When Dragon flew into theaters in early 2010, I had no clue what I was walking into opening weekend. As “luck” would have it, I’d seemingly missed seeing any trailers or TV spots. All I had was a 98% RT rating and I’d just finished listening to the score. I knew it had some nice big moments and themes, but since I was only paying half attention to it (because I was at work) all I could truthfully say to my friends was: “This film is either amazing, or a complete dud.” Of course not only was the film not a dud, I’d also say it’s arguably one of the best animated films of the last decade and certainly one of the best film scores ever written for the genre. Dragon not only broke the mold for DreamWorks’ normal fare of films, but it also proved that a great story with great characters, a huge heart and a timeless message about being yourself can (and does) steal the show. Now, four years later (or five years later film time), we catch up with Hiccup, Toothless and the rest of Berk, and likewise, we get to see if lightning can be bottled a second time, and spoiler: Yes, it can!
One of the things that Powell did so well with Dragon was something strange in Hollywood these days and that was to create large amounts of thematic elements, develop them, and execute and expand on them over the course of the score. Now, that is not to say that Hollywood these days is totally devoid of this kind of “sound,” but scores like the original Dragon are a rarity these days. So, as the saying goes, if it ain’t broke, why fix it? Dragon 2 not only energizes Powell’s original thematic material, it also keeps the Celtic influences abound and adds a wealth of complexity in their arrangements and performances. True to a good sequel score, Powell also expands his musical language for the score, adding a number of new thematic elements to give the score more emotional weight than just a “typical” sequel score. Simply put, this is not a simple “rehashing” of the original but stands strongly on its own two legs and then some.
The two first cues are a great reintroduction to the score and the world of Dragon. Beginning with “Dragon Racing,” this fast paced almost five minute cue kicks off the film’s score as we find the characters (with the exception of Hiccup and Toothless) racing their dragons around Berk while playing a game similar to Quidditch, only with not-very-amused sheep as the Quaffles. (There’s even a black sheep that doubles as a Golden Snitch like point grab.) The cue quickly reintroduces the audience to the main themes from the first film including bits from “This Is Berk,” “Test Drive,” and “Romantic Flight” to name a few. But they’ve been rearranged for a fast paced performance and the tempo is more frenetic. The cue combines the force of the orchestra with the choir to provide the overall power and feeling of the cue. “Together We Map The World” finds Hiccup and Toothless out on their many adventures. The cue is much slower than “Racing,” and references ever so lightly some of the new thematic underpinnings that we’ll hear expanded later on as well as the familiar “Forbidden Friendship” and a string based version of “Romantic Flight” which of course is the theme for Hiccup and Astrid. With these two cues setting up what we’ve heard and very light hints of what’s to come, Dragon 2 begins its journey.
One of the great things about the new material is that it’s crafted with such skill that it’s inserted effortlessly into the existing musical landscape. Two new themes that appear are what I’d call the “Family Theme” for Hiccup, his father Stoick, his newly found mother, Valka, and of course Toothless. The villain of the film, Drago Bludvist also gets his own brooding and brassy motif. The “Family Theme” first appears in low notes in “Together We Map The World,” but it’s there to serve as a general idea and only when Hiccup meets Valka does the theme begin to be fully realized throughout “Should I Know You?” and “Valka’s Dragon Sanctuary.” The theme fully blossoms in “Losing Mom / Meet The Good Alpha.” The cue carries with it the weight of the scene as Valka tells Hiccup her story. Powell makes grand use of the Metro Voices Choir for this cue too by putting them front and center for the key section of performance. Backed by a light string and bells performance, the choir performs the cue with an air of somber force as the scene comes to an end. The theme of course makes various appearances in the rest of the score including the singing of the song “For The Dancing and the Dreaming.” It’s then used to great effect in the later part of the score where the story is hitting its emotional stride and the stakes are high for everyone, especially Hiccup and Toothless in cues such as “Stoick’s Ship” and “Toothless Found.” Put another way, the “Family Theme” is one of the most flexible pieces of music in the score and that’s a credit not only to Powell’s writing, but the performance of the orchestra. They’re able to take his arrangements and play them with such raw emotion that at times the theme takes on a gut-wrenching tone that just goes along with the rest of the equally emotional music on the later part of the album.
“Meet Drago” introduces us fully to the villain character of the film. Low strings, drums, and brooding choral passages go a long way in telling you exactly who this character is. His theme is the darkest piece of music across both films. As it’s something we’ve never associated with the universe before, it’s easy to hear and identify that this character is not a happy one, and given his backstory, the music conveys that in spades.
There has been some criticism that this score lacks any highlights in the first half. While I’ll agree that it doesn’t have anything like “Forbidden Friendship” or “Test Drive” early on, I’d also argue that it’s not needed. Like the films, the scores can almost be played back to back to keep the height of emotion flying high and as such, big set pieces like that are not needed in my opinion. The majority of big emotional cues come at the later half of the score, which are appropriate when seeing how the score works within the context of the film.
As for that later part of the album, the final eight cues on the soundtrack that begin with “Battle Of The Bewilderbeast” are nothing short of an emotional powerhouse. All of the themes from both films make it into these cues as the film races towards its emotional finale with what could be described as a flawless performance from the orchestra. Just like the first film, the finale cues serve up some of the finest music on the album with soaring emotion all around. Of course Powell’s score is fantastic in the film, just sit back and listen to how Powell moves the music along. It’s a wonder because he does so with what seems like little effort. Now, of course that also comes down to how director Dean DeBlois is moving the story forward, but as you’ll be able to tell from the performance (masterfully recorded and mixed by Nick Wollage and Shawn Murphy) how special this type of film scoring is. It’s a great example of what can happen when a director and composer are in sync and that in the end serves the story.
For me, the raw emotion of the score comes out of my love for the characters, story, and film scores in general. There are a number of cues in the finale that got me misty while listening even before I saw them within the context of the film. Film music by its nature is not created to be an outside listening experience, but every now and then, you find a piece of music that does just that. It pulls at your heartstrings and you give into it. The final eight cues, including “Stoick Saves Hiccup,” “Stoick’s Ship,” “Toothless Found” and “Two New Alphas” are some of the finest music written this year. Period. Music like this reminds listeners why a film score is so important to any film, be that animated or live action.
The bottom line is that as of now, you will not find a finer score than Dragon 2 in 2014. A bold prediction I know as the year is already half over, but I think that once again, John Powell has risen to the task and delivered one of his finest. It would be nice if the Academy once again would recognize Powell’s work come awards season. But their ginned up rules regarding the subject of material previously used in a film are all well documented. That said, there could be hope! Howard Shore’s The Return of the King was nominated and won even though it contained material from his earlier Oscar winning The Fellowship of the Ring as well as The Two Towers, so, I’m optimistic!
That said, I’m ready for How To Train Your Dragon 3, a score that’s sure to roar louder and fly higher than all the rest.
Favorite Tracks: All of them!
Special Thanks to: JJ Hinrichs and Matt DeTurck