now from Sony Classical/Relativity Media