The collaboration of James Newton Howard and director M. Night Shyamalan has often brought out the best in the composer, if not the director. And by all accounts, their latest, THE LAST AIRBENDER, based on the hit Nickelodeon animated series, is a particularly excruciating cinematic experience. Though I personally think Shyamalan is a one-hit wonder (with “wonder” being the key word), Howard’s score for his films have always risen above the self-indulgent material. So, even though I had no interest in the film, I was looking forward to Howard’s score.
Things start out promisingly enough with an extensive suite that covers most of the highlights of the score. The problem is that the rest of the soundtrack doesn’t match the level of excitement of those opening 11 minutes.
The main theme is a four-note motif that soars in the strings and forms the basis for a later staccato theme in the brass. The score could have benefited from further use of this sweeping theme.
The Asian elements are weaved well into the music and on full display in “The Four Elements Test” and in the extensive (and at times overbearing) use of drums. Howard provides some beautiful, soaring string lines in “Hall of Avatars,” and there are some interesting percussion licks and lovely string and choral harmonies in “Journey to the Northern Water Tribe”.
But if epic Howard is what you’re looking for, then look no further than “The Blue Spirit”. Part of that epic feel comes from what seems to be multiple cues cobbled together with often sloppy editing (you’ll be able to hear the abrupt changes in style and recording levels in the track). The French horns toll a dramatic clarion call and the strings churn in fury before morphing into some rather pedestrian martial music and settling into some of the generic mysticism that plagues the score.
The score worked so hard at trying to involve me that by the end I was exhausted. I’m sure it’s all very mystical, but it’s also not particularly interesting much of the time. My one goosebump moment occurs in the opening suite with a lovely string phrase (around 3:24) that only happens that one time. I would have preferred to hear it grow organically out of the score proper.
And perhaps therein lies the problem. The ordering of the tracks on the album don’t make for a very cohesive listening experience. The choppy editing and presentation of the tracks (or maybe that’s just the score itself) lacks any musical flow in the music’s storytelling ability. And by putting the suite at the beginning, it ruins any natural development of the themes, blowing its wad immediately and leaving the album nowhere to go.
Overall, I found the score to be well-crafted (as to be expected from someone of Howard’s talents) but ultimately a big disappointment. Like the Earth, Fire, Water and Air of the story, all of the elements are there (albeit briefly in most cases) for a wonderful listening experience. But those disparate elements never work in harmony to provide a satisfying whole.