One of the best films of 2010, How to Train Your Dragon features the kind of well-rounded maturity and dramatic impetus never usually seen in an animated realm outside the work of Pixar. Forgoing the tiresome pop culture references of Shrek (the period setting precludes that), there's nonetheless a successful mix of the modern and the old-fashioned in the tale of dorky hero Hiccup's attempts to keep his friendship with a downed dragon a secret from his Viking village (who are continually plagued by the creatures). Boasting an excellent voice cast including Jay Baruchel and Gerard Butler, it builds to an enormously exciting and well-staged showdown with one of the most fearsome movie monsters ever seen in a children's film, although to describe it as such undermines its many accomplishments.
It's boosted no end by John Powell's terrifically robust score, possibly the best of the year so far. It's always a pleasure to see what Powell comes up with next; he's able to skip from one genre to another with delightful ease, all the while maintaining one of the most distinctly rhythmic and energetic voices in modern film music. Dragon though is likely his most satisfying on a purely dramatic level, running the gamut from memorable themes to thunderous action interludes to a sprinkling of quiet sections that prevent the music becoming too overbearing.
It's a good 70 minutes long but the level of variety, joy and innovation Powell is able to pack in is wonderful. He performs the same coup Jerry Goldsmith might have attempted with the film (if he were still alive): elevating its implicit themes through dramatically sound, adult music. There's no mickey-mousing here, although the score is enormous fun from start to finish.
It starts (as all great film scores do) with a superb main theme, the essential hook which gives the score its backbone, both in its standalone statements and through reprisals in the incidental action and romantic pieces. Typically with Powell, it's one that creeps up gradually: a rousing brass anthem first heard quietly in the opener "This is Berk", where it's eventually overtaken by brilliant action music with a definite Celtic lilt (pipes, drums, choir, and so on). The choice of musical ethnicity might be questionable... but then it sounds dramatically authentic, so who's to complain?
There's more than a hint of John Debney's Cutthroat Island in standalone pieces like "Dragon Battle" (complete with what sounds like a rams horn), "Dragon Training" and "Focus, Hiccup!" – all charging rhythms and energy. Powell's own voice is never in doubt though; he merely deploys it to more varied effect across the entire score. Tracks like "Forbidden Friendship" and "Romantic Flight" are spine-tinglingly lovely, beautifully ethereal affairs full of cooing choirs and chimes with a definite New Age vibe. The unexpected wrinkles Powell is able to put on the score make it a refreshing, rousing experience.
The score properly takes off however with the magnificent "Test Drive", firm contender for best film music track this year. Here, Powell charges through his terrific theme with an enormously exciting sense of confidence and adventure, stylistics that come more into play as the score proceeds. A more ominous sense of apocalyptic dread arrives in "The Cove", as Hiccup and dragon Toothless set eyes on their main foe for the first time. The sense of danger is startlingly potent for a kid's picture, a mindset that makes the climax, from "Ready the Ships" through to "Coming Back Around", such a visceral pleasure.
By mixing in the plethora of instrumental choices, orchestra, choir and brilliantly heroic renditions of the main theme, Powell elevates the already terrific on-screen action to new heights, while ensuring it's perfectly listenable and exciting on its own terms. In particular, the wonderfully thematic pieces "Where's Hiccup?" (on moving, solo piano) and "Coming Back Around", the terrific, cathartic finale, mark the composer's craftsmanship and refreshing loyalty to straightforward orchestral writing, albeit with a modern twist.
Despite this fine composer's many outstanding achievements in a still-blossoming career (redefining the action movie sound with the Bourne Trilogy for one), very few of his scores are as wholeheartedly satisfying as How to Train Your Dragon. It has everything a film score should have, from intricate nuances to sweeping moments of exultation, and tells the film's story brilliantly. Listeners will be hard-pressed to find a better rounded soundtrack experience this year. The soundtrack is available from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.