Review: M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender

I recently watched the film The Last Airbender.  I am so glad that I was not a huge fan of the show – Avatar: The Last Airbender when they started making this film or I would have been very disappointed.  As it is, I am still disappointed but I became a fan of the series after the first trailer for this film appeared.  I didn’t have time to work up my excitement only to be let down.  Still, it is just sad that they could take such a rich, deep, and enjoyable series and turn it into 2 hours of dark, humorless, nonsensical plotting.  They get so many things wrong that I don’t know where to start.  What I am going to attempt to do is to examine the film first on its own merits, without holding it up to the source material.  Then I will examine the film from the perspective of someone who loves the television series.  I’m not sure which is the fairest approach, which is my main reason for doing both. 

“Just the movie” review:

Typically, I try to view a film as its own thing, without comparing it to its source material.  Filmmakers have different things they have to accomplish, some of which are radically different that what can be done in different mediums, whether literature or television.  In my attempt to be as fair to this film as possible, I did my best to watch it with an open mind.  The results are mixed.  First, the film looks impressive.  I think they did a good job of creating an intricate and detailed look for each culture.  The costumes are beautiful and look like something that these characters would actually wear.  The set design is also very strong, showing good detail in even the most background elements.  The movie is filmed in an appropriately epic style.  It has plenty of aerial shots – something that every fantasy film has been doing since the first Lord of the Rings film came out.  The colors are vibrant, but do not feel over-the-top or fake.  The special effects and digital effects look good as well.  The bending effects looked convincing and realistic even though I did have some problems with their implementation – I’ll get to those in a bit.  As far as the characters are concerned, they are a mixed bag as well.  Unfortunately, the title character – Aang – is just not very interesting.  I will never blame a child actor for a bad performance even if that actor really has less-than-great acting skills.  The blame for bad acting from a child should always fall on the director.  And believe me; a lot of blame needs to be laid at M. Night Shyamalan’s feet.  He simply did not do good work with these kids.  The script is clunky and it leaves the kids to spout off lines that just fall flat.  Sometimes that can be helped by a really convincing and arresting performance, but as a director, M. Night just doesn’t draw that type of performance out of the children.  Aang (Noah Ringer) and Katara (Nicola Peltz) both have moments of elementary school play syndrome – they are saying lines that they don’t understand or really believe.  It’s sad because I do think that both of those actors could have given stronger performances.  The older actors all do better work, but nothing to really write home about.  The plot has some issues as well.  At times it seems to be focused, but then it will just randomly insert some scene that doesn’t have much to do with the main storyline.  I wouldn’t have an issue with that if those scenes added character development or even some humor, but they don’t.  They are just there. 

Taken on its own, the film is average at best.  The story never really seems to get off the ground, the actors do adequate work with the exception of the protagonists who just seem a little lost, and the effects, while pretty to look at, lack any real thrills.  If this had been my first exposure to this story, I doubt I would have been interested enough to seek out the television series.

The adaptation review:

As an adaptation of a thrilling, funny, engaging, exciting, and emotionally powerful television series, this film is an utter failure.  The biggest mistake made is that for some unknown reason, Shyamalan decided that the film needed to be dour, grim, and overly serious.  Aang is no longer the hyperactive, immature, fun-loving kid from the TV series.  Instead, he is full of angst and doubt.  He rarely smiles and he laughs even less.  I don’t know who that kid is supposed to be, but he is not the Aang that I know and love.  The Aang that I know is a typical 12-year-old kid who happens to be an extremely powerful airbender.  At times, he can get a big head.  At times he behaves like a typical 12-year-old boy, which means he does some stupid stuff.  Above all though, Aang from the TV series is capable of moments of complete selflessness and sacrifice.  He is good-natured and open-hearted.  He cares for everyone around him and he always ends up doing the right thing, even if it takes him some time to figure out what that is.  The film missed all of that.  All of it.  In the TV series, Aang grows and matures as the series progresses.  He goes through moments of confusion and doubt.  He has moments of anger and bitterness.  But that takes place later on – in Books 2 and 3.  By making him start at that point in the film, you give the character nowhere to go in future films. 

Don’t get me started on Sokka.  Talk about completely missing the point of a character.  I don’t have the time or the energy to address all that is wrong about him in the film.  Katara is the closest of the three main kids to her TV counterpart, but even she loses something due to the changes made to Aang and Sokka. 

Prince Zuko is also changed and not for the better.  They start him off in the film in a much more sympathetic light.  He is not seen as the spoiled and angry young prince as he appears in the first half of Book 1.  Once again, his character has nowhere to go – he is already at the end of Book 1 character progression at the beginning of the film.  Zuko is one of the most complicated characters I’ve ever seen on a TV show – with a lot of baggage and internal conflicts.  The film gets some of that right; they just don’t time those revelations correctly. 

The action is the other thing that really bothered me.  The bending effects look good but they are just not implemented with any sense of style.  It takes forever for the benders to make anything move in this film – stuff just sort of floats around for a while before finally doing what they want to do with it.  While that is going on, the other characters just stand around watching.  They see an earthbender getting ready to launch a rock at them – and it is taking a good bit of time for them to do that – and they just stand there and wait until the rock comes “flying” towards them.  (I put flying in quotation marks because the rocks don’t really fly – it’s more like they hover from one spot to another.)  The cartoon had action scenes that were always fun to watch – even in the limited world of television budgets.  I figured with current digital technology this is the one area where the film could really wow the audience – but it doesn’t.  The action scenes are boring and lifeless.

I’ll stop there.  I could go on.  I could talk about the insane addition of having Admiral Zhou constantly traveling back to the Fire Nation to discuss things with the Fire Lord.  How in the world does he get back and forth so quickly?  It’s never explained and it makes no sense.  I could talk about how the sense of fun of the TV series is completely gone in the film.  If the show was one thing, it was fun.  Taking that element out of the film makes the whole thing sort of pointless.  Why adapt this TV show if you are going to change the very thing that made it successful?  For crying out loud, they even screw up Appa and Momo!

While the film has some good things about it, it pales next to the series.  At this point, I’m not even sure if a good adaptation could be made of this series.  It’s just too complicated and involved to capture in a 2-hour film.  Perhaps M. Night and the rest of the cast and crew just never really had a chance.  This project seems to have been doomed to fail from the start.

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