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Four years out, John Powell’s ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ is already a stone cold classic

how to train your dragon score john powell review

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.

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Let Qui-Gons be bygones and leave Star Wars alone, John Williams

williams and 3PO

As, well, none of you probably noticed, I’ve avoided shilling my two cents on the whole  “Star Trek dude’s directing Star Wars announcement. Until Now.

The petty squabbling over one franchise affecting the “purity” of the other is pointless and something I wanted to avoid. Star Wars has kinda sucked since 1999, and Star Trek stopped being culturally relevant a few years before that. The short of it is this: Stars Trek and Wars are not mutually exclusive properties. I can and do enjoy both, and this warring tribalism is ridiculous.

Hiring JJ Abrams to direct Episode VII makes sense. Aesthetically, Star Trek ‘09 had more in common with the original Star Wars than it did with the previous adventures of Kirk and Spock, much to the chagrin of certain stubborn Trekkers who apparently prefer their alienating pop culture to keep on alienatin’. Abrams shouldn’t give any Star Wars fan reason to have a very bad feeling about all this. In fact, his presence has potential to be a very good thing, a sentiment that’s already been expressed in far better, more entertaining ways that I would only copy. (See: HuffPo’s Mike Ryan on why “Abrams is the most qualified of any prior Star Wars director.”)

Or for a shorter analysis, listen to 80 seconds of RedLetterMedia, who put things most succinctly and most best-ly:

With Abrams signing on to direct, it seems as if… some sort of equilibrium… might soon be restored to a binding, cosmic… force. There’s just one thing: John Williams wants in, and I have a problem with that.

Even though I shouldn’t have to, let me qualify my argument by stating that John Williams is the man. The hipster in me really wants to name someone else, but Williams remains my most cherished film composer of all time. That’s an extremely boring pick, and I completely accept what a douche nozzle I am for choosing it, but had John Williams only composed music to the Original Trilogy — no Jaws, no Close Encounters, no E.T., no Raiders of the Lost Ark, no Jurassic Park — this would still probably be true.

The music of the original Star Wars is a big reason why the entire property has lasted so long. Back in 1977, its classical style added a then-unconventional grandiosity to the story of a farm boy, a princess and a smuggler, especially in a time when the cinematic tendency leaned toward synth and disco beats in scores. This option was briefly considered for Star Wars, too. Think about that one.

More to the point, the original Star Wars soundtrack remains the best-selling orchestral score of all-time, and for damn good reason:

At 1:53, there’s a gentle transition of elements from the Main Title into Williams’ “Force theme.” For a visual reference, this happens as Luke stares out at Tatooine’s binary sunset. Now watch that moment on mute, where it becomes just another asshole looking wistfully in the distance. Doesn’t exactly have that resonance anymore, does it? Williams’ work doesn’t just tie that scene together; it makes it iconic.

‘Tis but a grain of sand in the Dune Sea, too. An exhaustive list of John Williams’ Star Wars scores would be far too tedious, but a primer wouldn’t begin to scratch the surface. There are fleeting moments in nearly every track from his Star Wars score that add something essential to George Lucas’ space fantasy: the horn ostinato of marching Rebel prisoners; lamentable tragedy as C-3PO and R2’s escape pod falls to Tatooine’s surface; the smallest of dastardly ornaments introducing an Imperial ship. And that’s all in one track, yo.

In later installments, Williams went on to craft memorable themes for Yoda, Han and Leia, Luke and Leia, and Emperor Palpatine. (You’re clicking all of these, right?) There’s also this little number. Hell, I’ve even vouched for the man when he’s gone back and improved on his old stuff.

Williams flashed that brilliance in the Prequels too, albeit with a poppier simplicity. “Augie’s Great Municipal Band” is a damn catchy piece to close out Phantom Menace, but it’s also a faster take on the Emperor’s theme, just in a major key. There’s also musical foreshadowing in “Anakin’s Theme,” where Williams weaves in hints of  the “Imperial March.” Both “Duel of the Fates” and “Battle of the Heroes” are rousing choruses of anguish and majesty, and they double as great background music during those sweaty 10th grade lightsaber/curtain rod training sessions. Even Attack of the Clones, for all the shit it rightfully gets, still gave us this. For fuck’s sake, there’s a TOME of a Wikipedia article just on John Williams’ Star Wars scores.

[Promises not to do a John Williams Star Wars primer. Does one anyway]

There’s no way around it. John Williams’ contributions to the Star Wars franchise are eminently quantifiable, so it’s a giant pain in the ass to quantify all of them. His lasting legacy is undeniable, so it makes sense that he would express interest in returning to Star Wars, even if it makes more sense for him to stay the fuck away from it.

To those crying foul, to those protesting that “Star Wars won’t be the same without him!” I’ve got a news flash for you: Star Wars won’t be the same without George Lucas, and he’s already gone. All bets are off, as they should be.

JJ Abrams, Kathleen Kennedy, and the rest of Lucasfilm and Disney are taking Star Wars into new territory. This isn’t like the Prequel Trilogy. Where Episode I began was entirely up to George Lucas, but even back in 1999 we all knew where things would eventually end up. Star Wars Episode VII: Journey of the Space Children is completely different. The material goes forward and without creative limitation, apart from the production crew designing ramps for Harrison Ford’s Rascal scooter. This is post-Galactic Civil War territory. Make your JJ Abrams lens flares jokes, but I’d bet good money on these new films looking very different from what we’ve seen before. This is a chance for a new aesthetic, and with that aesthetic, a new soundtrack.

As far as potential composers, allow me to suggest Michael Giacchino. He’s about half the age of John Williams (a plus if we’re placing bets on longevity here), and he’s already got a versatile musical vocabulary. Take the unforgettable opening minutes of Up, a sequence whose emotional punch is owed in large part to Giacchino’s playful, somber “Married Life:”

It’s quite affecting, but if you’re one of twelve people on Earth unfrazzled by the weakness of human emotion, there’s always his sexy, excellent, sexcellent score for The Incredibles: 

There’s kineticism and character in those three and half minutes that embody the snap and depth of one of Pixar’s best movies. Still not convinced?

Giacchino’s theme from Star Trek is classically-inclined, one that sells the urgency and magnitude of heralding in these new Starfleet faces while simplifying those emotions into a genuine exuberance for adventure and discovery. Or you know, kinda what Star Trek’s always been about. At the same time, it’s a little too blunt and primal to be ripping off John Williams. I get the sense that Giacchino could easily incorporate Williams’ old magic into his new stuff, as he should. And if you don’t trust Giacchino to do it, you can trust Abrams, who’s already worked with the guy. In other words, there’s no chance of Giacchino replacing Han and Leia’s love theme with a snappy cabaret number.

Since everyone involved with Episode VII: Journey to the Lost Drainage Tunnel is obviously taking notes on my drool-covered idiot rants, the key takeaway here is to move forward. The Prequels ruined a lot of that Old Trilogy shine simply because they told us way more than we wanted to know. Hey, kids! Darth Vader built C-3PO to help out his mom! That cool bounty hunter you all love is just a clone! Chewbacca’s been pals with Yoda this whole time, you stupid suckers! Or to paraphrase a brilliant Patton Oswalt bit, “I don’t give a shit where the stuff I love comes from. I just love the stuff I love.”

As great as he is, John Williams represents more of the past, more of what JJ Abrams & Co. need to move away from. There’s a lot of Williams’ work that Giacchino could and should draw from, but just like JJ Abrams is taking over the director’s chair, just like Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt are writing new original stories, it’s time for the old bear to pass the torch. Forward, not back.

Because seriously if this young Han Solo bullshit happens, I’m joining a leper colony.

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