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.