Despite the fact that the names M. Night Shyamalan and Edward Wood Jr. are now often uttered in the same breath (replace Ed Wood with Uwe Boll, Michael Bay or whoever your least favorite director is), film music fans have come to anticipate each new film he brings to the big screen; or, more accurately, the accompanying James Newton Howard score. By all accounts, The Last Airbender is an awful film (Roger Ebert gave it half a star out of four and called it an 'agonizing experience in every category I can think of and others still waiting to be invented' - enough to convince me not to see it), but the worse the film, the better Howard's scores tend to get (from the functional-at-best score for the brilliant The Sixth Sense, to the wonderfully subtle music tied to the clunker that is Lady in the Water), so that should be good news for JNH fans, no?
If there's any one genre that Howard has proven himself a master of above all else, it's fantasy. From his breakthrough action score to Waterworld via his surprisingly large-scale Disney animated efforts to more recent stuff like The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep, Howard never fails to deliver in this area (with the possible exception of the underachieving Peter Pan). In scope, The Last Airbender eclipses all of those previous efforts, boasting the largest amount of those extended, flowingly harmonic moments of full-ensemble grandeur (a JNH specialty) ever to be collected in a single score. If you thought cues such as 'Tarawa' from Snow Falling on Cedars, 'The Crystal Chamber' from Atlantis: The Lost Empire or 'Beauty Killed the Beast V' from King Kong were the ultimate in choral and orchestral majesty, wait until you hear 'Flow Like Water' here...but I'm getting ahead of myself.
The best of the JNH/M. Night collaboration is usually agreed to be Lady in the Water, which is a ten-out-of-ten score for me due to two things: its thematic clarity, and the way its album subtly holds back its large-scale material, allowing the score to murmur enticingly before suddenly exploding into its forceful choral and orchestral climax ('The Great Eatlon'). Sadly, The Last Airbender is inferior on both counts; its themes are less obviously attractive, and its album lacks narrative flow - only one of the reasons the album represents the score extremely poorly, but more on that later. For these reasons, The Last Airbender is not quite Lady in the Water's equal, though it remains a close second.
Two obvious themes occupy the ranks of this score, with several less clearly defined motifs buried in the underscore. The first, the 'main theme' (though it doesn't really appear often enough to be called that) consists of a series of rising two-note figures and serves as a 'hero's theme' (with rather standard JNH-esque harmonic progressions). The simplistic progressions allow this theme to be manipulated much in the way the main theme from Lady in the Water was, from staccato pounding during action sequences to softer underscore to those aforementioned flowing moments of majesty; however, this motif is neither as memorable nor as interesting as that from his 2006 career highlight.
The second theme is perhaps the most obviously engaging on album and leaves the greatest impression afterwards, despite only appearing in two almost identical presentations towards the end of 'Airbender Suite' and in the middle of 'The Blue Spirit' (as well as in a disguised form in 'We Are Now the Gods'). It's a big, bombastic march, full of portentious brass and ripping snare and so over-the-top in its scope as to seem almost pompous. In that respect it might come across to JNH collectors as a darker variant on the more brightly swashbuckling adventure themes from Waterworld, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Treasure Planet and the like. In its two extended presentations it moves into a percussion-heavy interlude of rising chromatic notes, complete with choral chanting; truly apocalyptic stuff and tremendously enjoyable. It's a shame this theme's application is so sparse, really.
Other than that, there is a third motif that appears in the score's many grand harmonic moments as an underpinning ostinato: a flowing, descending series of string notes that seems to represent the element of water (curious that none of the other three elements receive thematic attention, though). This idea actually gets more album time than the other two; despite this, a fairly significant amount of The Last Airbender transpires without any theme being played. JNH's harmonic sense is fortunately keen enough to keep interest levels high despite this, but it does slow the album somewhat.
There are two highlight moments on the album that go into lengthy exploration of thematically unrelated, but nevertheless striking melodies - melodies that could, perhaps, be further developed in a potential sequel score (though critical reception has been so poor that that seems rather unlikely). Firstly, there are the first few minutes of 'Airbender Suite', which introduces a singular theme of (what else) grandeur that recalls David Arnold's Stargate. Then there's the last two minutes of 'We Are Now the Gods', which goes into a chord progression so simplistic, Hans Zimmer could have penned it - but JNH's gentle choral arrangement lifts it to something close to exquisite.
And then there's the final cue...oh, that final cue. I'll go ahead and say it now: 'Flow Like Water' is the best single piece of music James Newton Howard has ever written. Its buildup over waves and waves of the descending string lines is so patient, so flowingly beautiful that its massive payoff, finally reached at 3:45, ranks among the most ecstatic moments I've ever heard in a film score. It packs a powerful emotional punch along the lines of the finale from Danny Elfman's Edward Scissorhands - high praise indeed. And then there's the very forceful, pounding presentation of the main theme at the end, a nice rousing way to finish off the score.
All in all, The Last Airbender is among the best fantasy scores ever recorded, certainly one of the best of the year (though I'd probably choose John Powell's How to Train Your Dragon above this one in terms of pure entertainment value). It is badly harmed, however, by its poor album treatment. Despite being sufficiently lengthy and of resounding quality, there are three major quibbles I have with this CD. Firstly, its tracks seem to be incredibly out of order, with the 'Prologue' track appearing seventh - perhaps chronological order would have made this score as enticing as Lady in the Water (though 'Flow Like Water' should remain as the last cue). Secondly, the few cues are quite lengthy, and other than the consistently amazing 'Flow Like Water', all intersperse highlights with less interesting underscore or quieter material, a James Horner-like practice that could lead some to editing together their own cues or suites.
Thirdly, and most annoyingly, the choir on this album is badly undermixed. It's there, but it is strangely muffled and usually loses the sonic battle with the orchestra and prominent percussion section - especially irritating during the choral chanting towards the end of 'Airbender Suite'. It sounds like the singers are standing too far away from the microphone, to be frank. The reason for this seems to be that the re-use fees for the choir weren't or couldn't be paid; I'm not so sure about the particulars, but whatever happened, we are left with some sort of makeshift replacement choir, and it is extremely frustrating because of the 'imagine if...' factor it creates. Imagine how much better 'Flow Like Water' would sound if the choir wasn't buried, barely audible, beneath the orchestra...This same problem would go on to also plague JNH's next score, Salt. Let's hope he doesn't make this a trend, because one of JNH's greatest assets has always been the satisfying way he uses his choir. According to hearsay, the choir is more present in the film, but is that worth an agonizing experience in every category thinkable and a few unthinkable? That is up to you.
Despite all this, The Last Airbender stands as a highlight of the year, and of the composer's career, and shouldn't be missed by any collector. The 'Flow Like Water' cue is worth it alone - just lean back, turn up the volume and let its broad waves of massive harmony engulf you. This is what fantasy scores are all about.