By Angela Phillips
Artist: John Powell
Album: How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Release Date: February 1, 2019
There’s a certain age where viewing children’s movies becomes significantly more difficult. You may get weird looks when you tell people you’re going to go see the “Lego Movie”, “Moana” or “Detective Pikachu”. Plus the odds that you’ll be one of the only people in the theater between the ages of 15 and 40 are high. Certainly no one’s stopping you, but it can be an awkward experience.
Sometimes I get the feeling that some people think children’s movies have nothing of value other than the ability to distract young kids for an hour and a half. I couldn’t argue with this sentiment more.
One notable children’s movie that had a profound effect on me this year was “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World.” I’ve always been a huge fan of the franchise, so much so that not even strange looks could stop me from going to the theaters as soon as possible and watching the movie beside sneezing toddlers and tired parents.
In addition to the movies, I’ve also become a fan of the soundtracks as an independent entity. If I had to choose one piece of evidence that I could present to anyone that doubts children’s movie’s cultural contributions, it would be this soundtrack.
Why? It’s because the “How to Train Your Dragon” series has always been a strong contender for my favorite movie franchise, which is a crazy idea in our current age of “Avengers.” I grew up beside this trilogy of dragon taming and the characters felt like they grew up beside me. The emotions and messages of the movies are heavy and identifiable even, I begrudgingly admit, for a children’s movie. The soundtrack does an incredible job of matching every single one of those emotions and translating it into song.
Spoilers for the movie ahead.
The track “Exodus!” shines brightly, weaving the “How to Train Your Dragon” theme into a marching beat and swelling up to a choir accompaniment. It strikes up ideas of adventure and high hopes. It aptly plays when the citizens of Berk all climb on the backs of their dragons and decide to search for a new home.
“Legend Has It”, “Toothless: Smitten” and “Third Date” all play in moments of peace or wonderment in the movie and reflect the bright, cheerful tone that one expects to find in a children’s movie. It’s never just one instrument, it’s a collection dotting in and out of the focus, harps, xylophones, recorders, strings, a very surprised trumpet, all passing in and out of the foreground with the same ease as dancing. Each song has an astounding collection of instrumental layers, an armada of strings plucking and bowing a fast-paced melody that invites the other instruments and audience to follow.
The “How to Train Your Dragon” series might be targeted for a slightly older audience considering the somewhat daring fight scenes and high stakes the characters endure. Where the movies are playful and charming, they can quickly turn and explore feelings of danger and struggle. Tracks “Killer Dragons”, “Armada Battle”, “Night Fury Killer” and “As Long As He’s Safe” occur in times of fighting or villain introductions and capture the intensity of emotional and physical battles on screen. They sound like boss fight music to the core, with a fast-paced backbone laid out in drums, a collection of horns and voices shouting for victory.
If I had to pick a track that was shouldering the most thematic importance of the film, it would be “New ‘New Tail’,” a short 1:28 minute song that is smack dab in the center of both the album and the film. There’s a staccato rhythm drawn out first with violins, then built up with light drums as excitement rises. Fans of the franchise will recognize the theme from the previous movies. The song suddenly dips into a shy hesitance, pronounced with only a single stringed instrument and just as suddenly the initial excitement returns tenfold with drums, trumpets and a triumphal, resounding sound. The final seconds of the short song is quiet, a slower repeat of another recurring theme of the franchise’s soundtracks. Why does this one song mean so much to the movie, even series, as a whole? How could a song mean so much?
Although I’d select “Once There Were Dragons” to be the official parting message from both soundtrack and movie, “New ‘New Tail’” is key because it’s a reflection of the character’s growth and our own growth as an audience. To spoil the movie, this song plays in the scene where Hiccup lets Toothless go, a scene where we understand an irreversible change is occurring. This song is imprinting an array of emotions that it wants us to walk away with: we’re proud of the characters, we’re happy to experience new moments with them in their third film installment, and yet in that soft moment of hesitance, we hesitate as well. Because this movie means it’s over and this moment means there’s no further reason to follow our heroes Hiccup and Toothless any longer. They, and perhaps we, have grown to a point where we aren’t dependent on each other anymore and it’s a bittersweet occasion.
It shouldn’t be surprising but I still find myself amazed at the range within the music. The soundtrack should follow the emotions on screen and “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World”, as a finale to a nine year series, is rife with all manner of emotions. The soundtrack mirrors them perfectly.
There are 18 songs to “Hidden World.” Assuming you don’t have time to listen to all of them I’d recommend listening to “With Love Comes a Great Waterfall.” It’s a great sample of the soundtrack’s overall sound. It starts somewhat quietly and slowly, with only a flute and soft vocal accompaniment playing one of the central themes of the series’s soundtracks. With a rush of drums the tempo begins to pick up, introducing more instruments until it reaches a crest with a choir singing beside the brass section. It’s simultaneously beautiful and forceful, a tug-and-pull expertly maintained in the other songs as well.
Walking away from the movie and walking away from the soundtrack leave me with the same impressions: mostly jubilant, mostly proud, and expressed in small ways, the sadness that the story is complete and the series is over. “Hidden World” is a perfect name for the movie, because listening to the music alone will take you to another world so easily.