Screen Rant’s Rob Keyes reviews The Last Airbender
The path was set for writer/director M. Night Shyamalan to return to glory with his adaptation of the hit animated Nickeloden television series, The Last Airbender. The movie is meant to be the first of a potential trilogy of films about the fantasy epic, which mixed anime action with Eastern philosophy.
I’m very familiar with the Avatar: The Last Airbender cartoon series – and with M. Night doing something different by taking on a big-budget film that wasn’t based on one of his original ideas, I was very interested and hopeful that this could be the game-changer for his career (which has been on something of a downward spiral in recent years).
So much for that hope.
The Last Airbender is a poorly constructed film with no sense of plot, character or emotion – and aside from the visuals, there are little to no redeeming qualities in this wasted opportunity of a fantastic property, which was ripe for a film adaptation.
The movie (which stars Noah Ringer, Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone and Dev Patel) retells the main story arc of the first of three seasons (or “books,” as they’re known by fans) of the American cartoon, Avatar: The Last Airbender (see our review of Avatar: The Last Airbender Book 1 Collector’s Edition). In a spiritual world divided into four cultures, each Nation has a few people who have the ability to master the art of bending their respective elements: Air, Water, Earth and Fire. “The Avatar” is the one person in this world who is able to master all four elements – and this special person is reincarnated every generation into a member of one of the four cultures, following a specified cycle. It is the Avatar, the embodiment of the world’s spirits, who maintains peace and balance in the world.
The story begins with the discovery of Aang, who is quickly revealed to be the last of his people, the Air Nomads (hence the title, Last Airbender). The evil Fire Nation wiped out the Air Nomads a century prior in hopes of breaking the cycle and preventing the next Avatar from being born. This would pave the way for the Fire Nation’s attempts to take over the world. Needless to say, when members of the Fire Nation learn of Aang’s existence, they want him and set out in hot pursuit. Prince Zuko (Dev Patel), the exiled son of the Fire Nation ruler, needs to capture the Avatar to regain his honor and rightful place within the Fire Nation kingdom.
This simplified summary of the story behind The Last Airbender is shared with the audience, and while Shyamalan promised the movie would be true to the source, it is not.
The film includes a heavy load of shot-for-shot recreations of set piece moments from the cartoon series, as well as designs and locations lifted from memorable parts of the first season of the show (just to claim it’s “true” to the source). The filmmakers don’t use any of this borrowed material correctly. Much of what’s included is there for the sole reason of filling in for the audience important scenes and moments from the cartoon – however, in the movie, these elements end up serving no purpose and throw the direction off to the point where many scenes are completely meaningless and borderline incomprehensible. For example: including a six-legged, beaver-tailed flying CGI bison named Appa in the movie doesn’t automatically make it true to the source material – it’s how we feel about the big lovable creature that matters. The cartoon was able to solicit love for its big flying bison – the movie, not so much.
The story Shyamalan was trying to tell is meant to be that of an epic journey of discovery and companionship (with healthy doses of action and comedy), all packaged with a lot of heart. And this is where Shyamalan fails most of all. There are no reasons to get attached to any of the “characters” in The Last Airbender and even less reason to care about what happens to them. Most of the key character-defining moments or story arcs from the cartoon are not even shown in the movie, but are instead told through an awkward overload of exposition. As a result, we couldn’t care less about Appa (or other characters) based on the way they’re handled. Most of the “borrowed” scenes included in the film have no reason to be there (other than to be able to say they’re from the cartoon) – and worse, how the characters get from one location to the next as they journey across the world is never shown, removing the actual sense of journey that defines the tale.
For a movie based in world full of beautiful scenery and unique locales, we are not shown much of anything. We are given a bunch of set pieces constructed to replicate memorable visuals from the Airbender cartoon, but again, there’s no reason to care about them and more often than not, there is no reason for many of these scenes to even be in the movie. The set pieces should have expanded upon the story (which was lacking) and heightened the visual meaning of the film, but totally fail in that endeavor.
Our three protagonists, Aang, along with his Southern Water Tribe friends, Sokka and Katara, are mere empty shells of the characters the film hints at them being – and there’s no way the audience is able to become attached to them. The characters aren’t even shown getting attached to each other, as we’re not treated to much in the way of development between them. Aang is supposed to be the young, innocent, fun-loving kid who needs to learn to take on the responsibilities of becoming the Avatar, but he is replaced with a character containing no personality whatsoever.
Aside from the horrible dialogue, acting and cinematography (mostly in the first half), M. Night Shyamalan stripped away what made any of characters special or charming. The introduction to the movie and its characters is weak and how they introduce Aang as the Avatar to the rest of the world is uneventful. Most of the movie lacked excitement and those few times there’s a hint at seeing something cool or special, it’s just another letdown – especially when it comes to the action sequences, which could have become the film’s defining trait.
Shyamalan and Paramount Pictures tried to cover the story arc of a full season of the Airbender cartoon in about ninety minutes of movie. With this cast and the special effects, it’s hard to fathom that they spent $150 million dollars making it. There’s an hour of missing movie out there somewhere, one that explains these characters and their story in full. I just know it.
What we do get are multiple occasions where instead of traveling with the characters, building their relationships and giving us something we can attach to, instead we’re just thrown into new scenes in completely different locales, with either a subtitle explaining to us where we are now, and/or narration saying a certain amount of time has passed and that stuff has happened. Then, before we experience much of anything with the characters we’re supposed to be attached to, in the new locale we’ve been thrown into, we’re quickly thrown into another poorly set up scene – which quickly takes us to yet another location/locale without any purpose or sense of direction.
The hardest part about accepting The Last Airbender for what it is (not), is that there are no redeeming qualities to it. From the trailers and other marketing, you’d expect at least the action sequences and special effects involved would provide some entertainment – and while there are some cool action bits, even that aspect of the film falls short.
During the few scenes involving hand-to-hand combat, in a movie heavily focused on martial arts styles (each corresponding to a different bending ability), most of the time the fight scenes didn’t come off as cool or enjoyable. And in scenes where they could have really showcased wildly entertaining bending fights, they instead opted to repeatedly show a lengthy martial arts dance routine, just to employ one basic bending assault – whereas in the cartoon series, there were many intense action scenes where each punch and kick from Prince Zuko would launch fireballs at his opponent.
There is one bright spot in the film: Fan-favorite character Uncle Iroh (Shaun Toub) is the standout character of the movie, cool and lovable as he was in the cartoon. Uncle Iroh is Prince Zuko’s mentor and while being a calm and often comedic character, he is a powerful Firebender, good-natured in contrast to the ill-tempered young Zuko.
Unfortunately for moviegoers and fans of the cartoon, The Last Airbender does almost everything wrong and it certainly isn’t helped by the tacked-on 3D, which doesn’t add much to the film (at best) and saddles it with muted colors and flat depth (at worst). This is a movie unintentionally aimed strictly at children and the youngest segment of the cartoon’s fanbase. If your kids love flashy things and big animals, then they’ll probably like this – unless they start trying to understand the plot. In my opinion, you’d be better off taking them to see fireworks this weekend – it will probably be more entertaining.
In the end, I just hope this movie doesn’t hurt people’s interest in watching the amazing cartoon series which spawned it. That would truly be unforgivable.