After gaining a reputation for making very loose, goofy, pop culture-infused animated comedies in the early 2000s, Dreamworks began to turn the tide with the punch of kung fu panda and the 2010s How to train your dragon. This was especially the case with the latter. kung fu panda relied heavily on its comedic elements while telling a heartfelt story. Conversely, How to train your dragon was a fantasy epic through and through.
How to train your dragon is a simple story of a Viking society at war with dragons and the unlikely bond formed between the young Viking Hiccup and the dragon Toothless. Audiences can see the bond between these two grow throughout the film. And it culminates in the film’s most iconic sequence, the “Test Drive,” where the pair take flight for the first time. This scene is excellent for many reasons, the main one being the film’s score, composed by John Powell.
The scene opens with Hiccup and Toothless high in the clouds above the Isle of Berk; the score kicks in with a wonderful flourish. Hiccup has a cheat sheet attached to the saddle to help him adjust Toothless’ tail fin accordingly to help the pair fly. This is all communicated visually and the filmmakers let the moment flow naturally. This is an important element, so there is no need to rush. This leads to one of the best shots in the film: the camera is behind Hiccup and Toothless as the pair race through the rocks. The score swells in the main leitmotiv of the film, but it is slower, more grandiose. Audiences can truly feel like they’re flying on a dragon’s back, and it’s practically magical.
They then begin to climb. And as they climb higher and higher, Hiccup becomes arrogant. The cheat sheet flies off, and while trying to catch it, Hiccup loses connection with Toothless’ saddle, and the two tumble through the sky. Powell escalates the tension with the music as the couple plummets. Even though this is an animated family movie and audiences expect the protagonists to survive at the end, that doesn’t stop this moment from being incredibly tense. Luckily, Hiccup manages to grab the cheat sheet and reconnect to the saddle, but they’re now heading for the rocks with no way to stop.
This is where the scene reaches its climax. Having no time to read the cheat sheet, Hiccup throws it away and matches up perfectly with Toothless. The two are in perfect sync as they fly through rocks and canyons. And Powell’s score for this part of the scene is just amazing. The music goes up and down and spins as they fly. Additional credit goes to editors Darren Holmes and Maryann Brandon, as the editing of these shots is impeccable. The energy here is electric, and it’s hard to think of another scene, animated or otherwise, that marries music, visuals, and storytelling so perfectly.
Film scores are an often underestimated aspect of the filmmaking process. The music that accompanies the movies we love is such an important element, and movies like How to train your dragon prove that. Yes, the narration, visuals, voice acting, and animation are all amazing. But Powell’s score ties it all together and elevates it completely and completely.
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