How to Train Your Dragon

CD Review: How To Train Your Dragon

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON has an awkward title, but its problems end there. A rousing score by John Powell, beautiful 3D animation, and a moving story create one of the best animated films I’ve seen outside of the Pixar lineup, and by far the best effort by Dreamworks. By eschewing the studio’s penchant for annoying pop culture references, the film instead allows the characters to tell the story instead of cramming the screen full of junky images and “hip” annoying critters in constant motion. The film has beauty, wit, and heart, and it positively soars on the wings of Powell’s score.

The Celtic influences provide flavor rather than define the music. The Norwegian Hardanger fiddle gives a rustic feel to solo lines, while the pennywhistle and dulcimer subtly add to Celtic feel, without overwhelming the power of Powell’s music. And let’s not forget the 14 musicians (!) listed in the liner notes crying out their warpipes.

“This Is Berk” starts off the film and the album with a bang. Powell weaves together multiple themes among some brisk action writing, including those for the dragons, the Vikings, Hiccup’s heroic theme, and a sweeping string love theme for Astrid.

When fighting dragons is your primary occupation, you need some strong action cues to inspire you. And Powell gives us those cues in spades. Tracks like “Dragon Battle,” “Dragon Training,” “Focus, Hiccup!,” and “Battling the Green Death” carry enough brisk tempos, belching brass, and martial percussion licks to get your blood pumping.

The music serves as the guiding force behind numerous major set pieces in the film, and it is those sequences in which Powell truly gets to shine. “Forbidden Friendship” features a gently pulsating marimba background and wordless chorus as Hiccup and Toothless forge their budding relationship. “See You Tomorrow” uses a jig to underscore Hiccup’s montage sequence as he builds a half-fin for Toothless’ tail. The cue bubbles over with joy as the boy finally comes into his own.

How To Train Your Dragon soundtrack
“See You Tomorrow”
“Test Drive”
“Dragon’s Den”

The flying sequences are some of the most memorable moments in the film, and Powell makes the most of them. From the pulsing excitement of Hiccup’s “Test Drive” to the tender beauty of Hiccup and Astrid’s “Romantic Flight,” Powell’s music soars across the sky and our hearts soar right along with it.

My favorite cue on the album is somewhat obscured in the film behind sound effects, though it’s still effective, especially if you know what to listen for. As Hiccup and Astrid ride Toothless into the “Dragon’s Den,” Powell creates a tension-filled 72-second crescendo. Ostinato rhythmic and melodic motifs build sequentially until a rumbling timpani roll leads us into the unexpected. Rather than unleashing the orchestral cacophony that the music led me to believe was coming, Powell gives us elongated string and brass notes instead as we see the otherworldly sight of the den swarming with dragon wings. The cue closes with a brief flash of 16th-note danger as we meet the frightening dragon queen.

This score has been in near constant play since I bought it a couple of weeks ago, and it doesn’t show any signs of being replaced anytime soon. But as wonderful a listening experience as the CD provides, the score functions even better in the film. While you’ll obviously miss some of the nuances that can only come from listening to an isolated score, the music complements the visuals and highlights the action, excitement, and emotion of the story.

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON is a big, bold, full-bodied orchestral score that deserves all the attention it is getting. Don’t dismiss this as a Mickey-Mousing animated score. This is energetic, emotional film music at its best. Five pints raised for John Powell!

  1. John Powell really is the master when it comes to scoring these types of films.

    His scores to Shrek and notably Chicken Run are both excellent, but this score really blew me away!

    I agree with you 100%, I finally stand up and give Powell the recognition he deserves!

    Great review Jim, I really enjoyed reading this and hearing your audio clips of choice :)
    .-= Wendell´s last blog ..Appropriate Action =-.

    1. I forgot he did CHICKEN RUN! That score is a delight. My main exposure to Powell has been through the Bourne movies, which I think are great. But DRAGON is something else altogether. Not even the ICE AGE scores, which were fun in their own right, prepared me for this.

      Glad you enjoyed the post. :)

  2. Yes the main theme to Chicken Run always get stuck in my head for days.
    I know the Bourne cues are used as a lot of temp music but he’s certainly perfected his craft now, with these types of films. What a great score this is! :)
    .-= Wendell´s last blog ..Appropriate Action =-.

  3. Great review for a gifted composer. Have been a fan since his very energetic FACEOFF score in the 90’s. Though I had planned on purchasing this score… Thank you Jim for making me go out today and buy it… :)

  4. finally saw this movie yesterday at the IMAX- 1) I completely enjoyed it and was pleasantly surprised considering its a DreamWorks animated film… 2) this score rocked! So far, its one of the years best in my opinion. Rousing & anthemic. I’ve never been familiar with Powell’s work– he may be someone to watch for from now on.

    1. I agree about being surprised since it was Dreamworks. I’m not a fan of their animation films, but this one was great. And, yes, the score totally rocked! :)

  5. you should put up the “New Tail” song. i love that one!

    please tell me by e-mail if you put it up. thanks!

    1. Hi Shaya, thanks for commenting. The clips are to demonstrate points in the review and to get readers interested enough to purchase the album. I’d love to put up the entire soundtrack, but I can’t. Sorry.

  6. why did it say ‘file not found’ when i tried to listen to “Test Drive”?

    i love these songs! fix this problem, or i’ll stop recomending this site to everyone i know!

    1. Hi Shay,

      I don’t know why there’s a problem with the “Test Drive” audio clip. It’s working fine for me. Try clearing your cache. Perhaps there’s an old version of the page locked in. Let me know if you still have problems and I’ll see if I can fix it.

  7. John Powell is an absolute wonder, as is this score. My ears have been hearing nothing but it for the past month. Amazing.

  8. so i’m getting REALLY REALLY upset that Powell is practically getting snubbed from all these awards. If this score doesnt get nominated for Best Original Score at the oscars, i will throw an egg at Hans Zimmer’s face! (well not really but…) in My perfect award show, Powell would win Best Score, Tangled for Best Song, and Toy Story 3 for best Picture. ok my rant is over.

  9. It makes me so mad that this wasn’t nominated for best score at the golden globes or the oscars. It is absolutely beautiful. I was waiting to see How To Train Your Dragon in the list of score nominations tonight during the Golden Globes. But no…. of course not. Even though it was clearly better than all nominated scores, including the winner, Social Network. I just don’t understand why award shows continue to completely ignore animated films in every category except for the obvious best animated feature award.

    1. Sam, I was disappointed it wasn’t nominated for a Golden Globe as well. But the GG Score category has NEVER matched the Oscar category completely…EVER! So there’s still hope that it will be nominated for an Oscar. Those nominations come out on Tuesday 1/25. Keep your fingers crossed. I’m going to spit fire if it’s not nominated.

  10. Finally saw this film and immediately had to iTunes the album (could not find physical album in stores and could not wait to ship it from the states), hope it gets the Oscar.

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