Review: The Last Airbender (2010)

I can accurately and completely review “The Last Airbender” by quoting to you my ten-year-old daughter’s own thoughts on the movie: “They messed up everything.”

The Last Airbender

She’s talking mostly about what she’s calling “nitpicks” – character names not being right, designs not entirely matching the original animated series, etc. – but the look on her face after seeing the movie suggests she means much, much more. “The Last Airbender” isn’t just a case of fans debating the translation from source material to big budget motion picture. It’s a case of, well, they messed up everything.

You probably know by now that “The Last Airbender” is M. Night Shyamalan’s attempt at bringing to the screen a live-action version of the animated Nickelodeon series “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” (Three guesses why they shortened the title.) And you probably know by now that Shyamalan has failed on a level new even to Shyamalan himself, a rare and unexpected achievement considering, well, every movie he’s ever made. (Yes, I’m one of those grumps who loathed “The Sixth Sense.”) So pardon me as I become a redundant voice in a sea of “what hath M. Night wrought?!”

What he hath wrought is a fantasy yarn that seems to be straining to have any sort of fun. Oh, you can see it right from the opening scene, when Katara (Nicola Peltz) accidentally drops a ball of water on brother Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), cue the “oh you” looks and music that’s this close to dropping in a “wah wah waaaaaaah” trumpet. Never mind the idiocy of having Sokka get drenched off screen, thus saving the effects department a couple grand. What we get in this moment is Shyamalan digging his elbow into our collective ribcage and asking us “did I get ’lighthearted’ right? Did I?” No, M. Night, you did not.

If you’ve seen the anime-gone-American cartoon series, you’re familiar with its buoyant attitude. Yes, it’s serious in all the right places, but it’s also lively and joyous and colorful, three things Shyamalan has never been able to grasp as a filmmaker. Audiences forgave his drabness when he was pushing plotless, mumbly thrillers our way, but now, after a string of flops, he’s attempting a new route: the glossy popcorn blockbuster.

He’s always said “Star Wars” was a major inspiration, but you’d never know it by the way he simply can’t work out how to make a movie enjoyable. He approaches “Airbender” with the same eye he used for his past six films, dousing the landscapes with bleak imagery, placing a visual emphasis on the moody and methodical. Fine, but what about when the plot calls for big battles and whiz-bang effects? Those need pep, a word Shyamalan never learned.

The filmmaker also never quite figured out how to deal with actors, so once again all natural dialogue is replaced by his trademark monotone readings and bored posturing. The cringe-inducing performances throughout (it’s tempting to call the three young leads Jake Lloyd-esque, although that wouldn’t be fair to Jake Lloyd; the grown-ups don’t fare much better) showcase awkward mid-phrase pauses and periods, like when a grade schooler is asked to read from a book in class and decides to take a full stop at the end of every line if text instead of every sentence. Or like when you’re hearing a badly dubbed foreign movie that has to pad the English dialogue with weird pauses and extra syllables to fit the mouth movement.

The big stink about the cast (to again risk repeating a common complaint against the film) is Shyamalan’s peculiar race choices. The cartoon is vague about the ethnicity of its characters but bends for the most part toward Asian and Inuit cultures. We get both here, as well as Indian – but never for the heroic leads, who are all white.

What would be just an eye-rolling piece of Hollywood whitewashing takes a disturbing turn as Shyamalan pretty much color codes the entire picture: white is for heroes and any other nice person with a speaking part, yellow is for helpless innocents who don’t get any dialogue, brown is for bad guys. It’s pretty foul for a movie to pan its camera across seas of unnamed Inuit extras before settling on a white actress who gets the honor of moving the plot forward.

Worse, Shyamalan’s casting choices for the baddies aren’t just weak because of the race angle – they’re weak because they’re just bad choices. Dev Patel, the hero of “Slumdog Millionaire,” is given the role of the enigmatic Prince Zuko. (It’s a complex role the script manages to dilute to one-note tedium.) Patel is too non-threatening to tackle what’s supposed to be a brooder with unclear motivations, but at least he’s better than Aasif Mandvi, who plays a conniving villain about as well as you’d expect from a “Daily Show” correspondent. (I hear Wyatt Cenac will take over for the sequel.)

Ah, but what about the story? Shyamalan’s script (it’s unclear why the filmmaker was granted a “written by” credit for an adaptation) attempts to compress twenty episodes of the series’ first season into a 103 minute film, so expect lots of plot holes and a couple cornball montages along the way.

The premise: in a world where four separate tribes can each control one element – earth, air, fire, water – through mystical “bending” powers, the Fire Nation has waged war on the rest, having already wiped out the Air Nation. Katara and Sokka discover a young boy named Aang (Noah Ringer), who’s revealed to be the Avatar, a mystical being able to bend all four elements. The trio set out to unite the nations against the Fire baddies while also completing Aang’s training.

It’s not impossible to compress a vast story such as this into a single movie, but nobody really tries. The screenplay plows through plot points while tripping over itself, tossing out hurried exposition in hopes of filling in all the gaps. This leaves the film with an urgent sense of connecting all the dots but no concern in how they connect. Or, to steal a favorite phrase from Roger Ebert, he knows the notes but not the music.

The story is a mystical journey treated with all the gentleness of a stampeding buffalo. The plot finally settles down and finds a direction when the villains decide to destroy a god-like spirit; there’s no awe to these scenes, just a determined steamroller of a story eager to wrap things up as quickly as possible, pausing only long enough to set up the inevitable sequel. (Remember when Hollywood used to wait to see if we wanted a part two before planning it?)

Even the action is unimaginative and lifeless, a series of mediocre martial arts moves surrounded by mid-level CG effects. This is a land where the elements can be made to fly and swirl and shake and do any number of otherworldly things, and Shyamalan somehow manages to get us checking our watches.

I let my daughter have the first word here, and I’ll let her have the last. Upon hearing every single character name pronounced incorrectly throughout the film (Aang rhymes with “hang,” but the actors rhyme it with “gong”), she crossed her arms and stared at the screen with a grimace – something I’ve never seen her do during a movie, so you know something’s gone sour. Afterward, she told me “the people who made the movie obviously never watched the show,” then wondered why they couldn’t bother doing their homework.

I dunno. Perhaps Shyamalan wanted to preserve his standing as an auteur with a singular vision, although why you’d be all stuck up about an auteur vision while agreeing to an adaptation of popular material, I can’t comprehend. Maybe he’s just stubbornly adding useless changes. Maybe he’s too lazy to correct anybody. (He’s certainly too lazy to ask for better line reads.)

Whatever the excuse, it’s obvious: they messed up everything.

You can read a discussion of the film’s controversial 3D conversion here.

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13 thoughts on “Review: The Last Airbender (2010)

  1. elle says:

    Hear hear. Well said!

  2. lewis says:

    Hi,
    I agree with your daughter I am 17 years old and I am addicted to the cartoon ^^;. Everything was messed up the names not pronounces properly and they missed out the best bits. Such as meeting the kyoshi warriors. And the amazing battle katara has between Master Pakku. That was one of the best scenes about the animated series and M. Night Shyamalan has ruined the movie. I have heard the sequel (if there is one) will be darker, and if this is sequel happens hopefully it will have loads more action and the best scenes.

  3. Eliz says:

    Oh dear! Thank you so much for saving me from going to see this film. I’d rather not hear them butcher their names.

  4. ray says:

    tell ur daughter, “no no, it’s not they, it’s him. HE messed up everything (M. Night).”

  5. Vi says:

    No. You’re daughter was right when she said “they”. M. Night’s a great fall guy and he deserves it but the studio should take just as much blame in this travesty.

  6. Dj says:

    It may surprise you, but the names are technically being pronounced correctly. Asian names have a funny way of being pronounced; for example, ‘X’ makes a sh sound like in shoot. The cartoon is technically wrong in pronouncing the names.

    • David Cornelius says:

      Except many of the character names are inventions of the show’s creators, who get to choose how to pronounce them. (And even those they didn’t? Creator prerogative – they made up the characters themselves.) You don’t tell George Lucas, “no, George, it’s pronounced ‘Yoo-day’, not ‘Yo-duh’.” What Shyamalan and his cast are doing here is displaying either careless ignorance or stubbornness.

    • Paul says:

      Asian according to what language, DJ? You realize “Asian” isn’t a language right? And if Shyamalan really wanted to respect the “Asian” aspect of the story, maybe he should’ve cast Asians in the main roles.

  7. joel byle says:

    @dj:

    you can’t have it both ways. shamesalot claims he casted in a colorblind manner and that the cartoon is a “fantasy world” that allows him the creative freedom to do it. in other words, he gets to cast caucasian people as the lead heroes… and somehow all the background “colorblind” cast as specifically a particular ethnicity; yet you accept that he’s trying to pronounce the asian names correctly while denying that the characters and fantasy world are asian?.

  8. happy says:

    i don’t know what is your problems but in my eyes the acting of dev patel as a prince zuko was awesome. i meant, whew, i cannot believe he could do that ^ ^but the different characters we get in the scripts can improve or increase our talent or ability to do our best ^ ^. maybe you are dev patel’s fans ^ ^so you couldn’t accepted him in his new role in the last airbender movie.
    according to me, the last airbender is the genius as a result from genius mind ^ ^ it is awesome. he could choose the actors and the actresses well and the are awesome. excellent movie i ever watched!!!!^^

  9. happy says:

    oh yeah, actually i also want to see the battle between katara and master pakku and the romantic scene between aang and katara but i thougt after watched the movie, it wasnot bad even some bits in the animation couldnot presented in the movie scenes, because i could felt the emotion and the life in this movie and the actors and actresses played excellent ^ ^. it is okay mr.Shyamalan, just make the critics be the greatest things to rise your idea to make the another best one. i cannot wait your sequel ^ ^.

  10. hated this movie says:

    You know what the sad part is? M. Night decided to make this movie because he sat down with his kids and watched the show and fell in love with it. That just makes everything worse.

    • Charles Cortes says:

      It acutally does make everything much much worst. Especially since he watched the show! I mean cmon…he didn’t just ruin the names. He ruined the plot, made the characters themselves look stupid and all future if fans that saw the movie first go away from it in a heartbeat. <,< Earthbenders couldn't get out because they were ON A METAL SHIP. Uhm he got the scene right scept…METAL SHIP…which idk…its a metal ship…PRETTY IMPORTANT?! Cmon Fire benders at the end shouting horay for the Avatar that hes back…NO. :'( Age 17 when I saw this movie…watched every episode…this movie might just be a career ender if his boss saw the show.

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