Feb 28, 2011

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON - John Powell


2010 had a lot great films and the scores to coincide with them but nothing took me by surprise like DreamWorks Animations' fantasy/adventure How To Train Your Dragon did. Loosely based upon the children's series novels written by Cressida Cowell, How To Train Your Dragon tells the story of a forbidden friendship between a viking boy and his dragon.
Filled with adventure, comedy, action, fantasy and headspinning animation, Dragon stole my heart within the first few minutes of it's 98 minute running time. While it is aimed at children, Dragon manages to attract adults as well, as it never resorts to 'stupid' bathroom humor (like too many DreamWorks films have done in the past), has a morally effective plot and heart with a deeper meaning than most animated films do these days. Oh, and there's also that breathtaking visual design as the icing on the cake.
Since the beginning of DreamWorks Animation productions, the musical voice has belonged to Hans Zimmer and his Media Ventures/Remote Control protégés, most notably Harry Gregson-Williams and John Powell. Normally, I'm not awfully fond of a lot of these guy's big blockbuster action scores as they tend to fallback on uninteresting electronic textures and overly masculine brass sections. However when it comes to scoring animated features, it seems to bring out an unstoppable creative force in them. Time and time again they've dazzled me with such scores as Zimmer's Prince Of Egypt, Gregson-Williams' Sinbad & The Voyage of The Seven Seas and of course Powell's numerous collaborations with Gregson-Williams on the first Shrek score, the highly entertaining Chicken Run and Antz and with Zimmer the wonderfully fun Kung-Fu Panda
Powell is finally allowed to let loose all on his own with How To Train Your Dragon and he doesn't disappoint. In fact, I honestly feel he's written the best score for DreamWorks Animation to date.
What Powell does here is ignore the historical facts of the vikings and sets the tone himself using musical arrangements more akin to Scotland rather than something you would associate with the Scandinavians. To be fair the primary solo instruments he uses here are the sakpipa, which is the Swedish version of the bagpipe and the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle, both of which match the traditions of the geographical area that Dragon supposedly takes place in. When it all comes down to it, it is a children's movie about kids riding dragons, so historical inaccuracies can easily be dismissed. After all, it's this specific sound that helps bring out the huge heart that Powell's Dragon score is brimming with.
The whole album begins with "This Is Berk" which serves as a mini-suite to a certain degree, with all of the main themes wrapped into one cue. It's almost as if it's presented as sort of an overture as it gallops and dances up and down the scales with incredible excitement and positivity. From the very get-go Powell makes it obvious he isn't going to shy away from distinguishable themes and bold statements here.
"This Is Berk" opens with a lone, yet honorable, horn performance (which acts as the "flight" theme later on in it's all it's full blown glory) and gracefully leads into an effectively pretty woodwind segment that plays as the main characters' "love" theme. After a minute of intimacy and subtly, Powell allows the orchestra to detonate and thunder into the film's rousing main theme. An anthemic powerhouse fueled by a humongous orchestra, a male choir and an arrangement of traditional instruments. It's brings up visions of good old fashioned swashbuckling and adventure, something that is sorely missed in so many adventure scores these days.
Things get a bit more menacing, but no less fun, as we flow with ease into "Dragon Battle". Powell makes great use of the traditional Viking tone at the beginning of this cue with a blaring horn call. Low-end brass chords and a heart-racing marching rhythm give the dragons a definite voice of impending danger. Most of todays composer wouldn't find a spot to fit the main themes into their action cues but Powell manages to gracefully weave, not one but, two themes in this minus 2 minute cue, without sacrificing any of the action.
Things slow down for a bit when we are greeted with a quieter cue, "The Downed Dragon". Making use of an array of wonderful woodwind arrangements, complimented with some brass and male choir moments nestled in, we are soon introduced to what one might call the "curious" motif. Things get a little nervous as the main human character, Hiccup, first meets his soon to be dragon companion, Toothless.
The next few cues juggle themes back and forth with delicate precision, going from loud to quiet in such a graceful manner it's astounding. We are constantly hinted that the music is just waiting to completely explode with excitement and adventure but the composer is quick put a lid on it before it completely bursts into full blown action music quite yet.
We are then brought to what I believe is not only the highlight of the entire score but THE outstanding cue of the entire year, "Forbidden Friendship". Sprinkled with a light child-like innocence and curiosity, highlighted by tick-tocking xylophones and marimbas, only to build and build with a celestial female choir and wonderfully delicate orchestral crescendo arrangements. It brings tears to my eyes, not because it's sad but it speaks of an innocence I've long let go and a nervous heart-felt new love for a pet, which I think we can all associate ourselves with. When I first heard this cue I must have replayed it back to back at least six times in a row.
"See You Tomorrow" brings such a blissful outgoing feel to it, it will probably test the patience of anyone who can't stand a good ol' Highland stagger. Bagpipes, fiddles and a pennywhistle flutter in and out of the centerstage as a harpsichord and a overly happy snare tapping holds the rhythm. If anything, this highlight cue is going to remind Powell fans of the same positive drive he and Harry Gregson-Williams brought to the screen with their Chicken Run effort.
The flight theme is finally allowed to soar in all it's glory in the astonishing "Test Drive". Powell captures the feeling of free flight with such perfection you can almost feel your eyes tearing up from the wind blowing in your face. The orchestra cascades up and down the scale, as a thundering drum section keeps everything at a steady pace. If you know my musical tastes, I absolutely detest the silly sounds of an electric guitar in adventure/action scores like this. They usually run up and down the frets like Yngwie Malmsteem with a bad case of diarrhea, not doing much for the music but quickly outdating itself (Ramin Djwadi take note...you fucked up Iron Man). However, Powell uses the guitar to enhance the lower end of the orchestra with simple strumming and no more. It's extremely effective and not abused like most of these Media Venture composers would do to it.
The tender "love" theme we heard at the very beginning of the score is finally let out of it's box and given the chance to flourish. It floats and sweeps through with such finesse you hardly notice the big build up it ends in, with a brilliantly orchestral arrangement supported by a muted female choir.
A more serious tension really begins to build with "The Kill Ring", while not sacrificing the playfulness of the fluttering woodwinds. A vast array of various drums rumble and growl, waiting for the charging orchestra to really lay on the heaviness. When it finally does let go, it is wonderful. It has the dizzying orchestral arrangements of Chicken Run but the serious action writing of say John Williams' Indiana Jones' scores.
The next four cues play as sort of a single climatic piece adding up to about 20 minutes of some of the best action music the cinemas received in 2010.
"Ready The Ships" starts off with a brass heavy percussive pounding joined by a male chanting, before it drops off into a determined sense of loss and hope reflecting each other simultaneously, making for one of the most subtly quiet and thoughtful moments on the entire album.
"Battling The Green Death" takes you by the scruff and throws you right into the middle of the action. Much like Hans Zimmer's amazing climatic cue "I Don't Think Now Is The Best Time" from the third Pirates of The Caribbean, Powell manages to throw all the themes at you in one single cue and completely blows you away with the spectacular rollercoaster of orchestral endeavor coming from all sides. It takes you back to the Golden Age days of swashbuckling adventure of Max Steiner's work. Making use of every single instrumental, vocal and kitchen sink element Powell's used so far "Green Death" dares your heart not to start racing in place. In all the excitement, Powell manages to let the main "flight" theme take center stage and it soars to such a great height that the hairs on my neck all stand up.
Concluding the action cues "Counter Attack" swells into pure magnificent chaos and urgency, before dropping off into a haunting echoing choir trailing off into nothing.
"Where's Hiccup?" starts off in a rather melancholy haunting mood but it gently transcends into a swelling orchestral rise and then into an astonishingly beautiful rendition of the "flight" theme on a solitary piano.
Concluding the score presentation of the album is "Coming Back Around". Here the main themes are allowed to spread their wings with such power and glory I'm literally floored and just nodding my head in amazement with the heart and soul put into the final moments of score.
The album ends with a little bit of a misstep. Sigur Ros' Jon Por Birgisson (credited as Jonsi here) contributes a song for the end credits. "Sticks & Stones" is a pretty good song but it breaks the mood and doesn't really stand up to Powell's music. Although Jonsi has actually penned a happy song (very much the opposite of his regular Sigur Ros material), "Stick & Stones" still projects somewhat of a downbeat mood and seems really out of place. I would go so far as to say it destroys the mood and emotion Powell had set up for the entire film.
The album ends with a rather bizarre cue tagged on titled "The Vikings Have Their Tea". With somewhat of a aristocratical feel to it, it brings a smile to my face and almost takes away the strange taste that "Sticks & Stones" left in my mouth.
When all is done, it's amazing the emotion and thought Maestro John Powell put into every single note of every single cue on this score. It's rare that a score is this excellent front to back. Usually we are left with a lot of filler cues and tend to skip a lot but with How To Train Your Dragon it's meant to be experienced from beginning to end.
I don't think I can gush over this score anymore without being overly fanboyish but I honestly believe it deserves the praise myself and the armies of critics have given it. It's way to rare that a score this good comes around that I can't help but carry on about it like this. I wholeheartedly can be certain it deserved the Oscar for Best Score for it's energy, heart and originality.
...and with that, I award this score with my 5 out 5.
It truly deserves it.

***** out of 5

3 comments:

budarc said...

I know you haven't posted your review yet, but I just got done giving it a second listen (the "extended" version on the FYC site) and I've got to say, I didn't give it enough credit the first time around. It's a great adventure score and I really dig the beauty of the "Forbidden Friendship" track. I need to bump it up on my own top 10 list from last year.

cuckoo77 said...

It's a wonderful rambunctious adventure score that's thematically consistent (which seems to be rarity these days for adventure/action films) and with a lot of heart. It still remains on the top of my scores of 2010.

"Forbidden Friendship" is my pick for top cue of 2010 as well.

I don't know about your TOP 10 but my list has changed A LOT. Hopefully it will be posted here within the next 2 weeks.

budarc said...

I think when you put up your top 10, I'll give mine another whack. For the most part, it has remained the same, just shifted a little here and there.