It’s rare that I don’t know anything about upcoming movies (I’m not kidding; you should see my Google Reader!) but for some reason, How To Train Your Dragon had fallen off my radar. Probably because it was from DreamWorks, and I’d kind of written them off as the “Pop Culture Fizzle Animation Studio.” I went to see Dragon on a whim its opening weekend. I had not seen a trailer, TV spot or anything. In fact, hearing John Powell’s score is what made me want to see it in the first place. It had perked my ears. A score with this much thematic wealth and character? This movie is either really bad or maybe, just maybe, DWA had finally gone back to their roots and done something awesome. Of course, had I known that it was helmed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, who brought us the lovable Lilo and Stich, and produced by Bonnie Arnold who brought us Tarzan and of course the original Toy Story, I would have been signing a different tune. This trio is from Disney. These guys know a good story. Period.
To say I was floored by Dragon is an understatement. When it was over, I just wanted to watch it again (and I didn’t feel that way with Avatar!) I wanted to take it home with me. Here was DreamWorks’ first masterpiece in a very, very long time. There’s not an aspect about it I don’t like, or the message it delivers: “Be the change you want to be, and be your own person.” This was the film that was going to give Toy Story 3 a run for its money.
There was a time when I wasn’t a John Powell fan. The score that did it was X3, and I’ve been hooked ever sense. I got the soundtrack back in March, and it’s never stopped playing. I still listen to it more then a few times a week. Yes, it really is that fantastic. The amount of development this score has is a throwback to the classic film scores of old, lots of sweeping and bombastic action, tender moments and great multiple memorable themes. I think Powell does some of his best work for animated films, and with Dragon, I think he’s composed his best animation score to date.
Four themes drive the score. Three of them come into play with the first cue, “This Is Berk.” The first, which I call “Hiccup’s Theme,” is a soaring heroic theme that appears throughout the score with different orchestrations and instrumentation. It’s the first thing you hear in the film. It’s performed with low brass over the DreamWorks logo. The theme is touched upon throughout the first half of the score and finally coming to full orchestral might in “Test Drive.” It’s a big theme that captures Hiccup’s idealism and bravery and as such; it’s weaved in throughout the fabric of the score as a whole.In cues like “Test Drive” and “Coming Back Around,” Powell takes the theme to new heights as he brings the orchestra firing on all cylinders for a grand performance.In other parts of the score, the theme is tender, as in the later half of “Where’s Hiccup?” It really is the life blood of the score and it glues all the other themes together.
The second theme that we hear in “This Is Berk” is what I guess I’d call “Hiccup’s B Theme.” It’s a big bombastic brassy theme that is derived from Hiccup’s original theme. It’s usually played with a very frenetic pace and, like “Hiccup’s Theme,” appears as another major thematic idea throughout the score. While established in “This Is Berk,” this theme doesn’t see much full throttle action until “New Tail,” “See You Tomorrow” (where it blends with another theme for Hiccup and Toothless), “This Time For Sure,” and finally “Astrid Goes For A Spin.”
The third theme is a much slower romantic theme for Hiccup and Astrid. It’s also derived from “Hiccup’s Theme”, but used to great effect in some of the slower sequences in the film. We hear it first in “This Is Berk”, about half way in with a huge orchestral performance. It also comes into play at the opening of “The Kill Ring”, with some low brass instruments and light chimes, and another big orchestral performance in “Coming Back Around.” The highlight of the theme is “Romantic Flight.” Performed with light chorus performances with some strings and brass, Powell tugs at the heart strings on this one and delivers a beautiful performance.
The fourth theme, and it doesn’t appear very much but I love it anyway, is the theme for Hiccup and Toothless. It only appears in a few cues, “Forbidden Friendship”, “See You Tomorrow”, and “Battling The Green Death”. Powell beginsthis one early on in “Forbidden Friendship”. A note here and there on strings, light drums, percussion and a restrained xylophone. The theme builds from the first few notes of the cue and takes the whole four minutes to grow and develop. Along the way, Powell brings in the full weight of the orchestra and choir for a big finish. In “See You Tomorrow”, Powell takes the theme further and brings in some celtic instrumentation, using some pipes and woodwinds. We might only hear this theme a few times in the score, but it’s the friendship knot between the two. Toothless is not just a family pet, he’s become Hiccup’s best friend.
Powell comes to the table with some excellent action music too. The last few cues not only score the big battle at Dragon’s Den with some heavy action music for choir and orchestra, but also make great use of the character themes that have been developing throughout the score. Between “Battling The Green Death” and “Counter Attack”, Powell delivers some of his best action music since X3. A lot of the themes we’ve been hearing morph into the heavy hitting action music used in these final cues. Some of the more ominous textures heard in “Dragon Training” and “The Dragon Book” come into play here as more developed thoughts for the dragons. But for me, the real treat of this section of music is the end of “Battling The Green Death”. Here Powell brings Hiccup’s Theme into play as his father, Stoick, not only saves Toothless from drowning, but in the middle of the action, Powell brings Hiccup’s Theme in for a break in the action and creates a tender moment for father and son. The music offers a lot of underlying emotion between the two of them and adds to the dialogue – but on a deeper level. The music picks up again as Hiccup mounts Toothless and shoots towards the sky to save his tribe. You can almost hear Jay Baruchel (who voices Hiccup) yell “C’mon on bud!” to Toothless towards the end of the cue. The momentum continues into “Counter Attack”. Here, more of the ominous music that symbolizes the Evil Dragon, comes back with some big choir moments. Then, at the finale, we hear Hiccup and Toothless’ Themes again before the cue ends with a lone, somber choral performance.
The finale cues, “Where’s Hiccup?” and “Coming Back Around”, still get me every time – even after five months. They wrap up the score as only great films can do. As much as I love Hiccup’s Theme in “Test Drive”, the piano performance at the end of “Where’s Hiccup?” and the big finale of “Coming Back Around” I think seal the deal for this score. If you don’t have a huge smile, want to yell out a huge “Whoopee!”, and maybe a shed a tear all at once for these cues, then I think you’re crazy.
I can count on one hand – OK, maybe two and some toes – how many films I’ve gone back to see multiple times in the theatre and loved this much. I’m happy to say that Dragon is one of those rare films that not only brought DreamWorks Animation back to the field of great animation filmmaking, but also gave us something really timeless in terms of story, character, message, and music. With Shrek ending, it looks like Dragon will become another franchise for the studio. I can’t wait to join Hiccup and Toothless on their new adventures, and, of course, I hope that Powell comes back to score them.
With the year half over, Powell’s Dragon rules the skies, and, right now, it’s one of the best scores of 2010 – if not the best.
Favorite Tracks: All of them!
Special thanks to Stephen Weber and John “JJ” Hinrichs.