MOVIE REVIEW: M. Night Shyamalan’s
“Avatar: The Last Airbender”
One of the big movies I was excited to see this summer was the live-action adaptation of the first book of Nickelodeon’s surprisingly amazing animated series, “Avatar: The Last Airbender”. Then I saw the trailer and read the reviews. And then I didn’t go see it. For the $10+ each in modern movie ticket fees, there was no way I was gonna blow $20+ to see this with Jen. But $1 through RedBox? I figured it was probably worth that. And as usual, I was wrong.
In general, I’m wary about episodic series being turned into movies. It rarely if ever works out well. But such loving care went into crafting the TV series and ensuring that it wasn’t complete and released until it was absolutely perfect that I had some hope that the same amount of thought and consideration would go into the live-action version of the story. Considering that this movie was made by the director of such big ‘hits’ as “The Village” and “Lady in the Water”, I should have known that my hope was totally unfounded.
What the great M. Night Shyamalan has managed to do here is take a beloved a story and strip away all of the personality, joy, and energy from it. The direction Shyamalan was seeking with his adaptation was to create something mystical, serious, and devoid of lightness and fun. In short, what M. Night Shyamalan liked about this story was the plot and Asian-influencing, and that seems to be pretty much it. What’s left is a hollow shell of the source material comprised of the same basic plot, wooden acting, some so-so special effects and shallow caricatures of the main characters.
Is it really all that bad?
Is it just a bad adaptation, or a bad movie in general?
*Sigh* As a movie in general, this is passable. Not good, but passable. And I mean that. It’s certainly watchable, though I did get bored during it and zone out on several occasions. What you’re watching here is essentially a highly-compressed plot version of 8 hours of storytelling in an hour and a half, so there’s plenty of material to absorb if you’re so inclined. What makes it truly terrible is the perversion of the source material. The plot itself is good enough, but what really lit up the original series was the humor, the action, and especially the intricacies and personalities of the characters. By stripping those away, Shyamalan stripped away the greatness and charm of the work as well.
Can you give an example of how the characters have been ruined?
Most definitely. One of the main characters, the teenage Water Tribe strategist and warrior Sokka, is the funniest and most irreverent character in the animated series. He’s always off-the-wall hilarious, while at the same time being the smartest and most cunning of the group. Despite having no supernatural bending abilities and using a boomerang as his main weapon, he’s absolutely essential to the group. In Shyamalan’s version, Sokka (who Shyamalan decided to have pronounced ‘SOAK-UH’ for some reason) is the ultimate hard-ass straight-man. He delivers his lines with ferocity and intent, and holds a permanently dour facial expression as if he were carved out of stone. I can’t compare his humor to the animated version’s, because the actor never breaks a smile much less tells a joke. And oh yeah–he does have a boomerang, but he literally only uses it as a bludgeoning weapon that he can hit people with. Yeah, whatever, M. Night Shyamalan.This movie poster is actually way more interesting than the actual movie.
What about the shamed prince, Zuko? There’s no way to ruin Prince Zuko!
It’s near impossible to ruin a rich character like Zuko, but Shyamalan comes damn close. In this version of the story, I’m never given the chance to hate Prince Zuko. He’s neither physically repulsive nor angry or unlikable. His horrible burn scar on his face is unremarkable and uninteresting, and really doesn’t strike me as the horrible, traumatic mark of shame it was in the animated series. Worse, Zuko comes off as being nearly heroic in this movie, as he never seems to really want to hurt the Avatar, and his actions as the Blue Spirit where he risks his life to save Aang are rushed and inexplicable. Zuko really doesn’t seem like the desperation-driven, crazed villain here that he should be in Book 1. His path to redemption in Books 2 and 3 is going to be pretty dull, since he really doesn’t even seem like a bad guy at his worst right here. Hell, at the end of the movie Aang saves Zuko’s life and exclaims “We could be friends!” Man, there’s some tension between hated rivals there, right?
You said the special effects are only so-so. Exactly how badly done are the various types of bending?
Okay, let me summarize the worst action scene in the whole movie. In a Fire Detention Camp, a group of Earthbenders decide to revolt and assist the Avatar. We see six Earthbenders dancing around going through a sequence of elaborate martial arts motions. Then the camera pans and we see a small rock slowly float by, and yet another Earthbender has to flail in order to shoot the rock at the Firebenders. Well, shit! No wonder the Fire Nation is conquering all the other nations! They’re a total joke!
In the time the Earthbenders take to coordinate and use even one Earthbender attack, the Fire Nation soldiers should be able to run over and physically beat the crap out of them. And the Firebenders may have to physically beat up the Earthbenders, because in M. Night Shyamalan’s version of the story, Firebenders can’t create fire, they can only manipulate it! (Think Pyro in X2: X-Men United.) So unless the Firebenders bring fire-carrying machines with them or run across a room full of torches or whatever, they’re totally useless. It doesn’t matter much, though, as even when they do use Firebending attacks, they’re largely ineffective and unimpressive and rarely (if ever) seem to hit anyone.
And why should the Waterbenders be left out?? While the special effects for the waterbending are probably the best of the four types of bending, the water still looks totally fake and CG to me. And while the waterbenders appear to be at least somewhat competent in their abilities while practicing and training the Avatar, when the Fire Nation attacks the city, they inexplicably spend 90% of the fight attacking with hand-to-hand attacks.
Yeah, but Aang is at least good at bending, right?
Haha, no. Even the all-powerful Avatar doesn’t seem to be very good with bending. In order to make a little whirlwind appear, he has to jump around and do a five-second long dance. We don’t see him do any Earth- or Fire-bending, and his Water-bending is only impressive at the movie’s climax, although the characters seem a lot more impressed with what he does than I am by the technical aspects of what I saw.
What about all the great secondary characters like Suki and Bumi? Does the movie handle them well?
M. Night Shyamalan: “Side characters…? Screw side characters.”
To be fair, including all of the rich, exciting ancillary characters from Book 1 of Avatar would have been an extremely difficult task. So M. Night Shyamalan handled it in the most predictable way: excluding every trace and/or mention of any characters that aren’t absolutely crucial to the plot–and then even some who are.
It seems that Sokka isn’t fated to end up romantically with the Kyoshi Warrior Suki in this version of the story, as neither Suki nor the Kyoshi Warriors are mentioned or incorporated into this movie in any way.
King Bumi? The fan-favorite crazed Earthbending King doesn’t exist in this version of the story, so we don’t see any Earthbenders who are even partially competent in this first movie.
Guerilla-fighter Jet and his band of rebels? Nope, they don’t exist either.
Firebending teacher Jeong Jeong? Not a chance. Aang never attempts to firebend in this movie, which is definitely going to complicate the story later on when Aang should be getting over his fear of firebending due to his earlier failure at it (which never happens in this version).
So what *did* you like about the movie?
There’s a hilariously bad deleted scene with a fortuneteller that I enjoyed about a million times more than what was actually in the movie. It was pretty stupid, but I actually felt like there was some emotion and fun in that scene, something I didn’t feel anywhere else in the movie.
The casting in general was poor, but I thought the choice for Aang was good. He looked and voiced the part well, and hopefully he’ll get a chance to show a bit more personality in the sequel.
In addition, I thought Appa and Momo both looked pretty good. They didn’t get much screen time or any development, but I really thought they were going to look terrible and was surprised.
Overall: M. Night Shyamalan has drained out every last drop of life and energy that made the characters seem like actual people the audience could care about, leaving only lifeless marionettes left to wander on screen. As a movie left to its own merits, “The Last Airbender” is remarkably mediocre. But as an adaptation of one of the most beloved animated series of the past decade, it is a spectacular disappointment. If someone offers to lend you their copy for free and you’re interested it’s worth watching, but certainly not for money.