For How To Train Your Dragon 2, John Powell has composed a score that matches the film in intensity, complexity and emotional range and further dispels the diminishing notion that films marketed to children are an inferior art form.
In addition to the sheer power and scope of the score, Powell’s emphasis on melody is a welcome change from the ostinatos and elongated, blended chords that seem to comprise most movie soundtracks nowadays. What really sets this soundtrack apart, though, isn’t merely Powell’s use of motifs but the balance he strikes between motifs from the original and new material. Far too often sequel soundtracks throw out the themes from their predecessors, not realizing how much that diminishes a score’s emotion impact (ahem). Powell understands this and his masterful combination of old and new imbues the soundtrack with a rare sense of both familiarity and originality.
Admittedly, there’s nothing in the soundtrack quite as jaw-dropping as “Forbidden Friendship,” “Test Drive” or “Romantic Flight“ but that has more to do with the plot-driven script’s lack of breathing room than Powell’s compositional prowess. Though it doesn’t quite surpass the original (yeah, I said it), it’s still vastly superior to most film scores and features several memorable tracks. Much attention has already been given to “For the Dancing and the Dreaming,” “Dragon Racing,” “Flying With Mother,” and “Where No One Goes” (by Jónsi) and deservedly so. However, I find the most compelling pieces to be those farther into the soundtrack.
“Hiccup Confronts Drago” not only corresponds with what is easily the movie’s most intense sequence, it’s a complex and ambitious piece of music unto itself. The introduction of the highland bagpipes at 2:12 interrupts a poignant leitmotif from the first film (there are far too many motifs in this soundtrack to name them all). It’s a transition so jarring and memorable that Powell himself referred to it in an interview. From there, “Hiccup Confronts Drago” builds with excruciating tension, throwing the Red Death’s theme into the mix at 2:33 (an interesting choice given the context) and concluding with a heart-pounding rendition of what I can only call “the distress motif” from the original at 3:34 followed by a long, haunting D note.
“Stoick’s Ship” is a far simpler piece. Comparison to “Into Eternity” is inevitable (at least for me) given the narrative similarities but, musically, “Into Eternity” shares more in common with “Stoick Saves Hiccup” as both begin with a basic melody and gradually expand into something far more sweeping and unsettling to capture the spiraling abandon of despair (the key change at 1:43 never fails to give me goosebumps). “Stoick’s Ship” opts, instead, for quiet poignancy. Apart from a beautiful swell at :55, the celtic harp, choral, bagpipe, french horn and tin whistle arrangement of “For the Dancing and the Dreaming” remains tender and sad. The piece’s crowning moment, though, is the trumpet’s plaintive rendition of the “Test Drive” theme at 3:15, a solo so unexpected it’s perfect.
“Toothless Found” is also worth mentioning as it’s a narrative mirror to “Hiccup Confronts Drago.” The seemingly incompatible string ostinato and choral rendition of the main theme introduced in “Toothless Lost” work beautifully together to convey a sense of labored progress. What’s more, the music alternatively crescendoes and diminuendos, mimicking the ebb and flow of a wave to parallel the struggle in the scene. It pays off with a victorious burst of the main theme at 1:38 featuring full orchestra and choir, a grand and joyous celebration after so much seriousness.
Altogether, Powell (and Jónsi)’s soundtrack to How To Train Your Dragon 2 is exceptional. While some of the pieces play on past their emotional zenith to include what I would consider filler (for example, “Toothless Found” continues for another two minutes thirty seconds after its glorious main theme), the soundtrack as a whole is an absolute triumph. It brims with sincerity and passion and articulates the intimacy, poignancy and grandeur of the story as few scores can.
Powell was robbed of an Oscar for the first How To Train Your Dragon soundtrack in 2011. He deserves to win for this.