Any serious ranking of the decade’s best film music would be incomplete without John Powell’s work for the first two How To Train Your Dragon films. That he was able to match the acclaim for the first one last time around has only added to fans’ excitement for the trilogy-capper The Hidden World, reaching Star Wars-level anticipation within the community. Luckily, the wait was worth it.
The franchise’s sound has been dominated by expressive and bombastic orchestral music, and nothing has changed this time around. The first track, “Raiders Return to Busy, Busy Berk,” starts on a quieter note than the previous albums, but is blasting out bouncy renditions of the Berk and main theme by its end. Even as Powell dials the bombast back for much of the first half of the album, his penchant for writing attractive melodies and eschewing atonality feels like a warm musical embrace.
Reprisals of those previous themes certainly help in this regard. Just about every major theme from the franchise gets an airing at some point in the score, with several major standout performances of the Mother theme throughout and a powerful airing of the title theme to close out “Once There Were Dragons” and the franchise overall. As was always the case, what a majority of the themes represent remains murky, but their catchy progressions convey emotion so strongly that it is hard to care.
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Powell adds, by his estimation, six new themes and four motifs to the series with this score. While none of them reach the heights of the previous outing’s mother theme, the sheer amount of new ideas is welcome. One of the first to be heard is for the villainous Grimmel, debuting in the appropriately titled “Dinner Talk / Grimmel’s Introduction.” It is a two-phrase, seven-note idea that proves quite versatile as Powell lets it simmer for conspiratorial scenes or let it loose during the final battle scenes.
The dragon love story also gets its own idea, best heard in “Third Date” and “Furies in Love.” It is a pleasant idea firmly rooted in the composer’s standard progressions, and kicks the album into high gear with its performances in “Exodus!” and “Third Date.” It is a glorious idea, recalling the lushness and sweep of classic love themes. This will likely be the theme most remembered from The Hidden World, and for good reason. Between this and Qi’ra’s theme in Solo: A Star Wars Story, Powell has established himself as the best love theme writer currently in the business.
The other themes range from strong to slightly forgettable. The hidden world theme is the only other one that leaves much of an impression, but the other ideas at the very least remain pleasant. These scores have always succeeded despite the occasionally confusing thematic attributions anyway.
Making up for this is Powell’s trademark orchestral might. Few modern composers write such dense music, especially outside of action tracks, and the film’s narrative breadth allows for a lot of musical range. The first half of the score is relatively subdued, establishing Grimmel’s menace and the Night Furies’ love story through tracks built around understated performances of those themes. The duo of “Exodus!” and “Third Date” are when things begin to ramp up.
The former track could almost play as a suite for the score, showcasing Grimmel’s theme, the love theme, and the fate theme all in a peppy setting. Buiding almost like a crescendo, Powell varies instrumentation and cycles through his themes so seamlessly as to be breathtaking. “Due Date,” the following track, continues this string of excellence. Playful string and woodwind ideas abound throughout, interspersed with moments of brass and bagpipe action, culminating in beautiful renditions of the love theme at the very end. The track, in its hypnotic rhythmic and melodic structures, reminds one of the “Forbidden Friendship” cue from the first score, arguably that one’s standout as well.
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“Furies in Love” presents the love theme in its fullest and most clear expression, Powell playing around with it while leaning into its Golden-Age vibe. Wordless vocals only add to the beauty, and carry over into the hidden world theme at the end of the track. Their presence returns for much of the aptly named “The Hidden World,” further exploring that idea.
“Armada Battle” is everything a fan of this series could ask for, combining old and new themes into eight minutes of rollicking action music. This is where the grand sweep and lyricism of Powell’s motifs truly pays off, allowing their usage to pull at the heart strings even amidst charging brass and string figures. After the battle, “Once There Were Dragons” closes out the score with an appropriate amount of gravity and optimism. Most will want to skip the Jonsi song, its corny lyrics grating for even a short time.
The album wraps up with “The Hidden World Suite,” a fantastic summation of the score’s new ideas. As it finishes, it is hard to not feel a bit of melancholy. What composer John Powell accomplished with this trilogy is nothing short of sensational, and How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World cements its legacy as one of the best franchise runs by a composer ever. There will long be debates between fans about which of the individual entries is the best, but that this one can compete favorably with the first two is all you need to know about its quality.
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World: Original Score is now available from Back Lot Music.