Film review: The Last Airbender (2010), directed by M Night Shyamalan
While we didn’t get around to watching this film at the cinema, we wanted to see it simply because we really enjoyed the animated series. Now that there’s a live action version, it’s a must-see! Or at least that was the mindset we had during the opening credits …
The Last Airbender follows a couple of teenagers from the southern Water tribes – Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) – and how they find a child and some sort of huge buffalo-like creature encapsulated in ice. The child (Noah Ringer) turns out to be called Aang, and he just happens to be the Avatar.
The Avatar is a person who in every lifetime is the keeper of the balance between the four Nations (Earth, Air, Water and Fire). However, Aang, when being faced with a lifetime of responsibilities and no option of ever living a normal life, bolts. He’s gone for a hundred years, and because he’s gone, the balance of the world is thrown off, and the aggressive Fire Nation subvert the others.
Every Nation has a number of people who can control (“bend”) their respective elements. Katara is the only one left among the Water tribes on the South Pole and Aang is the only one left of the Airbenders, as the Fire Nation slaughtered all of them to ensure their domination. However, Katara is only a beginner, and Aang – who as the Avatar can speak to spirits and is supposed to be able to master all four elements – can only master Air, as that’s as far as he got in his training before he ran away. Together they have to try and learn more about their respective powers, so they make their way through the lands, inciting rebellion amongst the Earth benders.
They’re headed to the North Pole, where the Water Nation is alive and definitely kicking. They’re the only ones the Fire Nation hasn’t quite managed to dominate, so their Water bending is thriving – a good place to start learning how to become a Waterbender.
All the while, the trio is being chased by the exiled Prince Zuko (Dev Patel) from the Fire Nation, guided by his uncle Iroh (Shaun Toub). Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis, who looks so familiar but even looking through his IMDb career page, I still can’t quite figure out where I’ve seen him) is not just a cruel master, he’s also a cruel father – he thinks his son a weakling and has exiled him because of it. He can only return and reclaim his title if he comes bringing the Avatar.
So then, did it live up to expectations? No, no it didn’t.
A quick glance at the IMDb page seems to be that people are blaming the director, M Night Shyamalan (Sixth Sense, The Village, and so on), but the director isn’t the problem. The writer is more to blame – incidentally, the writer and the director is the same person – but the biggest flaw is the format itself.
The animated series, Avatar: The Last Airbender or Avatar: The Legend of Aang, stretched over 60 half-hour episodes in total. This movie is, according to the back of the DVD, 99 minutes. Basically, the movie covers season one, which is still ten hours. Ten glorious hours worth of characterisation, intricate mythos and both character and story arcs.
Because the film is so short in comparison, a lot of things have had to be cut. Sometimes, yes, it kind of works. Cutting bits of the Harry Potter books to make films, while annoying, is still managing to get the point across, because most of the cut-out bits were, let’s face it, not essential to the main plot. There are notable exceptions (explaining who the hell the Marauders who created the map were, for starters!), but overall, they didn’t skimp as much on characterisation.
The Last Airbender has a trio of fairly cardboard cut-out characters. We don’t really get to know Katara, and Aang is just some kid with committment issues who glows now and again and can speak to a dragon spirit. The biggest let-down of them all is Sokka, because he doesn’t get to show anything of who he is. He’s just a guy in the background, and Sokka is definitely so much more than that. The one we got closest to was Prince Zuko, and while that’s important, he’s not the main character of the film. It’s a bit like putting all the emphasis on characterising and fleshing out Draco Malfoy and forget to give Harry, Ron and Hermione anything resembling personalities. It’s just wrong.
Characterisation was a major part of the success of the original series, and because this film is so rushed and doesn’t bother with such puny things, it’s really disappointing. Visually it’s stunning, the special effects are brilliant. The movements of the bending seem a bit drawn out and silly in live action, but okay, physical casting of magic is a very good idea overall. It’s just … the story could be so much better if it wasn’t as rushed, and the characters needed the time to develop. They haven’t. And as such, it might be a good-looking adventurous fantasy movie in a quasi-Far East Asian culture, but that’s it. It’s no match to the creative genius of the original animation. Such a shame! I wonder if the lukewarm reception means they get to do a sequel or not.
Oh, even though it’s an M Night Shyamalan film, it actually doesn’t have a Big Twist toward the end. Surprise! And, finally, as someone put it on the IMDb boards: …and it’s Aang like “sang”, not Aang like “song”! Damn straight!