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The Last Airbender
Composed and Co-Produced by:
James Newton Howard

Co-Orchestrated and Conducted by:
Pete Anthony

Co-Orchestrated by:
Conrad Pope
Jon Kull
John Ashton Thomas
Marcus Trumpp
Jim Honeyman

Co-Produced by:
Jim Weidman
Stuart Michael Thomas

Lakeshore Records

Release Date:
June 29th, 2010

Also See:
Lady in the Water
The Village
The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep
I Am Legend

Audio Clips:
1. Airbender Suite (0:30):
WMA (200K)  MP3 (254K)
Real Audio (179K)

10. We Could Be Friends (0:31):
WMA (204K)  MP3 (254K)
Real Audio (179K)

11. We Are Now the Gods (0:30):
WMA (200K)  MP3 (254K)
Real Audio (179K)

12. Flow Like Water (0:29):
WMA (193K)  MP3 (239K)
Real Audio (168K)

Regular U.S. release. It was available on iTunes a month prior to CD's street date.


The Last Airbender
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Sales Rank: 176117

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Buy it... if you've appreciated the massively harmonic snippets from James Newton Howard's scores of the prior ten years but seek such ambitious symphonic performances over the length of an entire soundtrack.

Avoid it... if you need thematic transparency as mesmerizing as Howard's classic Lady in the Water, because The Last Airbender impresses you with harmonic expressiveness and instrumental technicalities rather than instantly obvious identities.

The Last Airbender: (James Newton Howard) An acclaimed hit for the Nickelodeon television channel from 2005 to 2008, "Avatar: The Last Airbender" brought Asian mythology and martial arts combat to audiences of children. It told of an age of fantasy when the basic elements of the planet (Earth, Water, Fire, and Air) could be controlled by individuals, with one "Avatar" maintaining the ability to handle all four. This de facto leader is responsible for bringing the peoples of the world together, and in the absence of one for a long time, war has erupted between the "Benders" capable of manipulating just one of the elements. The Fire Nation has sought to dominate, and the fate of the planet rests on the one known Airbender to remain. This 112-year-old boy (ah, the joys of perpetual pre-pubescence!) is in fact the next Avatar, and in the first season of the show, he learns his craft and teams with friends from the Water Tribes to kick off a confrontation that eventually incorporates the Earth Kingdom in subsequent seasons. Nickelodeon and Paramount gave over $100 million to M. Night Shyamalan to write, produce, and direct an adaptation of the show into the first of three feature films, each to address the events of the concept's three season-defining "books." The translation of the cartoon into live action didn't come without some controversy, however, as the Asian screen identities of the characters on TV were adapted into a primarily white cast for the film, drawing significant criticism. Also to contend with was James Cameron's monolithic Avatar, which in early 2010 forced the production to reduce its name to the subtitle, The Last Airbender. A comprehensive advertising campaign for Shyamalan's film included trailers with original score recordings by James Newton Howard to utilize musical ideas already developed. The Last Airbender represents the seventh collaboration between the composer and director over the last decade or so, and the film music community was pleased to learn in 2008 of the composer's involvement in this promising franchise. Enthusiasts of the show, however, were not as forgiving of this obvious choice; the music for the television series was provided by Jeremy Zuckerman and Benjamin Wynn under the name The Track Team, and their work had established an exotic sound through the employment of various worldly instruments. Howard was not expected to adapt their themes from the show into the film, much to the disgruntlement of those fans, but the resulting score may change their minds.

The Howard scores for Shyamalan's films have yielded some forgettable music and a few gems. Both The Village and Lady in the Water are highly regarded, the latter considered by many to be the best score of 2006. These efforts prove that the memorable qualities of his music for these collaborations depend upon how much fantasy Howard can address when attempting to capture the emotional core of a film (as he has expressed as his primary duty in the past). Some assignments offer him more of a dynamic canvas on which to create the kind of flowing orchestral and choral fantasy heard initially in full during his stint as the primary Disney composer in the late 1990's and early 2000's. Pieces of this kind of grandiose material were evident in projects like The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep and I Am Legend, but only in Lady in the Water did he really have a chance to develop such lyrical "magic" in nearly every measure of a score. Finally, The Last Airbender has afforded him the chance to lather on the harmonic grandeur once again, albeit at volumes far greater than in the 2006 favorite. The scope of this score is monumental to say the least, utilizing the blunt force of an orchestra while layering its extremely balanced ranks with choral accents and specialty instruments. The choir and soloists effective convey the mystical fantasy realm, though the choir is not as omnipresent as it is in Lady in the Water; instead, it only occasionally lends depth to moments of awe (especially later on the album release) and is more inclined to chant violently for the sequences of confrontation. The regional flavor comes from Eastern woodwinds (an erhu seemed like a logical choice) and the hazy tones of glass percussion fog up the atmosphere much like the portions of Lady in the Water that managed not to find their way onto the commercial release of that score. One of the most intriguing aspects of the instrumental assignments to The Last Airbender involves the idea of using the four sections of the orchestra to individually represent the four natural elements. For instance, such a setup would primarily use woodwinds for the Air, strings for the Water, percussion for the Earth, and brass for Fire. While Howard does seem to lean in that direction in regards to applying the ethnic woodwinds for the primary character, the Airbender, and a rolling, descending string figure as the rhythmic backdrop for some of the water-related scenes, those choices don't offer overarching evidence to suggest the total coordination of orchestral and natural sections.

The spread of duties across all of the elements of the ensemble in The Last Airbender is truly the best achievement by Howard for the film. From the rolling bassoons in the bass to occasional violin solos a la The Village in the treble, the score is expertly orchestrated. The percussion section is especially noteworthy, with medium and upper range tones contributing significantly to the score. With taiko-like banging stereotypically rumbling underneath, Howard presents lighter, struck tones in the middle of the sonic range to create impressive depth within the ensemble. The snare also achieves that effect, letting rip several times for the scenes of adversity. Anyone with a strong collection of Howard's scores will recognize his ability to establish dynamic percussive rhythms that highlight those works, and many such passages exist in The Last Airbender. The ethnic woodwinds waft through the soundscape as well, often anchoring the treble with distant meandering. The glassy effects, which date back to Waterworld for Howard, are perhaps the least interesting of the contributors (despite appropriate). Still, the overall strength of The Last Airbender is owed to the harmonic expression of ensemble ruckus; there are practically no boring or obnoxious moments in this score, dissonance and minimalism scarcely employed. Every moment, whether tethered to a recognizable theme or not, presents its own glorious harmonic pleasure, much as John Powell's recent How to Train Your Dragon achieved. Like that earlier 2010 score, however, The Last Airbender is another powerhouse defined by the combination of its thematic structures rather than any one or two really dominant ideas. Listeners expecting to hear a massive, immediately identifiable theme in The Last Airbender will be left scratching their heads upon the first casual appreciation of the score. Regardless of the agreement between Howard and Shyamalan to employ a score that can be instantly recognized from just a few notes, Howard's music here doesn't quite achieve that goal. There are indeed three substantial themes in the score, two of which quite epic in their development, but nothing in The Last Airbender will strike you as a potential pop culture favorite. Most interestingly, neither of the two primary themes is featured prominently in what the album presents as "Airbender Suite," a lengthy collection of general harmonic ideas related to the score but only connecting with the rest of the score's third theme (for the militaristic side of the story).

In fact, in terms of the thematic assignments in The Last Airbender, the "Airbender Suite" centers around an overtly noble theme that extends for several minutes in development from the two-minute mark but does not figure into the mass of the rest of the score. With a merging of John Barry melodrama, Jerry Goldsmith nobility, and John Williams scope, this theme creates an impression but is unfortunately orphaned in such a curious way that makes one wonder if it isn't meant to address the sequel films rather than this one. The three actual themes from Howard include the heroic brass fanfare consisting of a series of rising pairs of notes, a flowing, romantically-inclined theme of majestic beauty aimed at the strings, and rip-snorting militaristic march for war that contains its own menacing interlude for separate usage. The simple fanfare-like theme for brass is the most frequently referenced identity in The Last Airbender, easily adapted into a number of different scenarios that all seem to address the adventure of the story. The progressions of this theme will remind film score collectors of both Barry's Zulu and Goldsmith's The Ghost and the Darkness (via Dinosaur), and especially the former. This main theme is conveyed at the start of the film (on strings at 1:00 into "Prologue"), but that cue is withheld until the middle of the CD album. It is heard from restrained brass and then percussive blasts at 1:20 into "Earthbenders," within resilient propulsion at 3:45 in "The Four Elements Test," and in full for massive brass from 0:45 to 2:30 in "Journey to the Northern Water Tribe" (the latter a brief reprise). The theme finally earns its role as the score's definitive identity in "Flow Like Water," in which it serves as grand counterpoint to flowing secondary theme's rhythms with the entire ensemble at 3:45 and then punctuates the music heard in Howard's original trailer cue at the 6-minute mark. The other major theme in The Last Airbender is most likely tied to the primary character's destiny as Avatar, supported here in a foreshadowing role outside of its major performances in "Hall of Avatars" (vague at first, then in full at 1:30) and with majesty in the first minutes of "Flow Like Water." This theme's rhythmic foundation indeed flows like water in descending patterns for the strings, always starting with the cellos and working up through the section. This mainly cello rhythm is also heard at the start of "Earthbenders," two minutes into "Journey to the Northern Water Tribe," and accompanied faintly by its theme at 1:20 into "The Spirit World." A spin-off of this idea's general mood forms its own singular theme of incredible beauty in the last two minutes of "We Are Now the Gods."

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The darker, more militaristic theme of The Last Airbender is split into two parts, an almost pompous fanfare march and a more ominously pounded, staccato interlude that sometimes moves off on its own. The two are introduced on album in succession in "Airbender Suite," starting at 7:20, when the fanfare is accented by tapped snare rhythms and broad lower brass notes. Just after the 8-minute mark, the interlude sequence takes charge with overpowering choral chants and a rising series of notes perhaps meant to represent fire. This rhythm sometimes utilizes six notes, the first and last two on key, though it is sometimes shortened to four notes, removing the repeating ones. The percussive barrage following that segment of the suite is not to be missed. The two are adjoined again in "The Blue Spirit," the march in full at 2:00 and then the rhythmic figure and rising structures extremely forceful at 3:45. The most interesting version of these ideas comes at the start of "We Could Be Friends," the shortened rhythmic figure underpinning the fanfare's most muscular performance of elongated brass layers and snare. Separately, the fanfare is briefly referenced at 1:45 in "We Are Now the Gods" and the rhythm is alluded to at 2:00 (great bassoons in this passage) and once again followed by a multitude of percussive tapping. There are other fragments of thematic ideas that Howard utilizes once and then abandons (led by, as mentioned before, the impressive themes at the start of "Airbender Suite" and end of "We Are Now the Gods"), and perhaps some of these will become clearer if the franchise progresses forward as planned with Howard in tow. Overall, The Last Airbender is consistently entertaining in its lyrical expressiveness and instrumental technicalities. Howard uses familiar techniques without ever resorting to cliches, which is a refreshing ability. The mix of the various recorded elements is among the best in recent memory, too. It's not a transparent score, however, demanding closer attention to really appreciate the development of Howard's themes. In this regard, the album may not woo mainstream viewers of the film like the two very clearly delineated themes of The Lady in the Water did. Also lacking is the same sense of a narrative flow, an aspect shattered by a non-chronological presentation of tracks on the commercial album for The Last Airbender. But, on the whole, this score extends the highlights of Howard's late 2000's fantasy scores to a length of over an hour, and it is clearly the most impressive work from the composer since The Lady in the Water. There seems to be no shortage of outstanding film scores to come from the industry in 2010, easily the best year for this genre of music in a long time. ***** Price Hunt: CD or Download

Bias Check:For James Newton Howard reviews at Filmtracks, the average editorial rating is 3.35 (in 56 reviews)
and the average viewer rating is 3.34 (in 62,100 votes). The maximum rating is 5 stars.

 Viewer Ratings and Comments:  

Regular Average: 3.83 Stars
Smart Average: 3.57 Stars*
***** 746 
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  (View results for all titles)
    * Smart Average only includes
         40% of 5-star and 1-star votes
              to counterbalance fringe voting.
   This is...
  Ed -- 11/18/12 (5:56 p.m.)
   Why so Expensive?
  Glass -- 11/4/10 (2:34 p.m.)
   Re: Howard Pulled A Horner!
  Glass -- 11/4/10 (2:32 p.m.)
   Re: Choir removed from album release
  ARIEL -- 10/12/10 (4:56 a.m.)
   Howard Pulled A Horner!
  Trevor -- 7/4/10 (2:29 p.m.)
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 Track Listings: Total Time: 66:46

• 1. Airbender Suite (11:17)
• 2. Earthbenders (5:54)
• 3. The Avatar Has Returned (4:43)
• 4. The Four Elements Test (5:31)
• 5. Journey to the Northern Water Tribe (4:02)
• 6. Hall of Avatars (3:40)
• 7. Prologue (2:43)
• 8. The Blue Spirit (7:17)
• 9. The Spirit World (5:19)
• 10. We Could Be Friends (4:09)
• 11. We Are Now the Gods (5:47)
• 12. Flow Like Water (6:33)

 Notes and Quotes:  

The insert includes a list of performers, but no extra information about the score or film.

  All artwork and sound clips from The Last Airbender are Copyright © 2010, Lakeshore Records. The reviews and other textual content contained on the site may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the prior written authority of Filmtracks Publications. Audio clips can be heard using RealPlayer but cannot be redistributed without the label's expressed written consent. Page created 6/3/10 (and not updated significantly since). Review Version 5.1 (PHP). Copyright © 2010-2015, Christian Clemmensen (Filmtracks Publications). All rights reserved.