Composer: James Newton Howard
Suggested Retail Price: $12.99
Grade: A- / Film C-
In the annals of composer-director collaborations, there’s one that might not be more steadily enabling than that of James Newton Howard and M. Night Shyamalan. Beginning with his chilling score for 1999’s THE SIXTH SENSE, Howard has developed his own eerily dramatic language for the director’s subdued genre films- one that cinematically peaked early on with the sonar-like rhythms of SIGNS and the muted super-heroics of UNBREAKABLE. Even as Night films started to progress from the ludicrous to the awful, Howard’s music remained top-notch with the fake-out period strings of THE VILLAGE, THE LADY IN THE WATER’s choral fantasy and the killer plant whispering of THE HAPPENING. Howard labored intensely to create a musical atmosphere that gave vibrant life to Shyamalan’s dramatic inertness, his scores doing no small part to elevate everything the uneven filmmaker could throw at them.
Now in the case of THE LAST AIRBENDER, those projectiles are atmosphere, fire, water and earth, to which Howard responds with an impressive score whose fantasy blood and thunder seems out of character for their work together. But then, one wouldn’t think that a director renowned for stone-faced subtlety and surprise endings would take on the adaptation of a popular Nickelodeon anime. However, the fates of his last several pictures make a hoped-for comeback with a kid-friendly action-effects movie more than understandable. And while the results are certainly better than anything he’d done since UNBREAKABLE, it isn’t saying much for this visually impressive movie that’s pretty much as what’s come before for Shyamalan. It’s a situation that once again leaves James Newton Howard in the role of musical savior, one that elevates him to the league of Superman here.
There’s a saying that music can’t save a bad film. But like the best composers, Howard’s never believed that axiom as he furiously performs CPR on THE LAST AIRBENDER. Perhaps Shyamalan was also aware of how much help he needed from the music, which is why AIRBENDER gets one of the loudest mixes I’ve heard in a sound effects-heavy movie. And that’s a very good thing, because it’s these alternately grandiose and mystical strains that continuously tell us that what we’re watching is very, very important stuff that we should be taking seriously. And for as much as AIRBENDER loses its grip, Howard’s music conversely balloons until the score becomes an opera unto itself. It’s hard to remember the last movie of this type where you could just sit back and listen to the music. And thanks to the more-than-deserved confidence that Night has in his own musical savior, THE LAST AIRBENDER is an enjoyable experience of Wagnerian proportions that proudly calls attention to itself.
The street cred is certainly there. For if the Airbender is the last of his kind, then James Newton Howard might be one of the few composers to escape from the dojo of old-school melody and themework. And like the few survivors from his class like Alan Silvestri, it was Howard’s natural pop abilities that allowed him to endure the merciless soldiers of changing musical tastes who marched out from the youth-skewing land of Hollywood. Though given a similar epic fantasy bust with 1995’s WATERWORLD, Howard conjured a magnificent, heroic score that truly conveyed a submerged planet. Similarly formidable genre scores for the likes of THE POSTMAN, DINOSAUR, ATLANTIS, TREASURE PLANET, PETER PAN, KING KONG and THE WATER HORSE would follow- let alone the glorious fantasy scape that Howard gave to Shyamalan’s LADY IN THE WATER. If anything, Howard’s AIRBENDER is an adrenalin mash-up of that score with the cosmic grandeur of ATLANTIS and the booming military percussion of THE POSTMAN. Yet as always, AIRBENDER is filtered through a continually fresh, and genuinely excited voice that does its darndest to make you believe.
Like the 1980’s sword and sorcery films that THE LAST AIRBENDER references at its most enjoyable, the adventure here centers around impressively costumed characters bashing each other about large sets as furry, flying creatures assist. But if music has the power to create a world, Howard is the true god of AIRBENDER beyond its impressive production. He conjures its pseudo-Asian kingdoms (where our lead heroes remain inexplicably Caucasian) of warring elemental tribes with pounding Oriental percussion, ethereal voices and sampled textures. Big, bold themes also make no mistake in telling us who the bad and good guys are. But if THE LAST AIRBENDER has one big problem, it’s that the film is so pitched towards the PG Nickelodeon audience that nothing truly bad, let alone violent can really happen to anyone with visceral impact. Indeed, NARNIA seems like RAMBO compared to AIRBENDER’s toothless conflicts where characters often just run away. That leaves it up to Howard to create real jeopardy through his oft-dangerous score, let alone putting truly heartfelt emotion into a cast who endearingly try to express it. Subsequently, THE LAST AIRBENDER has a meaningful darkness, one that’s almost astounding given the circumstances. It’s the valiant music of people getting pummeled and slain, when the worst fate here is actually a character being turned into sushi.
But a formidable as THE LAST AIRBENDER gets, there’s modulation in the score that conveys the tender beauty of this place, from the balletic hand and foot gestures that unleash the elements to fields of sparkling ice and a wisdom-spouting dream dragon. There always seems to be a new, melodically mysterious passageway for Howard to explore in AIRBENDER’s eccentric, neo-Buddhist way of expressing its worldview. It’s powerful musical enchantment that always convinces us in the vast scope of THE LAST AIRBENDER, a thematically trumpeting, mystically muscular score will let your imagination run wild in- even if that place with Shyamalan is once again best experienced in your own head.
Listen to James Newton Howard’s element-bending moves here
Composer: James Newton Howard