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The Last Airbender

starring Noah Ringer, Dev Patel, Nicola Peltz, and Jackson Rathbone
written & directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Rated PG for fantasy action violence.
24%

“Water.  Earth.  Fire.  Air.  Long ago, the four nations lived together in harmony.  Then, everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked.  Only the Avatar, master of all four elements, could stop them.  But when the world needed him most, he vanished.  A hundred years passed and my brother and I discovered the new Avatar, an airbender named Aang.  And although his airbending skills are great, he has a lot to learn before he’s ready to save anyone.  But I believe Aang can save the world.”

This monologue, delivered by Katara of the Southern Water Tribe, begins every episode of the hit animated series, Avatar: The Last Airbender. In 61 half-hour episodes across three incredible seasons, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko built up an amazing alternate world and a rich mythology, populated with well-developed, lovable characters. It only took M. Night Shyamalan 103 minutes to drive it all completely into the ground. Of course, no adaptation, no matter how bad, can ever do anything to ruin the original. But that may be hard to remember amidst the unbelievable awfulness of Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender.

It can’t be a coincidence that this film thinks the title character’s name rhymes with “wrong;” it’s just too appropriate. I can’t imagine why Shyamalan couldn’t even be bothered to make sure his actors knew how to pronounce things correctly (for instance, “Sew-ka”), but it’s endemic of his utter lack of respect for the material and inattention to detail. There has to be an element of carelessness behind the fact that a few of the characters pronounce the word “avatar” correctly, but most of them repeatedly say “aw-vatar.” But disrespect is the only way to explain the absence of Momo, Aang’s pet winged lemur. I say absence because, although a creature resembling Momo appears in one or two shots in the film, none of the non-CG characters seems to notice that he’s there, and he certainly doesn’t have a name.

Then again, the characters who are on-screen don’t fare much better. The short-tempered firebender Prince Zuko (Patel) is supposed to be scowling all of the time, but it’s not nearly as noticeable when no one else so much as cracks a smile through the entire movie. So much of the show’s charm is predicated on its humor and sense of fun, but the kids in The Last Airbender have no sense of humor and no charisma. Aang (Ringer), defined in the show by his child-like mischievousness and perpetual grin, is unremittingly grim here (when he isn’t just confused). Sokka (Rathbone) spends most of the film looking as though his eyes are about to pop out of his head from the strain of holding any and all displays of emotion in check. And Katara (Peltz), the emotional center of the series, just looks like she’s always on the point of crying.

In fact, none of them delivers a single line that doesn’t sound like it’s being read. Somehow, though, I can’t believe that all of these kids are talentless actors. The fault has to lie with the writing and the direction; there doesn’t seem to have been any. Dialogue can’t be made to sound like anything other than reading when 90% of it is incredibly clumsy exposition. And yet, even though this is one of the most overexplained movies you’ll ever see, nothing in it makes any sense. People who remember the series well will probably be able to piece together what’s going on and why, but no one else stands a chance. And then, it just ends.

Still, even if the acting is terrible, the story nonexistent, and fidelity to the source a distant memory, at least there’s bound to be some decent action, right? Wrong. In perhaps its most impressive feat, this movie manages to make elemental bending look really, really stupid. Leaving aside the clunky, poorly-rendered computer effects, the choreography involved looks terrible; probably because it looks more like choreography than martial arts. It still remains unclear to me why, if a bender has to render a complicated series of balletic and seemingly arbitrary dance moves in order to conjure, say, a blast of air or a water whip, someone with a sword can’t charge in and lop off their arm. In any case, be aware: You will laugh at how dumb these people look waving their arms around to throw fake-looking globules of computer-generated water, fire, earth, and air at each other.

Somehow, all indications to the contrary, I didn’t quite believe that a show as well-made and well-written as Avatar: The Last Airbender could be transformed into a Level-5 disaster. Honestly, I’m still not sure how it was done, and trying to think about it is just depressing. I may have to go out and purchase the television series just to off-set the sin of having given money to the people who made this awful, awful film. This movie is a crime against good storytelling, a vicious act of vandalism, and an all-around abomination. Please, do not go see it.

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~ by Jared on July 3, 2010.

2 Responses to “The Last Airbender”

  1. Re: pronunciations, M. Night Shyamalan is on record to the effect that this was very deliberate on his part: “And I fought like crazy to have the pronunciation of the names to go back to the Asian pronunciation. So you say ‘Ahng’ instead of ‘Aaang’ because it’s correct. It’s not ‘I-rack,’ it’s ‘ee-Rock.'” So as far as he’s concerned, it’s the original show, not his movie, that got the pronunciations wrong.

  2. Oof. So, Rathbone runs into the same problem here as he does in Twilight, in that he’s never allowed to show emotion (which is a shame because his character in Twilight is one of the few likable ones). And Dev Patel’s second ever movie makes him out to look like a terrible actor, when we know from Slumdog Millionaire that he is quite capable.

    Siiigh, this makes me sad. I love M. Night, but he can’t keep relying on just his name to get him through.

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