M. Night Shyamalan has been running against the wind since The Sixth Sense made a splash, and your career begins to really look bleak when the last thing critics were nice to came out a decade ago. After a string of films hoping to keep the “snappy, twist ending” effort alive, The Last Airbender may seem an odd, brilliant, and/or stupid choice, but whatever the expectations, the result may spin Shyamalan’s career into a twist ending of its own.
It should be noted that turning Nickelodeon‘s hit, animated adventure into a live-action film is a task that is doomed from the start, and the project is really rather similar to David Lynch‘s Dune. Success isn’t actually a live option, the question is really how worthwhile your failure will be. Others may have produced a much more enjoyable product, but turning 500 minutes of a brilliant, but often silly, cartoon into a feature-length film wasn’t going to happen.
Arguably one of the best things to ever come out of children’s television, Avatar: The Last Airbender mixed together the fun and silliness of Saturday morning with equally serious character deconstructions and plots rooted in interesting moral plays. While many other things besides, the show is a wonderful adventure that walks its target audience through solidly-constructed tales about their own lives. The blending of fun with new responsibilities, and the effort to understand who you are as you seemingly progress through an unending series of new “yous.”
The story follows Aang (Noah Ringer), a young boy who wakes from 100 years of magical suspended animation to find his world in chaos. Divided into four nations (Earth, Air, Fire, and Water), it is a world with magic, of a sort, mainly consisting of controlling elements. Aang is the latest reincarnation of the Avatar, a semi-mystical being who can contact the spirit world, and control all four elements. The Avatar’s role is keeping the peace between the four nations, but as a young boy Aang ran away from this responsibility, and in his absence the fire nation has tried to take over the world.
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Discovered by Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), members of the southern Water Tribe, Aang, still a young boy, is reintroduced to a world that has been without an Avatar for 100 years. Not only does he quickly learn that the Fire Nation has taken over much of the world, but he must also come to terms with the fact that he is the last airbender. Aang’s disappearance was apparently right in line with the Fire Nation’s plans, because they wiped out the airbenders in an effort to destroy the Avatar.
Before he can properly come to grips with what has happened while he was away, Fire Nation Prince Zuko (Dev Patel) comes looking for him. Banished by his Fire Lord father, Zuko is on a mission to find the Avatar, and he can’t return home until he finds him.
The race is on, and Aang must find a way to master the four elements and return order to the world while eluding countless pursuers, and with few safe havens in existence. Aided by Katara, Sokka, and his flying bison, Aang has to grow up very fast, and become the embodiment of hope for a world that has just about run out of it.
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Unfortunately, the feature-length version delivers almost nothing of the original apart from a kind of glorified, effect-driven synopsis. Anything we might consider the meat of any character is at best alluded to, but is certainly absent in any serious sense. The plot is mostly told to you via narration or character voice-overs, both while the audience is left viewing something akin to a holiday slideshow of the original show’s greatest hits. The action we actually get runs full sprint no matter what’s going on, and I can hardly imagine the effect on viewers completely unfamiliar with the material.
I would like to say that this is a pretty horrible movie, but there is a strong argument that this isn’t even a movie at all, except as some accident of technicality. There is as much of Aang in this film (and frankly, Noah Ringer is not performing well in any case) as there is in any child wearing an Aang costume. Aang has been referenced, but that’s as far as it goes. The same is true of every character in the film.
More importantly, there is no real sense of story to the thing at all, except perhaps in the sense of Ricky Gervais’ underrated The Invention of Lying, in which “movies” consist of filming a person reciting words at the viewers. All the fun and adventure of the original work is gone, as of course they would be in any synopsis. Summarizing a story is not telling it. The misunderstanding of this point is perhaps why Shyamalan continues to work.
All that said, youngsters who are fans of the show will probably still enjoy this to a degree, but even that fact is a negative statement about the film, because what they will enjoy is simply the existence of any sort homage to the original work, and that’s all this is. It is an artifact that can hardly be discussed in the language of film criticism, because it is simply so devoid of any of the requisite component parts. On the other hand, it is the coolest fan-made T-shirt the world has ever known.
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