THE LAST AIRBENDER (2010) (*1/2)
M. Night Shyamalan can be a good filmmaker. For me, his last three films, including this one, have been disasters. Others would push that number higher. I'll defend THE VILLAGE and SIGNS — they had interesting characters and grand themes that drove their narratives. The same qualities that drove his most successful work, THE SIXTH SENSE. The director seems to have lost those skills. Even with quality source material to work with, he was unable to deliver a coherent, let alone a compelling, story.
All the players from the anime-inspired Nickelodeon series are present. In a world where four tribes of people can control the elements of air, water, earth and fire, there is one Avatar who rises in each generation that can control them all and bring peace to the planet. Aang (Noah Ringer, upcoming COWBOYS & ALIENS) is the latest Avatar, but when he is told of his fate and that he will not be able to have a family as a result, he runs away and ends up trapped in ice. After a hundred years, he and his flying bison Appa are freed by Southern water tribe members Katara (Nicola Peltz, DECK THE HALLS) and her brother Sokka (Jackson Rathbone, TWILIGHT).
In the hundred years Aang has been stuck in the ice, the Fire Nation, under the rule of the evil Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis, THE WHALE RIDER), has taken over the planet and wiped out all the airbenders. Ozai's son Prince Zuko (Dev Patel, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE) has been banished and is convinced that if he finds the missing Avatar, his father will restore his place in the Fire Nation. However, he is not the only one looking for the Avatar — Fire Nation commander Zhao (Aasif Mandvi, GHOST TOWN) wants nothing more than to seal his place in the kingdom and embarrass Prince Zuko. Aiding Zuko with his mission is his noble uncle Iroh (Shaun Toub, IRON MAN).
You know you're in trouble when the character development of your lead villain is more compelling than any of the heroes. Zuko's desire to get back into the good graces of his father is touching but it's not his freaking movie. The story begins with introducing Katara and Sokka and by the time we get around to Aang one is unsure whose story this is. We are told that Aang ran away from becoming the Avatar, but we're never shown anything that makes us feel why he'd do so. Much like JONAH HEX earlier in the summer, the basic tools of storytelling are abandoned in an effort to keep the film within some preordained running time.
All the film's problems start with Shyamalan's screenplay. For a live-action adaptation of an animated series for younger viewers, it's a good thing to eliminate some of the comedic exaggeration. Animation has a suspension of disbelief quotient that live-action will never have. The problem is that Shyamalan drains ever last drop of fun out of the story. It's simply the casing and none of the meat.
Aang is not a carefree kid who brings joy to those who meet him. In this film, he's a kickass airbender with the world on his shoulders. Ringer has screen presence, but he's not allowed to be playful. Katara is a rising cheerleader… oh and a waterbender. Her job in the film is to give pep talks to characters. In the series, she is the conscience and born leader of the group. Sokka fares the worst in the transition. Rathbone brings his stiff, bloodless performance style from TWILIGHT to this franchise. In the series, Sokka is an immature but determined warrior who has a wisecrack ready for all occasions. In the film, Rathbone never breaks a smile.
Shyamalan seems determined to cram a fixed amount of plot points from the first season of the series into the film. The TV show had the luxury of having 20 episodes to develop its characters, while he only has 103 minutes. And yet at every turn, the decisions he makes on what to show and what not to show results is the least engaging story possible. The story leaps from set piece to set piece with so little transition that one finds themselves disoriented. Then on the other hand, we get scene after scene of one Fire Nation person after another explaining why they need to find the Avatar. One moment you think things are missing and the next you want wish they'd cut stuff. For example, Princess Yue (Seychelle Gabriel, THE SPIRIT) is a key character to the show, but her last minute introduction turns out to be a distraction. Her connection to spirit worlds and the moon spirits turns into pointless mumbo jumbo thrown in right when the story should speed up.
As for the randomness of events, in one scene, the three main characters are in the woods and a child runs out of the forest and hides behind Sokka. The jump from the previous scene is so abrupt we feel like a whole scene was accidentally left out. Who is this kid? Why do the heroes seem so comfortable with him? Then Fire Nation soldiers show up to explain that the boy was earthbending, etc. etc. Why not show us that scene with the heroes watching and intervening. Show don't tell — it's only the basic tenant of good storytelling.
From the lack of character development to the truncated plotting, the film does not seem to understand how the images on the screen represent the characters. A perfect example is at the beginning when Katara and Sokka first find Aang in the ice. In the series, Katara sees Aang in an iceberg and goes to break him out. In the film, Sokka sees something under the ice, which they are standing on, and smashes it. Cracks form around them. A huge ball of ice emerges from the water and for some reason Katara is compelled to smash it open. In the TV series, Katara's actions seem noble in wanting to help someone in trouble. Her and her brother's actions in the film make them seem like giant idiots.
The problems just keep piling up in this one. The dialogue is awful too. It sometimes sounds like the English dubbed tracks of bad kung-fu films. And fans have already been upset with the casting. In the series Aang is Asian and Katara and Sokka are Inuit. In the film they're all white. But the miscasting goes further than just the wrong races. In addition to Rathbone's miscasting, Mandvi is so unconvincing as an evil warrior that one wonders if Claude Rains circa ROBIN HOOD days was Shyamalan's inspiration.
This is the biggest disappointment of the summer. The three seasons of the show would have nicely made for a trilogy of films. If for some reason fans of the show make this film successful enough to make it to the next chapter, the series could produce a good film. But the franchise will always be tainted by this beginning. Even though he didn't act in this one Shyamalan still ends up playing the villain.