Saturday, 28 June 2014

How To Train Your Dragon 2 Score Review

Check it out... if the gorgeous instrumentation, momentous scope, irresistible thematic material and emotional presence that the prior installment into the franchise sported made for one hell of listening experience for you, because all those factors are back for the sequel, as well as more. 

Skip it... if you've never had any fascination in either the previous score, or either of the films; though newcomers to the series should still undoubtedly adore this effort.

"When so much could've gone wrong, and this could've turned out a disaster, How To Train Your Dragon 2 proves to be the smash score of the year so far."

Few animated films, outside of those produced and created by Disney and Pixar, have managed to form such a powerful following in the past 20 years as 2010's How To Train Your Dragon managed to. Not only thanks to grossing an impressive $494 million worldwide, but producing an insurmountable quantity of critical acclaim, How To Train Your Dragon was bound for a sequel/franchise just a few weeks after it's initial release. And so, after 4 unbearable years, How To Train Your Dragon 2, the sequel to one of the greatest animated films of all time, has now been released in theatres to a wide amount of critical success, though limited commercial triumph, especially in comparison to not only the prior film in the franchise, but also more recently released animated films; most notably Frozen, the latest film from the Disney canon, which grossed over $1.2 billion, cementing itself, for the time being, as the 5th highest grossing film of all time. How To Train Your Dragon 2, despite all it's brilliance, has grossed a disappointing $185 million, a poor figure for something with as great quality as this film. Nonetheless, with a second film in the franchise comes a return from John Powell, the composer behind some of the best Dreamworks scores of the past 15 years, namely Kung-Fu Panda (along with Hans Zimmer), Chicken Run (along with Harry-Gregson Williams), and the original How To Train Your Dragon score. Like the film Powell scored for, the score garnered universal acclaim from scoring critics all over the Internet, including Filmtrack's Christian Clemmenson, Movie Wave's James Southall, Film Music Magazine's Daniel Schweiger, and Movie Music UK's Jonathon Broxton. Very few scores manage to align the stars in such a way as to where everyone seems to agree that the original score is one of the finer animated scores of all time. With the sequel, Dreamworks once again recruited Powell for the task of elaborating and expanding his already huge world from the original film, and setting in motion bigger themes, a seemingly broader spectrum of sounds, and increasing the Viking sound-scape.

Before taking it upon myself to listen to the score, various thoughts flooded my head, the prominent ones being those that dictated doubt. How To Train Your Dragon is cemented, in my mind, as not only Powell's best score, but one of the best scores of all time; quite easily the best animation score of all time. It's a whole album of gorgeous, unadulterated fun music, fueled by energetic instrumentation, and some of the largest and most powerful uses of an orchestra I've ever had the grace of listening to. Hesitation is something I usually don't produce in regards to listening to scores, though in this situation, with such a sequel as this, I had hesitation in spades. Despite my reluctance, though, I managed to press the play button, and engaged in one of the most perfect listening experiences of my young life. From the first listen through, you should be transported to Berk instantaneously, and with the returning main theme, the comparison and resemblance between the scores is drawn immediately. This not only sounds as if it is a sequel to How To Train Your Dragon; it feels as if it's a sequel to How To Train Your Dragon. The warm and powerful brass immediately welcomes you back to the world that you departed 4 years ago, and for the rest of the 71 minute long album, you are in Berk, experiencing the plights that Hiccup and his friends have to go through, flying through clouds and over great expanses of sea, and meeting and embracing new people, enemies and dragons. It's all a great deal of fun, as the previous score was. Though whilst the score does feel enough like it's predecessor to warrant the sequel tag, How To Train Your Dragon 2 is still unique enough in it's execution that it does not feel as if Powell has taken the thematic material from the prior installment and simply remixed it. This is a fully developed, beautiful score, that not only lives up to the tremendous amount of hype, but the brand of How To Train Your Dragon

Whilst many will no doubt be bothered by the return of the Scottish and Irish influences, I personally find them welcome. The Scottish and Irish elements blend well with the Nordic and Viking tones and atmosphere that Powell implemented in both the first score, as well as this one, though they are still recognisable, which will be irritating for a number of listeners. For myself, though, they suit the Viking style that Powell was already aiming for well, and whilst they may throw some listeners off geography-wise, it seems more so appropriate for this sequel that a broader spectrum of instrumentation be explored more richly; Hiccup and Toothless are expanding their knowledge of the lands beyond Berk at the beginning of the film, so Powell taking the Scottish and Irish influences and expanding upon them, making them more prominent within the score, seems a more logical thing to do. And some of this foreign, seemingly unnecessary instrumentation does play part in some of the more impressive of cues on the album; Stoick's Ship, one of the emotional focal points of the album, puts great emphasis on the bagpipes, an instrument which most would perceive as Scottish, not Scandinavian, as the Vikings were. Whilst many will once again criticise Powell's lack of attention to detail in regards to the geography and influences he uses within the score, the use of such influences is good enough to merit praise.

Like I made note of earlier, Powell does constantly reference the original score and it's broad array of thematic material, all of which was spotless as it was, yet still build upon what had already been developed to keep this score feeling lively and unique enough to constantly surprise listeners all throughout. Different renditions of themes are constant and always welcome; the main theme is constantly redone, whether in a faster tempo, with just a single section of the orchestra, etc. The flying theme from the previous score gets a reworking in the cue Toothless Lost, though more so desperate than we've ever seen it before; the music seems to be trying to overcome some sort of obstacle. A greater number of riffs and phrases make appearances in the score, all of which I could not list even if I wished to, so for those who were dreading that Powell would discard the previously established material, your worrying can cease. Powell has demonstrated exactly how to handle prominent and important leitmotifs in a sequel score, so for any composers who may be tackling a sequel, take note. Still, despite all of Powell's callbacks to the original score, he manages to create and establish new themes with particular ease, however small and difficult to fathom such themes may be. In comparison to themes like the main theme, the flying theme, the Hiccup/Toothless relationship motif, romantic theme, etc, the leitmotifs introduced in How To Train Your Dragon 2 are remarkably obscure. Valka, one of the more important new characters who've been introduced into the sequel, seemingly has multiple themes, with the reappearing concept being that of wistful female choral work. Drago, the villain of the film, has material that sounds remarkably throwback-ish; his deep, dark and powerful theme instantly reminded me of those related to such a villain as Darth Vadar, and begged constant replays. Though however good his material, his theme is still less so obvious than I would've anticipated. In comparison between How To Train Your Dragon and How To Train Your Dragon 2, the former score displays more obvious and instantly recognisable thematic material, that is better suited for entertainment, more so than the latter score's array of thematic material, which feels more mature and thought-provoking.

Ultimately, that is what I found most resonant with this sequel; it's increase of maturity over the prior score. The entire score is less obvious in it's presentation than How To Train Your Dragon, and that is probably for the better, though there will undoubtedly be those whom prefer the more upfront original score, and it's more grand tendencies. Though, by saying that, I'm not discounting the grand and loud nature of Powell's second effort in the series, for you should not believe that How To Train Your Dragon 2 is too great a step down in juggernaut scope and size from How To Train Your Dragon. In fact, in various portions of the score, most notably the magnificent battle cue Battle of the Bewilderbeast, when the volume is cranked to maximum, and the momentous orchestral presence can be fully realised, that is when this score truly shines beyond anything I've heard in a good while; with a massive 120 piece orchestra, as well as 100-voice choir, the score sounds phenomenal and huge. The vocal presence is utterly astounding, and most certainly greater than any other score released within this year, or any year out of the past 5 or so. The choir plays a tremendous role, in fact, in a majority of the battle cues; a far greater role than that which the choirs were given in the prior score. Often, the battle between good and evil can be determined by the state of the choral material; the good being represented by a beautiful female choir, whilst the villain of the film, Drago, being represented by a menacing and sinister male choir, both of which make battle in some of the more awe-inspiring battle cues, such as the previously mentioned Battle of the Bewilderbeast. However impressive the vocal component of the score is, though, the real star is the brass section; as was the case with the truly epic scores of the 70's and 80's, the brass carries the score in it's metaphorical arms, representing both the good and bad portions of the story. The main theme is most commonly represented with the sensational brass section, and it makes for some soaring key moments; some true highlights, in a flowing score.

How To Train Your Dragon 2 does manage to flow far greater than How To Train Your Dragon; the latter, whilst sensational in presentation and album layout, doesn't flow as well as it should. The sequel feels like a stronger whole album, less so than a number of huge highlights. When I look back at the former score, I generally don't trouble myself to re-look the entirety of the album, however damned good it is; you could pick and take various highlights, such as Test Flight, Romantic Flight and This Is Berk. How To Train Your Dragon 2 feels more like a whole score, moving along fluently and logically, and demands replays of the entire album, instead of individual highlights. Though this is not to say the score lacks in any measure in relation to individual cue highlights, because it most certainly does not. Whilst every piece has some sort of stand out moment or piece of genuine brilliance, the cues that require immediate replays include Dragon Racing; one of the most genuinely entertaining and fun cues on the album, and a brilliant way to start off the score; Hiccup the Chief/Drago's Coming, which reintroduced the Astrid/Hiccup love theme, and gives us a pirate-like rendition of the main theme, as well as introduce us to the old-fashioned brass-based Drago theme, all of which are simply sublime; Toothless Lost, a desperate and energetic cue; Valka's Dragon Sanctuary, which elaborates on Valka's themes, and injects a very soft and quiet touch to the score; Losing Mom/Meet The Good Alpha, which serves as the emotional flashback to where Valka leaves Hiccup, as well as an awe-filled meeting with the good Alpha dragon, which is sustained by various woodwind instruments, and a beautiful choral assortment; Stoick Finds Beauty, which interweaves both Stoick's hearty and deep percussion and male vocals, and Valka's delicate female vocals and slight woodwind, which somewhat reminds me of James Horner's Avatar (not a bad thing at all); Flying With Mother, which interweaves the flight theme with Valka's theme, and adds a greater number of woodwinds and female vocals; Battle of the Bewilderbeast, which may very well serve as the best cue of the year, thanks to it's great scope, and conflict between vocal components, as well as grand use of brass, percussion and strings; Stoick's Ship, which, as mentioned before, represents the main emotional focal point of the score, and takes advantage of all sections of the orchestra, even the controversial bagpipes, which work wonders; Toothless Found, which serves as the heroes' "get back up and beat him!" cue, and fuels excitement for the finale; Two New Alphas, which happens to be the finale to the score element of the album, and concludes on a happier tone, with exciting renditions of the main theme, and a beautiful final few vocal phrases. As I've made quite clear, the score does sport it's fair assortment of stand out cues, though they feel more conjoined, and so therefore the score feels like an entire piece of music, instead of individual works of art. 

The album also includes 2 additional end credit songs, though SoundtrackNET's track listing only includes the initial end credits song, sung by Sigur Ros vocalist Jonsi, whom you may recognise from the recently released Game of Thrones: Season 4 score, where he performed the Rains of Castamere, alongside the rest of his band. This initial end credits song, entitled Where No One Goes, takes advantage of Jonsi's falsetto vocals, which seem to merge well with the energetic percussion used in the song, and Powell brings the main theme back as the bridge between verses. It matches the tone of the rest of the score, and serves as a fun end to the album. Though wait; apparently, we're not done yet! Alexander Ryback contributes Into A Fantasy, a song which puts especial emphasis on violin, which works well with the Irish influence that Powell has incorporated within the score. For me at least, it suits the tone of the score much greater than Where No One Goes, and proves a much greater send off for the album. In terms of end credits songs, these two are fairly impressive, and work well with the rest of the score; more often than not, we don't get overly enjoyable end credits tunes, though in this case, we most certainly do.

For those whom were worried about this coming release, and how it could very well taint the insurmountable How To Train Your Dragon, a perfect score, do not fear; How To Train Your Dragon 2 is faultless. Whereas most sequels either head in a completely separate direction to the prior score, or simply remix what material was already there, Powell, like he did with the gorgeous Kung-Fu Panda 2, has managed to gift us a score which suitably feels like the original, whilst heading in directions best avoided 4 years ago. This is by far Powell's most accomplished score technically; the sound quality is perfect, the orchestration and writing is without fault, and this is by far the most emotionally resonant album out of the 2 scores provided. With another film already green lit for June 17th, 2016, Powell's How To Train Your Dragon trilogy is already set to become one of film scoring history's greatest achievements, and become a landmark in this entertainment medium. If the growth in maturity and writing within How To Train Your Dragon 2 is any indication, the next installment into this franchise may very well find itself with no peers in quality. You can purchase How To Train Your Dragon 2 on Intrada or Amazon, here and here


Track Listing

1.Dragon Racing4:34
2.Together We Map The World2:19
3.Hiccup The Chief / Drago's Coming4:44
4.Toothless Lost3:28
5.Should I Know You1:56
6.Valka's Dragon Sanctuary3:19
7.Losing Mom / Meet The Good Alpha3:24
8.Meet Drago4:26
9.Stoick Finds Beauty2:33
10.Flying With Mother2:49
11.For The Dancing And The Dreaming (feat. Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson & Mary Jane Wells)3:06
12.Battle Of The Bewilderbeast6:26
13.Hiccup Confronts Drago4:06
14.Stoick Saves Hiccup2:23
15.Stoick's Ship3:48
16.Alpha Comes To Berk2:20
17.Toothless Found3:46
18.Two New Alphas6:06
19.Where No One Goes (feat. Sigur Ros vocalist Jonsi)2:44

Total Album Time: 68:17
Taken from SoundtrackNET

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