MOVIE REVIEW The Last Airbender: Shyamalan flops again

Poor writing and acting plague the live action adaptation of an animated series

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Aang (Noah Ringer) and Katara (Nicole Peltz) master their waterbending skills.
—Paramount Pictures

The Last Airbender

Directed and written By
M. Night Shyamalan

Rating PG

Starring Noah Ringer,
Nicola Peltz

As fans of the animated series the movie is based on, and as human beings in general, watching The Last Airbender was a painful experience. Fans will mourn the film’s lack of resemblance to the original; everyone else will mourn the ghost of M. Night Shyamalan’s storytelling ability.

The story takes place in a world divided into four nations governed by the classical elements: water, earth, fire, and air. In these kingdoms, select individuals possess the power to manipulate, or bend, their respective elements through choreographed movements. To keep balance between the four nations, there exists one Avatar who has the ability to learn how to bend all four elements, and to serve as a bridge between the natural world and the spirit world. The plot follows a young avatar, Aang (Noah Ringer), who disappeared from his world for one-hundred years. One day, Aang and his 10-ton flying bison, Appa, are discovered frozen in the ice by the South Pole’s only water bender, Katara, and her warrior brother, Sokka. Aang quickly learns that the world has been set out of balance during his absence by the Fire Nation’s increasingly successful attempts to take over the world. The teenage trio quickly embark on a quest to fulfill Aang’s destiny and successfully lead revolts in the Earth Kingdom towns, which are occupied by the Fire Nation.

The acting quality ranged from mediocre to embarrassing. Aasif Mandvi as Admiral Zhao was notably bad, making each of his scenes painfully awkward. At one point he ended a scene with an overly dramatic “yes” that caused the theater to burst into laughter. It was almost skillful the way he turned a solemn scene into a humorous one, with a single syllable. Jackson Rathbone as Sokka and Seychelle Gabriel as Princess Yue gave surprisingly okay performances. Gabriel might have been the most skilled actor in the movie, although it was hard to tell because she was only given around four lines. Shaun Toub, as the wise Uncle Iroh, also did a fine job; his character might have been the only one whose personality carried over from the television series in any meaningful way. The rest of the acting was instantly forgettable. One can hardly blame the actors for this, though; the writing was amateurish and cringe-inducing. Far too much of the movie was narration, or narration thinly disguised as dialog. Much of the interaction between the main characters seemed robotic and unnatural, partly because the dialog was just awkward, but also because the character development was very poor.

It is truly a shame that Shyamalan didn’t borrow from the source material in his character development. In the pilot episode of the television show, the very first thing Aang says after being freed from the ice bubble is “Want to go penguin sledding with me?” We were introduced to Aang first as a person and later as the legendary Avatar. In the movie, however, Aang wakes up in a tent and is instantly anxious to leave the nation. The other two main characters follow him on a whim. None of the characters had a personality beyond their plot function. The worst case of this is Princess Yue, who has only a few lines before she sacrifices herself to save her nation at the climax of the movie. Based on the overdramatic music in this scene, we were probably supposed to care more when she died. Nope.

A large part of what made the animated series so memorable was the slew of minor characters the trio encounters on their journey. Every single episode had minor background characters, some appearing for minutes or even just seconds, who were very masterfully characterized. Who can forget the cabbage merchant (“my cabbages!”), or the crazy Avatar follower who was often seen foaming at the mouth and fainting in excitement, or the grumbling painter in Kyoshi Village? It made the Avatar world seem so real, it made you actually care about the oncoming downfall of their civilization. Shyamalan’s rendition of the Avatar world was sterile and faceless in comparison.

Shyamalan didn’t just neglect the loyal Avatar fans by ignoring every subtlety of the original series, he went a step further by actively finding new and creative ways to irk fans. We are loyal fans of the animated series, and were prepared for the writer/director to take some artistic freedom when making this movie. But the elements of the story Shyamalan changed or invented were consistently dumb. The firebenders in this movie couldn’t create fire, they could only manipulate existing fire. So why, when preparing for a war against the fire nation, don’t these villages put out their torches? There are torches and candles everywhere. Why don’t the fire nation warriors carry lighters? Even Pyro from XMen figured that out. It was implied that the climax of the third movie (yeah right) would come when the fire benders were all able to create their own fire, and would use this ability to destroy the other nations. It is an obvious plot hole that M. Night Shyamalan invented for no reason. How is it possible that the rules of this world were thought out better in an animated series on Nickelodeon than in a 280 million dollar movie? Furthermore, three of the main characters’ names were badly mispronounced, and even the word ‘Avatar’ was pronounced differently than it was in the show. While the new pronunciation might sound more natural to Chinese speakers, it was certainly jarring to us, having seen the original series. It is difficult to imagine what thought process lead to changing the pronunciation, but considering that Shyamalan wrote, directed, and produced the movie, the blame likely falls on him.

Despite the disappointing content, the visual aspects of the movie were almost spot on. The action sequences displayed the actors (especially Noah Ringer’s) outstanding command of martial arts, though the choreography was way overdone. It was disappointing that so few of the actors were of Asian descent (as the original series called for). However, good visual casting and well designed costumes resulted in characters that generally resembled their animated versions. The set design and animation were also strong positive factors for the film (especially Aang’s pets, Appa and Momo). However, the 3D version of the film added nothing, and the 10 million dollars spent on extra animation could have been spent on something more constructive, perhaps a better writer or acting coaches.

Before seeing this movie, we would recommend that fans of the original series be prepared for a little heartbreak. However, those who have never seen the animated version should be spared some of the jilting feelings the movie can induce and may enjoy the movie slightly more.