Sunday, October 14, 2012

How to Train Your Dragon

Score Review by Annie Wills

The composer – John Powell
Born in London in 1963, John Powell took up the violin at a young age. After graduating with a composition degree from London’s Trinity College of Music, Powell began scoring commercials and helped out on a few projects for Hans Zimmer and Patrick Doyle. Powell scored his first feature film in 1994 and moved to the U.S. in 1997 where he became a part of Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control Productions team along with other well-known composers such as Harry Gregon-Williams and Klaus Badelt. Here, he helped arrange music for The Prince of Egypt, and co-wrote Dreamworks’ Antz with Gregson-Williams in 1998. John Powell is known for his ingenuity and creativity and has written over 50 film scores including Happy Feet, Shrek (with Harry Gregson-Williams), all three Bourne films, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and all three Ice Age films.

The movie - Directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, Produced by Bonnie Arnold
With directors who have worked on The Lion King, Lilo & Stitch, and Mulan; and a producer who produced Toy Story and Tarzan, you know this movie is going to be good. Nominated for two Oscars, this film is loved by many. Although on the outset it seems be a movie about a boy and his pet (very dangerous pet, mind you), it really is a movie about a father and son. This film has some wonderful characters, a fantastic script, and is full of imagination. The animation is wonderfully done and the lighting was created differently than most animated films. This beautiful film tells the story of a young Viking named Hiccup who is desperately trying to win his father, Stoick’s, approval. The best way to do this would be to kill a dragon, the Viking’s sworn enemy. After managing to down a dragon with a net, Hiccup finds he is incapable of killing it. Not because he doesn’t have the strength, but because he doesn’t have the heart to kill this frightened creature. Now having befriended a creature his entire village wants to kill, Hiccup struggles to be the Viking his father wants him to be. This movie will definitely make you laugh, and might make you cry. Entertaining for both children and adults, this is a story of strength, courage, trust and love.

The listening CD - Released by Varese Sarabande
This is a fantastic CD with plenty of activity to keep your attention through the end. The first five notes grab the listener from the start with their deep and awe inspiring melody, and from then on, the listener is kept wanting to hear more. This score is mostly written for standard orchestra, but adds some bagpipes and mallet instruments to show location and to add some variation.

The CD has been beautifully edited to include every theme in the movie, but takes out some of the smaller transitions, helping to move the CD along. There are a few parts that are on the CD but are not in the movie. A few seconds here and there throughout the CD will not be found in the movie, but the entire last track (The Vikings Have Their Tea) is not in the movie either.

The only song on this CD that was not written by John Powell is Track 14, Sticks and Stones by Jónsi, the singer of the Icelandic band Sigur Rós. The directors thought that Jónsi’s work is so “bright and infectious and happy” that they decided to ask him if he would be interested in writing a piece for the end credits. Jónsi watched the film in London while Powell was finishing up the score and had such a positive response to the film that he wrote Sticks and Stones in just a few days.

This CD has 25 tracks, in film order, and is just over 72 minutes long.

Track Number, Length, Title
1. 4:10, This is Berk
2. 1:55, Dragon Battle
3. 4:17, The Downed Dragon (0-0:48 not in movie)
4. 3:11, Dragon Training
5. 1:26, Wounded
6. 2:23, The Dragon Book
7. 2:06, Focus, Hiccup!
8. 4:11, Forbidden Friendship
9. 2:48, New Tail
10. 3:54, See You Tomorrow
11. 2:36, Test Drive
12. 1:13, Not So Fireproof (0-0:39 not in movie)
13. 0:44, This Time For Sure (0:40-0:44 not in movie)
14. 0:43, Astrid Goes For A Spin
15. 1:57, Romantic Flight
16. 2:29, Dragon's Den (0-0:40 not in movie)
17. 1:11, The Cove
18. 4:29, The Kill Ring
19. 5:14, Ready The Ships (1:22-2:23 and 4:33-5:14 not in movie)
20. 6:19, Battling The Green Death
21. 3:05, Counter Attack
22. 2:44, Where's Hiccup?
23. 2:51, Coming Back Around (2:40-2:51 in credits only)
24. 4:18, Sticks and Stones (Jónsi)
25. 2:04, The Vikings Have Their Tea (not in movie)

The score
John Powell is known for variety and inventiveness in his scores and How to Train Your Dragon is no exception. Beautifully written and well crafted, this score is constantly changing in instrumentation, timbre, harmony, and many other ways. Powell used many smaller motifs that are mixed together throughout the film, hardly ever following the same pattern twice. Powell also used some specific themes in the movie. For instance, nearly every time you see Toothless (the dragon) or every time Toothless plays an important part, you will hear this beautiful, leaping, D2 sequence which changes in instrumentation, harmony, or rhythm each time you hear it to match the drama. When you first hear this Toothless theme, it is played by strings in octaves giving it this strained quality and depicting the fear in Toothless’ eyes (13:42 into the movie; Track 3, Downed Dragon, 3:15). The next time you hear it is when Hiccup attempts to befriend Toothless (29:15 into the movie; Track 8 Forbidden Friendship, 0:11). This time it is completely changed. Light, beautiful, syncopated at times, and played by mallet instruments and pizzicato strings. Another main theme in the film is the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless. The very first notes you will hear are of this theme, but it’s not heard again until Hiccup has to decide whether or not to kill Toothless. Here, Powell plays the first four notes in tight dissonance, and the fifth and final note in a major key. This is such a beautiful foreshadowing of what will come from this decision. The theme is beautifully realized in the end of the film after Hiccup wakes up from his injury in battle. At this point, Powell plays this theme in the piano. It’s the only time the piano is heard in the entire score and it is completely soloed. This striking contrast characterizes the simple love between Hiccup and Toothless. Although there is no source music in the film, Powell uses instrumentation to show time and place.

In watching the filmmaker’s commentary on the DVD, directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders mention some of their decisions about the music for their film. In this commentary they talk about how music is so important to them, that whenever they create a film, they try to find places where they can eliminate dialogue and feature the music. Chris Sanders said: “It’s something that Dean and I learned a while ago. That we would try to engineer places in our films where we could just let the dialogue… just let it go.” Dean DeBlois continues this thought, “Let the music take over. We’re such fans of the scores of these movies, and to find, on purpose, to find places where the score can carry it. The score and the visuals. I’m very proud the fact that we have three places in this film where that happens.”

As mentioned above, there are a few times where there is music on the CD that is not in the movie. The filmmakers mention this in the commentary as some of the decisions that were made on the mixing stage. For instance, the first 48 seconds of Track 3, The Downed Dragon, are not in the movie. These 48 seconds were written to play under the scene where Stoick and his friend Gobber are talking about what to do with Hiccup and how to keep him safe (10:14 into the movie). In the commentary, one of the directors mentioned that “music is always there to deepen whatever the mood is going to be, but there’s a couple places where removing the music actually made that particular moment feel more serious, and that was one of them.” Another place where music was obviously written and not used is when Hiccup and his friend Astrid are talking about how to save Toothless from the Vikings (1:07:40 into the movie; Track 19, Ready the Ships 1:22-2:23).

These are just a few of the endless examples of ingenious, creative, and inspired work done on the underscore to How to Train Your Dragon. This wonderfully written score truly captures the life of this film, and leads viewers to the heart of its story.