Whether you realize it or not, movie scores are often what makes a good movie a great one. In this column, we look at truly great scores, including some that transcend their films.
The film score to How to Train Your Dragon by John Powell is without a doubt one of the standout soundtracks of the last decade. Through a combination of triumphant, bombastic pieces and quiet, intimate refrains, the score enhances both aspects of this fantastic animated movie. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Powell chooses to embrace classic musical elements that recall ancient times.
While the score is reminiscent of some adventure and fantasy films, its strong Celtic influence makes it instantly recognizable and unique. Heavy use of the fiddle, bagpipes, pennywhistle, dulcimer, and male chanting all strike a more Nordic feel, appropriate given the presence of Vikings.
As the film opens and introduces us to the land of Berk via voiceover narration by Hiccup, our misunderstood hero, we are transported by the track “This is Berk.” Equal parts mysterious, adventurous, and triumphant, the piece brings in multiple elements and refrains that will be used throughout the movie. No matter what turns the story takes, we are assured that we will have fun while exploring this new land.
Much of the film revolves around how the human characters view and interact with dragons, especially Toothless. As such, a large portion of the score is based on three types of interactions, which change as the film progresses.
First, fear felt by both humans and dragons alike, and originally by the audience, is presented in the score. This can be seen in tracks such as “Dragon Battle,” “Dragon’s Den,” “The Dragon Book,” and “The Kill Ring.” Sharp strings, deep chanting, and brass horns represent the threat felt by the Vikings and the lurking danger of the dragons.
These elements become less prominent as Toothless, the central dragon in the film, is better understood by Hiccup. Specifically, “The Downed Dragon” puts doubt in the minds of both Hiccup and the audience concerning the true nature of dragons. As Hiccup’s beliefs become more ambiguous, so does the tone of the score.
Next, this shifting tone is eventually solidified into one of hope and joy as Hiccup and Toothless begin to bond. As the film becomes more about new discoveries and the beauty of new friendship, the score reaches new heights. The brass previously representing dragons is replaced by romantic strings, pennywhistles, and fiddles. Additionally, the chanting is all but gone as fear is cast aside in favor of friendship. The tracks “Forbidden Friendship,” “New Tail,” “See You Tomorrow,” and “Test Drive” all become bolder as our two leads become strengthened in their relationship and their ability to fly together.
Finally, the action set pieces in the film’s finale bring back chanting and the use of heavy drums. These elements are almost in unison to the beating of dragon wings and the firey outburst illuminating the screen. As the one true threat in the film, the monstrous and gigantic Green Death dragon, appears, the score once again takes a dark turn. Interspersed with intimidating and ominous tones are moments of triumph as Hiccup and Toothless wage their battle against the Green Death.
The final piece played during the film, “Coming Back Around,” contains all of the elements that comprise the score, without feeling like a greatest hits compilation. As Hiccup goes out into a new and better world, a world that he has helped create, the score rises up like a veil. The intense and often dark aspects of the film and its score that had taken center stage for a large portion of its third act are now removed, and in their place are feelings of joy, wonder, and love. Father and son move forward in their reconciliation, Astrid and Hiccup’s relationship blossoms, and the dragons have become an accepted and much-loved part of the Vikings’ community. As the piece turns into a march, Hiccup and his friends courageously and happily fly off into a new and better future.
The emotional high note struck in the latest frames of the film segues perfectly into “Sticks & Stones.” The song, written and sung by Jónsi, lead singer of Sigur Rós and solo artist, has a focus on themes of new discovery and an intimate bond that can be applied to Hiccup and his relationships with Toothless and Astrid. The song’s heavy emotional focus is a fantastic wrap-up to the story and its view while the scribbled drawings of dragons throughout the credits continue the film’s focus on being the beauty of being open to new perspectives.
And don’t forget the final piece of music, “The Vikings Have Their Tea.” A short and sweet piece that rotates around a single fiddle, its warm and soft tones reflect the more personal, friendship-centered aspects that make the film much more than an adventure.
Whether taken in as single tracks or as a whole score, listeners will quickly find themselves transported to a new world and deeply bonding with the characters found throughout the film.