• Ben Erickson

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

Director Dean DeBlois and composer John Powell have teamed up one last time to conclude the children's fantasy series How to Train Your Dragon, and what an astonishing ending it is. Based on the book series of the same name by Cressida Cowell, the How to Train Your Dragon films have captured the world over for their themes of friendship, bravery, joy, and love, and The Hidden World brings the characters full circle in their journey to live harmoniously with the dragons. Powell's music has been perhaps the most important emotional constant in establishing these themes, offering the characters a depth of affection unlooked-for and a connection that will be sorely missed by children and grown ups alike. Early on Powell embraced a Celtic musical influence that has been consistently apropos, particularly with Scottish voice-actors Gerard Butler and Craig Ferguson thrown into the mix. Certain instruments have remained as characteristic timbres of the orchestra too, such as the use of Celtic harps, ethnic woodwinds, Bodhrán drum, and Irish bagpipes (though with the second film they traded up the war-pipes for Uilleann pipes). Other instruments, such as the Hardanger fiddle, hammered dulcimer, and Pennywhistle, were passed on between films, with the waterphone making its first appearance in The Hidden World. Of course this Celtic influence was not only reflected in the instrumentation, but in the writing as well. Many of the major themes are written in a triple meter, maintaining a light, dance-like lilt, with grace-notes and flourishes abound. One element that really sticks out in these scores is the astounding rhythmic hierarchy Powell has tapped into. The pounding brass triplets for instance that have been repeatedly interpolated between long, melodious spaces of the major thematic ideas ("Furies in Love") – see Mother's Theme notated below for an example – have been an extremely propulsive and welcome departure from most "safe" scores heard today. Further compositional techniques heard consistently throughout the series include most notably the use of parallel, open sixths and – for the series antagonists – long, chromatic, tuplet lines. That the myriad accentuations and detailed underpinnings of these scores can all be heard within the films really proves beyond a doubt the merit of this skilled composer. The canon of themes Powell has achieved within three films only adds to the wonder and rewarding familiarity fans are experiencing with The Hidden World. From the first the themes have been beautifully dressed and lavishly orchestrated, with inseparable harmonies that engender a lasting power. What is more, every theme and every motif was written with a vital emotional expression, and all the choices of thematic revival where concerns The Hidden World were nothing short of perfect. New themes from The Hidden World include the Fury Love theme ("Furies in Love"), the Hero theme ("Exodus"), The Hidden World theme ("The Hidden World"), and Grimmel's theme ("Dinner Talk / Grimmel's Introduction"), among others.

Another essential characteristic of the How to Train Your Dragon scores has been Icelandic musician Jón Þór "Jónsi" Birgisson, a vocalist and multi-instrumentalist originally of the Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Rós. Jónsi has added his own signature style to each film, usually arranging and performing a song for the end credits. His role here was expanded upon from the previous films, making for a truly stunning entry with the Eric Whitacre Singers as Toothless and his new Light Fury partner explore the hidden world ("The Hidden World"). The choir sweeps the audience off their feet with cool triads, appearing once again to send chills down your spine as Hiccup offers himself to save Toothless ("As Long As He's Safe"). One can practically hear Whitacre's hair in the smooth ebb and flow of the vocals. Simply put, the How to Train Your Dragon series is among the top trilogy scores of the twenty-first century. Having recently gone back to watch the first two so as to have the full experience I consider it Powell's best work to date. That DeBlois gave him such a great opportunity to stretch his wings, so to speak, has resulted in a musical work exceeding any film score enthusiast's, or music lover's, wildest expectations. I have said it before, but music has a tendency to live more fully within animated films. Perhaps this is because with animated films the filmmaker does not have to attempt to convince the audience to suspend their disbelief. They are clearly willing to do so already, and so the music that paradoxically breathes life into the narrative without being a literal part of the story is likewise more easily accepted. Whatever the case may be, 2019 is off to a great start, and I look forward to revisiting and living in these films in the years to come.