Back in 2010, DreamWorks animation How to Train Your Dragon soared into the hearts of audiences to the unexpected tune of $494m worldwide. Adapted by director Dean DeBlois from Cressida Cowell's popular children's book, the film drew acclaim for its thrilling flight sequences and heartfelt characterisation, the latter embodied by human/dragon partnership Hiccup and Toothless. The first film explored the origins of the friendship between the former, a dorky Viking kid who's the butt of his village's jokes, and the adorable, cat-like firebreather who becomes his closest ally. This year's sequel How to Train Your Dragon 2 sees Hiccup (once again voiced by Jay Baruchel) and Toothless return for another adventure. Time has marched on since their last outing, with Hiccup no longer the unassuming hero but a fully-fledged teenage adventurer, uncovering strange and mystical new worlds beyond his home village of Berk. However, Hiccup soon discovers his long-lost mother Valka (Cate Blanchett) and also a deadly plot by the villainous Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou) to enslave all of the world's dragons. With DeBlois back in the director's chair and a plethora of returning voices including Gerard Butler, Jonah Hill and Kristen Wiig, the sequel has garnered even stronger reviews than the first movie, critics praising the emotional depth and sophisticated animation.
Equally vital to the franchise is composer John Powell, who was awarded his first Oscar nomination for his thrilling score to the first movie. Powell's robust, Celtic-inflected soundtrack was a refreshing antidote to the anodyne, synthetic film music that has plagued (and has continued to plague) many present day blockbusters, a magnificent throwback to the Golden Age of film music in which scores unashamedly wore their heart on their sleeve. With memorable melodies, gorgeous romantic interludes and stirring action music, How to Train Your Dragon was arguably the finest film score of 2010. Subsequently, it's a lot for the sequel score to live up to. It's therefore wonderful to report that How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a fine follow-up, one that builds on the strengths of the first whilst introducing a host of new ideas, all of which adds up to a rich canvas of music that effortlessly conveys the narrative of its respective film (the most important thing that any film score should do when listened to in isolation).
Things kick off with the rip-roaring and exciting "Dragon Racing", showcasing Powell's primary new theme for the film. A Celtic-style jig replete with bagpipes, crashing cymbals and rousing brass work, it's a swashbuckling extension of the musical language heard in the first score, inaccurate maybe (these are Vikings, not Celts after all) but brimming with irrepressible fun nonetheless. Weaved into this is Powell's "Test Drive" theme from the first movie – the composer's skill in weaving the old and new ideas around each other throughout this track and the remainder of the score makes for an excellent listening experience; one senses how much he enjoyed returning to this particular franchise. When a large choir is introduced in the second half of the track it becomes even more spectacular, recalling John Debney's classic score for 1995 pirate adventure Cutthroat Island.
The "Test Drive" theme is subtly apparent in the lovely "Together We Map the World" and "Hiccup the Chief/Drago is Coming", the strings, choir and woodwinds working together in complete harmony. However, the second half of the latter track moves from tender, beautiful grace into decidedly more portentous territory, with thunderous brass and an altogether more operatic choral injection offering our first glimpse at the dramatic new villain's theme. There's more stunning choral work in "Toothless Lost", Powell going all out with the epic music in a way that's genuinely impressive. Following this, the composer quietens things down with introduction of another new theme, that for Hiccup's mother Valka, in "Should I Know You?" and the gorgeous "Valka's Dragon Sanctuary". The carefully measured choir makes for some of the most beautiful vocal work heard in a film score for quite some time, and of course there are regular injections of the livelier main themes to keep the music barrelling along at a fair old pace.
The voices in "Valka's Dragon Sanctuary" are especially noteworthy, initially rising up as if to fill an immense, wondrous space and then settling into gentle cooing. There's also room for the chimes and New Age instruments heard in the "Forbidden Friendship" cue from the first score – it's heartening to realise that Powell's attention to detail hasn't deserted him. "Losing Mom/Meet the Good Alpha" is a track of two halves, the first portion a harsh attack from the brass section and choir as a key flashback moment is revealed, before it melts away into the hauntingly beautiful theme for Valka in the second. The few bars of graceful piano in the middle are emblematic of the countless wonderful touches that adorn Powell's score.
It's back to doom and portent in "Meet Drago", the villain's theme getting its fullest airing yet with a vaguely Middle-Eastern tinge to the rhythmic, pounding choir and timpani. It's an effective contrast to the Celtic flavour of the rest of the score. "Stoick Finds Beauty" has a vaguely Slavic air with its humming male choir whilst "Flight with Mother" is one of the score's most tender moments, the gentle interaction between the New Age instrumentation and soothing choir making for a counterpoint to the more boisterous tracks. "For the Dancing and the Dreaming" is yet another new theme, a love theme for the relationship between Hiccup's father, Stoick, and Valka. Initially whistled, it's soon picked up in a sung arrangement by actors Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson and Mary Jane Wells.
"Battle of the Bewilderbeast" must surely be a contender for the most spectacular film score cue of 2014, a monumental ruckus with the orchestra and choir unleashed at their fullest. Meanwhile, the main themes of the film keep everything anchored – even if a particular theme or motif only appears for a few seconds, it's enough to give the score an identity of its own. The introduction of Drago's theme in the second half is very effective, giving a vivid sense of good vs. evil. Emotion of a more strained kind is on offer in "Hiccup Confronts Drago" with a darker interpretation of the "Dancing and the Dreaming" theme, although the thrills soon come roaring back with a thunderous bagpipe/timpani combination.
The emotion is even more strained in "Stoick Saves Hiccup", Powell's writing accompanying (and indeed elevating) an already moving scene from the film with his perfectly judged writing for choir. "Stoick's Ship" is even more impressive, the music reaching tragically grandiose heights with notable interludes for pipes, woodwinds and choir – the composer's ability to take musical ideas from earlier (in this case, "For the Dancing and the Dreaming") and cast them in a different emotional mould is distinguished and intelligent. Then comes the score's conclusion, a succession of three tracks that pretty much defines the phrase "emotional rollercoaster".
"Alpha Comes to Berk" begins on a note of defiance before a sprightly woodwind section ushers in the terrific "Test Drive" theme – the piping choir also makes a welcome (and overdue) re-appearance. Stark timpani begins "Toothless Found" before being replaced by the ethereal choir representing Valka. The voices then rise up in monumental fashion, ushering in the climactic battle between Hiccup, Toothless and the evil Drago – Powell maintains a consistent rhythm between the brass, strings, woodwind and timpani to craft a genuinely dramatic sense of excitement, not too dissimilar from what Jerry Goldsmith did in his animation scores.
Powell's final track, "Two New Alphas" is where everything wraps up: the choir soars on the back of the "Test Drive" and Valka themes, the timpani roars with enormous force and all of the ideas contained within the score are brought together wonderfully. The finale is simply stupendous: a brief pennywhistle interlude of the "Romantic Flight" theme from the first score initially promises to end things on an intimate, understated note before the brass and choir return for a surging, spine-tingling finish.
There are not enough positive things to say about How to Train Your Dragon 2. It's a full-blooded, sweeping soundtrack experience that restores one's faith in the medium of film music. With intelligent and sensitive composers like John Powell around, there's plenty of reason to believe that the robust, melodic and thematically-driven film score will continue to thrive in future.
The most remarkable thing about the score only sinks in after listening: there are at least four distinct themes at work, each of which are memorable and each of which are used brilliantly to extend the emotional narrative of the film itself. In truth, there are probably countless other motifs and ideas that haven't been touched upon in this review – every single track has a myriad ideas swirling around yet the music never becomes overbearing. It's a prime example of what a sequel score should be – a kindred spirit to its predecessor yet with a strong enough identity of its own. Here be dragons – and then some. The soundtrack is available from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.