- Review by Kaya Savas - January 31, 2018
In 2010, DreamWorks Animation released How To Train Your Dragon, an animated film based on the popular book series from Cressida Cowell. The story was something we’ve all experienced before, it was about an outcast boy and his misunderstood pet. And just because we have seen the general structure of this story before, it didn’t make the film any less fantastic. How To Train Your Dragon was a beautiful and emotionally charged animated adventure that created its own unique identity while borrowing some of our most iconic storytelling structures. The film was beautifully realized by writers and directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders. Dean and Chris were instrumental members of the writing staff on Disney’s Mulan who then went on to write and direct Lilo & Stitch.
After the breakout success of How To Train Your Dragon, Dean took over the franchise as its solo writer and director. Dean poured his heart and soul into the beautiful How To Train Your Dragon 2, and now he gets to finish the journey with How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World. The final installment in the trilogy will close out a decade-long journey. The films are so much more than just about a “boy and his pet”. The films teach us about acceptance, understanding, finding confidence in yourself, relying on one another, dealing with love and loss, and finding your path in life.
The heart of these films have always been John Powell’s amazing music, and the first two films are some of John’s best work. They are absolute masterpieces of musical storytelling that not only showcase the best of John’s talents but also breath life into the world of Berk. The scores are painfully beautiful, exciting, heartbreaking, heartwarming and gorgeous all wrapped together. The same goes for the final chapter. John Powell manages to bring the story to a perfect close in The Hidden World.
In the final chapter, Hiccup has become chief and ruler of Berk after the death of his father, Stoick. Hiccup and Astrid also find that Toothless is not the only Night Fury left when a lone female appears. A new threat then comes in the form of a hired tyrant named Grimmel. Grimmel is on a quest to find and hunt down the Hidden World, a safe haven where all the dragons reside. Hiccup, Toothless, Astrid and the whole gang must band together again to stop the forces of evil and save the place where the dragons call home.
John Powell’s themes of the Dragon franchise have always been a highlight. We fell in love with the amazing themes that helped us connect with Hiccup, Toothless and the world of Berk. From that first meeting between Hiccup and Toothless, their first flight, moments of uncertainty, the death of Stoick, Hiccup finding his mother, the battles, and so much more all leading to this conclusion. The third chapter features some of John’s finest writing to date. Of course, the score reprises some of the old themes we love, but like the second film we have a new world of thematic material to shape the narrative. The second film found a new central theme in the “Map The World” motif. This film we find a new central motif as well that truly encapsulates the Hidden World and the journey to find it.
The Hidden World is definitely a more robust and bigger score than what has come before. The music has grown along with the characters, with this final chapter feeling more grandiose and rich. The first act brings us back into the world to reintroduce us to the characters. The Dragon scores have always been great at building memorable moments, and here we get that as well. A track like “Third Date” is definitely one of those moments that will stick with you, same with tracks like “The Hidden World” and “Armada Battle”. The score digs deep to find the emotional heart of the film, and it succeeds by making us afraid to lose what we love. The key word in The Hidden World here is “stakes”. The film and score build a narrative with stakes. While deep down we know this film will end on a heartwarming note, it’s getting lost in the journey to that point that makes it so powerful. By giving us those moments of doubt for our heroes to rise from, the emotional impact is stunning. The score paints the scenes expertly, and the music becomes the backbone of the entire film. Long meaty tracks on the album allow you to truly appreciate how the score works to picture. The music delivers expert narrative structure that builds to an amazing climax in the third act.
One thing to mention as well is John’s use of chorus in this score. While John is no stranger to using chorus in the past, the choral work throughout the score is absolutely stunning. He really explored choral works in his album titled Hubris, and you can tell that by doing something like “A Prussian Reqiuem” helped him add this depth to his repertoire. The way chorus is used here adds an ethereal blanket to the whole journey that will lift your soul to new heights. There is nothing but stunning beauty and adventure at every point.
The Hidden World is one of the best animation scores, period. It’s also one of the best to come from Powell himself, a true career benchmark. The film challenged Powell to truly dig deep to find the best of his abilities as a storyteller, and he accomplished that. Powell also enlisted the aid of his trusted collaborators by having Batu Sener, Anthony Willis & Paul Mounsey join as additional composers and arrangers. The amazing Eric Whitacre brings his expertise in conducting the Eric Whitacre Singers for their vocal contributions to the score. And you have the always amazing Gavin Greenaway conducting the orchestra.
How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is a stunning musical accomplishment from composer John Powell. The music is achingly beautiful, with swells of emotion and wonder that will live with you long after. Every now and then a score comes along that reminds you what the power of music truly is in visual storytelling, and The Hidden World is that score. There is no better way to close this trilogy, and John Powell along with writer/director Dean DeBlois at the helm have accomplished something truly extraordinary.