In 2005, Nickelodeon broke the mold of its traditionally children-focused television series when it premiered Avatar: The Last Airbender, a culturally diverse, family-friendly animated show set in a fantastical world. Created by the imaginative duo of Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, the story of the young Avatar Aang and his fight against the Hundred Year War brought on by the Fire Nation was a visually splendid adventure that was just as exciting as it was inspirational.
Two years after the series wrapped its final season, Paramount released a controversial live-action adaptation from the mind of M. Night Shyamalan that would prove to be one of the most widely criticized movies in recent memory. Taking the colorfully rich world of the show and flipping it on its head, the people of the Water, Fire, Earth and Air nations were horribly miscast and misrepresented, virtually eliminating the beauty of the show. The crew behind the film have since been able to rebound from the atrocious re-imagining, but the movie has undeniably tarnished the credentials of everyone involved.
Although The Last Airbender has left an irreparable scar on the hearts of Avatar fans worldwide, there are things about the production that even the most devoted viewers don't know. So join us as we take a look behind the curtain at the 15 Things You Never Knew About the Terrible Last Airbender Movie.
15 15. Avatar Creators Hated the Movie
In 2006, Avatar creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko sang the praises of director M. Night Shyamalan, who they admitted was a respectable fan of their work. By the time the film hit theaters, they had changed their tune, agreeing with the general audience that Nickelodeon and Paramount had disgraced their multi-cultural world with a cast and script that contradicted everything they had made.
In 2013, in a response to an online question regarding the color of Aang’s children in the series The Legend of Korra, Konietzko addressed rumors that his show had purposefully misrepresented a character of a different ethnicity. Speaking to the diversity of the show, Konietzko wrote that Shyamalan’s film was a “gross misinterpretation and misrepresentation” of the show he and DiMartino wished to present.
The duo would later say their involvement in the picture was unwanted and that the whole ordeal was a bad situation which they were forced to make the best of despite never having much say in the adaptation.
14 "Avatar" had to be dropped from the title due to James Cameron's 2009 Film
Although the word has since become synonymous with the large, Smurf-like species of Pandora made popular in James Cameron’s 2009 sci-fi movie, the first Avatar was actually the Nickelodeon series of the same name.
Derived from Sanskrit, an avatar is a concept in Hinduism which traditionally refers to an incarnation of a deity. Aang, the last surviving airbender, was given the moniker of the Avatar after returning to earth to master all four elements of water, fire, earth, and air and bring balance to the four warring nations.
When Shyamalan began writing his first draft for The Last Airbender, he did so with the intention of using the series’ full name as the title, but as the definition of the word gradually shifted in the public’s mind, the marketing crew of Paramount wisely suggesting dropping the first part of the name.
Avatar: The Last Airbender became The Last Airbender to avoid confusion, though the word would be used throughout the film to refer to Aang’s lineage.
13 Over budget and forced to shoot on sound stages
Five years after production wrapped on The Last Airbender, a former worker on the movie took to the fan site AvatarSpirit.net to voice his opinion on the problems with the film, revealing a few hidden facts about what went wrong.
Apart from the casting of many white actors in Asian roles, which the source said began with the studio’s casting of Nicola Peltz due to nepotism, it was also revealed that many key scenes were forced to be shot on sound stages after initially being scheduled to shoot on location.
The opening scene of the movie is one of the few highlights of the film. Although the discovery of Aang inside a frozen ball of ice still includes the screenplay’s cringe-inducing dialogue, it is a beautifully shot sequence filmed in the frozen landscape of Ilulissat, Greenland.
Due to this opening sequence going over budget, however, the crew were forced to relocate many scenes to rural Pennsylvania with other sequences being shot on sound stages, drastically affecting the movie’s overall look.
The word "racebending" has become synonymous with the word "whitewashing," though the former term may also be applied to actors of color being cast in traditionally white roles. Derived from the Avatar television series where characters are given the ability to bend the elements, the word originated on Racebending.com, a grassroots organization of media consumers that began as fans protesting the casting decisions of The Last Airbender.
In 2010, on the cusp of The Last Airbender’s release, Racebending.com and the Media Network for Asian Americans came together to boycott the release of the film. Although activists still use the term negatively, the opposite effect has also been seen in recent years, where actors of color have been cast in roles that would have otherwise been given to white actors, diversifying ensemble casts and pushing for an increase in racial visibility in Hollywood.
11 Zac Efron, Ben Kingsley, and Gene Simmons almost starred
In the early developmental stages, M. Night Shyamalan became the source of a lot of fan hate when he was accused by the Media Network of Asian Americans for whitewashing a story which consisted of primarily Asian characters. Although the director insisted that the show’s universal acceptance of all ethnicities was still a part of his overall vision, he continued to cast all white actors in parts that were not traditionally intended for Caucasians.
In the beginning, pop singer Jesse McCartney was sought to play the role of Prince Zuko, but when controversy struck, McCartney dropped out, citing scheduling conflicts as his reason for leaving. When Dev Patel was cast in the part, Shyamalan made the decision to cast all Indian and Middle Eastern actors in Fire Nation roles, giving up on his vision of Ben Kingsley in the part of Uncle Iroh.
Other notable casting decisions such as Zac Efron playing Sokka and Gene Simmons voicing the Dragon Spirit were also reportedly in the works, but neither idea came to fruition.
10 Shyamalan Blamed Transformers for the Film’s Failures
Before adapting Avatar to the big screen, M. Night Shyamalan had never written a movie based on someone else’s work. According to the director, he had always wanted to direct a multi-million dollar fantasy picture in the vein of The Lord of the Rings, but had never had the right material come along - until his daughter introduced him to Avatar. Shyamalan wasn't just inspired by the story’s franchise potential; he saw the opportunity to bring a child-friendly picture to the big screen.
Explaining the movie’s failures, Shyamalan suggested that he was only making the movie for younger audiences and not for the PG-13 crowds that regularly attended movies like Transformers. Despite worsening reviews, the Transformers franchise has remained a financially successful series that's managed to attract stars like Nicola Peltz, who played Katara in Shyamalan's movie. Perhaps the director could have learned from the movies he publicly criticized.
9 Dev Patel Regrets Playing Zuko
As the banished son of Fire Lord Ozai, Prince Zuko carried around a reminder of his disgrace in the form of a scar across his left eye. In much the same way, Dev Patel carried his involvement with The Last Airbender around as a reminder to never commit to a project he doesn't fully believe in. While working on Slumdog Millionaire, Patel prepared for the Shyamalan film by watching episodes of the Nickelodeon series.
In December of 2016, he dished out the details behind his biggest career mistake thus far. Discussing his fear of big budget productions, Patel said he was overwhelmed by playing Zuko. Rather than anyone listening to his input during the production, he felt alienated by the film crew, an experience that has since taught him how to say no when a part doesn't suit him.
Since The Last Airbender, the actor has done well for himself, bouncing back stronger than ever with his first Academy Award nomination for his performance in Lion.
8 The Mispronunciation of Characters’ Names Was Intentional
Although fans of the Nickelodeon series were quick to criticize M. Night for whitewashing the cast of their favorite animated show, the director claims it was never his intention to dishonor the Asian influences of the source material. According to the director, the pronunciation of character names like "Aang" and "Sokka" in the TV series fell victim to Anglicization, a mistake which he fought to change to give his movie a more authentic feel.
While Shyamalan's intentions were good, fans weren't pleased with the butchering of the names they had become accustomed to hearing. Despite Bryan Konietzko and Michael Di Martino drawing from multiple Eastern cultures to create Avatar’s four nations, there was no single cultural influence which predominantly inspired their fantasy world.
Making drastic changes to the series went against everything the original creators had envisioned for their show, which was enough to make every fan of the series cringe when they heard each character's name mispronounced over and over again.
7 It actually did okay at the box office
When Nickelodeon announced their plans to produce a trilogy of films based on one of their more successful properties, it was with the hopes of accumulating a massive amount of interest from both new and old fans alike. From the start, things looked bleak for the troubled production.
Intended to be Nickelodeon’s first major tentpole production with an estimated $250 million meant to be spent across all three movies, the film went wildly over budget, costing a total of $150 million. Paramount then spent another $130 million in marketing.
On opening week, The Last Airbender unsurprisingly faltered at the U.S. big office, debuting second behind The Twilight Saga: Eclipse despite earning $40 million over the weekend. Only grossing $130 million domestically, the movie was ultimately able to make up the difference overseas, bringing in a grand total of $319 million, making the film a modest success.
Although the earnings were not enough to jump start production on a sequel, it was enough to prevent a complete disaster from the studio.
6 The First Draft Was Seven Hours Long
In the early developmental stages, M. Night Shyamalan was tasked with sorting through the first season of Avatar in order to condense a twenty episode arc into a feature-length film. According to the director, the original script was a faithful adaptation which covered all of the first season with an estimated seven hour run time. As production got underway, the necessary cuts had to be made to shorten the length of the film and keep the movie under budget. The result was a film filled with dry exposition that felt rushed.
Although the studio was ultimately responsible for the movie’s shortened script, many of Shyamalan's changes to the source material were still evident in the original screenplay. Major alterations, including the exclusions of Aang’s child-like sense of humor and Sokka’s comical persona, were reportedly always a small part of the film.
In the end, a 103 minute run time and the studio’s overall lack of knowledge about the show left the production in turmoil - and Shyamalan unable to steer the ship back on course.
5 Thirty Minutes Had to be cut to Convert the Movie to 3D
When Avatar fans first learned of the movie's 103 minute run time, they immediately reacted with concern. The aforementioned seven hour fantasy epic first written by Shyamalan would likely never have seen the light of day, but at under two hours, there were too many characters who would have to be thrown to the curve in sacrifice to the central story. In the end, around thirty minutes of material was deleted from Shyamalan’s film, but the real kicker was why many of these scenes were scrapped in the first place.
Three months prior to the film’ release, Paramount announced it would spend an additional $5-10 million to convert the movie to 3D, an obvious last ditch effort to boost ticket sales. In order to complete the conversion in time for the movie’s Independence Day weekend release, the thirty minutes were left behind.
According to Shyamalan, the biggest scenes involved a meeting between Aang and the Kyoshi Warriors as well as many slapstick moments left over from the original script.
4 The Technology Did Not Exist to Create Realistic Bending Effects
In order to create a faithful Avatar adaptation, the crew of The Last Airbender would have to master the elements of earth, water, fire and air, creating realistic movements from all four which would result in special effects unlike anything seen on the big screen. In order to achieve the bending effects of the film, Shyamalan turned to Industrial Light & Magic.
Headed by the likes of effects supervisor Pablo Helman and associate supervisor Craig Hammack, the VFX crew didn't have the right technology to render realistic effects for the film. Rather than using software, computer graphic cards had to be used to bend the elements, which allowed Shyamalan to preview each effect more quickly, but also led to more than sixty takes being filmed before the right look was achieved.
In the end, ILM admitted to the difficulty of the challenge, saying firebending was particularly hard to capture due to the inability to accurately capture the unpredictable movements of the element.
3 The Dragon Spirit Was Created Specifically for the Movie
In the live-action film, Aang enters the spirit world and he encounters the ancient Dragon Spirit. This character was created specifically for the film with multiple characters from the animated series in mind.
Taking the form of a dragon, the Dragon Spirit’s design was largely influenced by Fang, Avatar Roku’s animal guide who followed Roku into the Spirit World after his death. Similarly, the Dragon Spirit's wisdom was inspired by Avatar Roku, who was the Avatar that preceded Aang and taught him with lessons from his past experiences. Similarly, the character was based on Guru Pathik, a friend of Monk Gyatso who helped Aang to tap into his Avatar state.
Rather than being a former being from the physical world, however, the Dragon Spirit is a malevolent spirit that’s always existed inside the Spirit World, much like Koh from the original series.
2 Milla Jovovich Is a Big Fan
At the moment, The Last Airbender sits at an excruciatingly poor rating of 6% on Rotten Tomatoes, an all-time low in a string of failures that plagued M. Night Shyamalan’s career for many years, but according to one action movie heroine, the heavily vilified fantasy flick may not be as bad as everyone claims.
In 2010, Milla Jovovich, star of the Resident Evil franchise, brought up her love for martial arts flicks, specifically singling out The Last Airbender as a recent addition to the genre that she enjoyed. Jovovich was so entertained by the picture that she even hinted at wanting to star in the sequel. The reveal was such a surprise, but sometimes even the worst of movies manage to establish a fan base.
1 A Script for a Sequel Exists
In July 2010, in the wake of The Last Airbender’s scathing reviews, Shyamalan addressed his original vision to create a trilogy of films and admitted to the future of the franchise being uncertain. Later, producer Frank Marshall would cast further doubt on a sequel, stating that while the other two films had not been cancelled, he was not sure if they would ever be made. Avatar creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko would throw their own opinion into the arena when they said they hoped to someday make their own live-action adaptation.
Now, seven years after the theatrical release of The Last Airbender, a sequel is unlikely to happen, but that doesn't mean Shyamalan isn't trying. According to him, there's already a draft which includes both Toph and Zuko’s sister, Azula.
With the cast now significantly aged and no longer endorsing the franchise, we’ll never know whether the second film would have improved upon its predecessor, but luckily this is one sequel we’re happy never saw the light of day.
Do you have any The Last Airbender trivia to add? Leave it in the comments!