How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a solid if not particularly groundbreaking sequel. But then again, neither is the original. How to Train Your Dragon‘s story isn’t all that exciting, and anyone taking notes can probably sketch out its trajectory. Bumbling teen Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) bends over backwards (and then more than breaks a leg) convincing the hostile vikings of Berk that their age-old enemy in dragons really aren’t so bad.
Hiccup’s father Stoick (Gerard Butler) is the most vocal of his detractors and in hindsight, their father-son tension feels a touch overplayed in a Hollywood landscape filled with strained paternal relationships. But in adapting Cressida Cowell’s novels, directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders aren’t trying to break ground. In fact, their modest aims hit most of their marks. The action is solid, voice actors (including a wonderfully bubbly turn from Craig Ferguson) put in strong performances, and Roger Deakins’ sallow coloration soaks Berk in ancient, fictional tradition. To make a reaching analogy of the enterprise, watching How to Train Your Dragon is a lot like eating a chicken pot pie. You know exactly what you’re in for and you’ll enjoy it anyway.
Having a killer orchestra serenading your dining experience certainly helps. Just four years out from its release, John Powell’s score is already a classic piece of film music. It’s one of the most dynamic pieces of traditional film scoring ever and among the best scores of the past 20 years period. (Judging from ClassicFM’s annual poll, I’m not alone on this either. h/t to Films on Wax.) The animation’s worn-in feeling embellishes a believable fantasy world, but Powell’s music ushers us into it. “This is Berk” sways like a lullaby to the sleeping village only to startle its folk awake with a dragon attack. Its rousing call to arms is one part chaos, one part regimen with a unison motive that Powell imbues with Eastern modalities. The film might feel self-serious in this moment were it not for its constant reliance on humor and digression, and Powell follows suit by dissolving into a mushy, ooey, gooey flourish mid-track, a tongue-in-cheek reference to Hiccup’s crush on tomboy Astrid (America Ferrera) and a likely allusion to Tchaikovksy’s Romeo and Juliet Overture.
Powell’s work is much more than clever quips and musical nods, too, delivering the emotive backbone in Dragon‘s plotting. A slow, minor theme plays as Hiccup silently stews over whether to kill or save Toothless, a downed and injured dragon of the rare Night Fury variation. Later, “Forbidden Friendship” includes a performance in and of itself, setting forth the building blocks for Hiccup and Toothless’ relationship without the need for dialogue. A gentle fountain of bells simmer with a cool curiosity before the entire track bubbles upward to the momentum of propulsive strings, wistful flute, and an angelic choir. By the end of its four minutes, Hiccup and Toothless have become unlikely (and uneasy) friends, and the final resting notes feel like a revelation.
Maybe because this is one, and one told entirely through music. It isn’t that outlandish to suggest that a complete score, when paired with an audio-free cut, might make for a better How to Train Your Dragon. Don’t believe me?
Like “Forbidden Friendship,” “Test Drive” telegraphs a young boy and his dragon’s growing bond — this time, to a stronger, more evocative height. A grand, brass-heavy pronouncement widens as Toothless spreads his wings, at once realizing the possibilities of this pair as well as the possibilities of Cowell’s world. As an action sequence, Hiccup and Toothless’ “Test Drive” functions as a moment of trial-and-error, and Powell’s music is there for every bump and blunder along the way. Flurries of woodwinds and strings ricochet as the two graze skyward stones, and a tornado of trumpet-led brass follows the plummeting spin of a mid-flight mishap. Rewatching the sequence with sound effects and voices reveals very small additions to the stakes at hand, and Powell’s music makes the indirect case they’re wholly unnecessary.
Hiccup and Toothless more than survive their trial run, but Powell’s alchemy of wonderment and danger doesn’t dilute the latter ingredient for family-friendly animation. In “Ready the Ships,” viking ships mobilize to find the fabled dragons’ nest. A low Isengardian boom plays with bagpipes and Dragon‘s main theme is saddened but no less bold. Later, when Stoick’s fleet arrives to claim the crown jewel in their bloodlusting conquest, trickling notes signal the crumbling mountainside lair and the trickling fear that something isn’t right. (They’re right to fear on account of “giant freaking dragon.”)
Powell is constantly returning to and embellishing his themes, too. “The Kill Ring” pushes clusters around Dragon‘s main theme, and “Battling the Green Death” calls back to a familiar downward movement as Toothless plummets to the bottom of the sea. This busy-ness might become jumbled in lesser hands, but Powell doesn’t trade in strict character motives, and his shirking character themes in favor of an adaptable emotional language makes How to Train Your Dragon feel united, an extension of Hiccup’s worldview that we ought to share our world and understand things beyond ourselves.
How to Train Your Dragon‘s score maintains an insatiable momentum, even above the narrative’s own lulls. The music feels like it’s constantly building to something, and when the title card finally hits before the end credits, we’ve only just arrived.