Wednesday, June 30, 2010 07:36 PM
(Last updated on Thursday, July 1, 2010 11:07 AM)
On the Viewer - The Last Airbender
 by Fëanor

Anybody who's a regular reader of this blog knows I'm a huge fan of the Nickelodeon animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender. It's technically a kids' cartoon, but it's that rare and excellent kind of children's entertainment that could easily be recategorized as simply entertainment. It's not patronizing or idiotic - instead it's smart, funny, creative, thoughtful, thrilling, subtle, and moving. (You can check out my many Avatar-related posts here; the reviews of the episodes begin part of the way down this page.) In contrast, the film version is the worst kind of kid's entertainment - the kind of movie only an undiscriminating child could possibly enjoy.

In case you don't know anything about the show, and don't feel like clicking back through all my reviews, here's the premise: it's a fantasy action/adventure set in a world divided into four lands, each based on one of the four classical elements: air, water, earth, and fire. Select people in each of these lands have the ability to control - or bend - their land's element. Only one person, known as the Avatar, can bend all four elements at once. The Avatar is reincarnated every generation. He's meant to protect and unite all the people of the four lands. But the latest reincarnation of the Avatar - a young Air Nomad named Aang - disappeared without a trace 100 years ago, and since then the Fire Nation, led by the cruel Fire Lord, has made war on all the other lands and is threatening to take over the world.

One day, a young brother and sister living in the snowy wilderness of the Southern Water Tribe discover Aang trapped in the ice, along with his faithful flying bison, Appa. To everyone's surprise, the Avatar is still a little boy who ran away before he could learn to bend any other element but air. The brother and sister - Sokka and Katara - join with him to help him fight the Fire Nation, and to learn how to bend the other elements. Meanwhile, they're all being followed by the banished son of the Fire Lord, Prince Zuko, who's certain he can regain his honor if he can return home with the Avatar as his prisoner.

The original animated series was split into three seasons, or "Books," each one dealing with the Avatar's attempts to learn one of the other elements. This live-action film, directed by M. Night Shyamalan, is an adaptation of just the first Book: Water. The problem is, a lot happened in that first season, and although Shyamalan left much of it out, he still has to cut a lot of corners in order to fit what's left into just one 103-minute movie. Various rather important sequences are collapsed into short, extremely unsubtle dialog exchanges, or summarized awkwardly in chunks of narration or quick montages. The pacing and editing in general are poor. There's really no time to develop any of the many characters or their relationships. In the series, Aang's furry friends, Appa and Momo, are more than just cute animals - they're really fun characters, and Aang has a particularly deep and powerful bond with Appa, but here we barely get to know Appa at all, and Aang doesn't appear to be interested in him except as a mode of transport. Mysteries that were slowly built up and finally solved in the series are quickly dispensed with, as if the film doesn't even have confidence in its own ability to hide things from the audience. We barely have time to register the masked Blue Spirit as a character before his identity is revealed. In one scene, a character seems to die, but only a few scenes later, the camera swings over and casually reveals him still alive, with no fanfare whatsoever. It's like the film is telling us, "Oh, yeah, that guy's still alive. But you knew that already, right?"

The film is faithful in a general sort of way to the series, but it drops Aang's conversations with his previous reincarnations in favor of visits to a random dragon spirit, ignores the difficulties Aang had with his Avatar State, and changes completely the climactic ending of the battle at the Northern Water Tribe, surprisingly making it less violent than the cartoon. Aang merely scares away the Fire Nation soldiers with the threat of a giant wave, instead of rampaging among the ships in the form of a giant water demon. I rather like the way the film equates Aang learning waterbending with Aang learning to deal with his guilt and anger over the loss of his loved ones, and with the responsibilities of being the Avatar - although the metaphor would have been more interesting if they hadn't had the dragon spirit explain it to Aang in great detail. When Aang bows to everyone at the end, and he looks at the camera with a face full of mixed emotions as the music rises, it's actually reasonably effective.

But in general, the writing completely lacks the subtlety, cleverness, and humor of the original series. It's clumsy and dull, producing cringes and unintentional laughter. It doesn't help that the actors reading this awful dialog are almost universally terrible, with performances that range from overwrought to wooden. Of course, most of those actors are children, and talented child actors are rare. But the casting of this film was highly controversial, with many characters who had dark skin in the cartoon being played by Caucasian actors in the film. Shyamalan's defense was that he had chosen the right actors for the parts - the most talented, with the most natural chemistry with each other. If that's true, I'd hate to see the actors he rejected. Only Shaun Toub as Zuko's Uncle Iroh manages to remain dignified. Aasif Mandvi is over-the-top as Commander Zhao, but he does have one wonderfully brutal scene in which he publicly humiliates Zuko - one of only a handful of effective scenes in the entire film.

The Last Airbender is one of many films lately that was filmed in 2D and then converted to 3D after the fact. Unfortunately, it's very obvious that the 3D was added as an afterthought. Most of the time the effect is barely noticeable. The only reason to see the film in 3D is if you like wearing funny plastic glasses.

The action sequences are probably the best things about the movie, but even they aren't particularly interesting. It's confusing to me that a film made by M. Night Shyamalan could be so shoddily put together. Admittedly, the quality of Shyamalan's work went sharply downhill right after his first two films. But it was always clear to me, even when watching his worst movies, that he had great talent. There were always glimmers of brilliance. That's why I keep going back to the theater to see his next film - I'm waiting for another masterpiece, the one I keep thinking he still has in him. But I'm not so sure he does anymore. Anyway, The Last Airbender is certainly not it.

This movie was really an odd fit for him in the first place. All of his other films have been personal, original works - tense thrillers with twist endings. And yet here's a giant fantasy action epic based on a children's animated series. I'm not sure what possessed him to take on the project, and I'm not sure he should try something like it again.

In the series, there's a particularly brilliant and funny episode where our heroes go to see a play reenacting their own adventures. The play is terribly acted, with bad makeup, costumes, and dialog. It simplifies everything that happened to the people in it, and twists their story to its own ends. The effects are about the only impressive thing about it. This film reminds me a lot of that play.
Tagged (?): Avatar (Not), Movies (Not), On the Viewer (Not)

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