James Newton Howard has always been a bit of a mixed bag for me as far as soundtracks go. There are always some amazing pieces within the whole of one of his movie scores, but I think his soundtrack to The Last Airbender may be my favorite of his so far.
Like a painter, the film score composer has many tools at his or her disposal. Broad strokes done with horns have a different effect than a quiet flute solo and the power of a single violin has a much different effect than the entire string section of an orchestra. And bringing in heavy, percussive drums and cymbals has yet another completely different effect.
It is also the job of any good movie soundtrack to not only enhance the action on screen, but also provide auditory clues to the audience. For example, each time you hear "The Imperial March" in a Star Wars soundtrack from John Williams, you know that Darth Vader is near. But more than that, the music should evoke an emotional response from the audience.
Within the soundtrack to The Last Airbender, I hear bits that make me think of Williams' work, Basil Poledouris' work on the Conan movie soundtracks, as well as classical influences from the East and a bit of a Russian feel. The composition as a whole provides many layers that evokes in me a lot of hope for this movie.
The industrial power of the Fire Nation seeks to convince the rest of the world that their way is best and the old ways must give way to the new. The other nations have their own ideas however. The peaceful Air Nation has been destroyed, the Earth Nation has become isolationist, and the Northern and Southern Water Nation tribes are isolated by virtue of location. Where they all once worked together, now the world is full of distrust and a version of the "Might is Right" line of thinking.
The opening "Airbender Suite" provides a taste of the musical themes that persist throughout the soundtrack. The breathy flute gives way to the cresting waves of strings and horns as we prepare to see the story of a world in the midst of a clash of philosophies. All twelve tracks of the soundtrack utilize the full extent of the highs and lows of an amazing orchestra.