REVIEW: The Last Airbender

Film: The Last Airbender
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Writer: M. Night Shyamalan
Year: 2010

When I first heard about a live-action film version of one of my favorite television series (and yes, it’s animated) Avatar: The Last Airbender, I got chills that were, ahem, multiplying. As much as I am always initially skeptic about film versions of a television franchise because of exploitation, I was intrigued by the story challenge of fitting an entire twenty episode season (book) into a single film and especially the concept of a live-action flying Appa. I mean, if Peter Jackson can compress The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Rings into a single film, The Last Airbender director M. Night Shyamalan can definitely cram 600 minutes of glorious storytelling into a film slot.

After viewing the first teaser trailer in 2009 and finding out that the two Avatar creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko were involved, I was sold. Luckily, in my eyes, Shyamalan still had that last “free pass card” to prove me wrong that his lucky streak was definitely down the craphole. A few months ago, when casting was finalized, the “race-bending” controversy erupted when the film’s creators casted an entirely non-Asian cast (the Avatar television series’ backdrop is of Asian influenced environments and populated by Asian descendants, unique in American television). However, counteracting the controversy, a recast was announced making Prince Zuko along with many Fire Nation citizens (the bad guys) of Indian descent. Of course, this developed a new flame of controversy, proving that no one ever wins when casting in Hollywood.

Aside from the entire controversy behind the casting and the latest addition of 3D (post production 3D conversion is a no-no, via Clash of the Titans and Burton’s Alice in Wonderland), I was still intrigued and still excited to view the film. I trust the creative heads behind Airbender to entertain me for a good two hours.

Now the review. I leave the theatre two hours later with deep remorse and great disappointment. One minute into the film, I smiled because Shyamalan re-created the martial arts sequence based on the introduction of the series version. Then the slug lines appeared with Kitara’s voiceover, and when she mispronounced the word “Avatar” not once, but twice, I cringed, but as always with this film, I forgave it. And as the film progresses, I slowly but surely lost my patience until a point when I actually wanted to walk out and leave. It’s easy to blame Shyamalan for his mistake in highlighting the wrong entities and story lines based off the series, and so I blame him. I guess cramming 20 episodes into a feature film is impossible to create, but it seems as if Shyamalan did not even try. Many important characters were minimally mentioned or were not present in Airbender at all (like the Kyoshi warriors and Jet). Many vital story plots were thrown off the story table (like the Sozin’s comet prophecy and Aang’s sensitivity during the Avatar state). The main players were not even fully fleshed out as their television counterparts (Prince Zuko did not seem as viciously torn, Uncle Hiro did not have enough screen time to display his wisdom and love for tea, and Aang was plainly not Aang).

It is obvious to say that the film was rushed and too many creative forces (or not enough) dealt with this production. Airbender lacks the quirkiness and likability of characters and the epic features of the series. So what did fill in the two hours of Airbender – mispronunciations of everyone’s names, a unnecessary and short montage of Aang and Co. saving villages, Kitara’s voiceovers illustrating what could have been shown in film, excessive emphasis on the secret library and the spirit world. The reason why I loved the animated series is for it’s lovable three dimensional characters and arcs and for the epic story about adventure and saving the world. The reason I dislike the film is because contained nothing of what I liked about the series.

Concerning the actors, it wasn’t the color of their skin that I disapproved of, it was the entire casts lack of acting ability (except for Dev Patel’s spot on performance as Prince Zuko). Aside from Dev, the actors bluntly annoyed me because of their dry performance. Even the one-liner actors didn’t give their top notch performance. It is as if the entire cast and crew simply gave up during production, and what viewers are seeing in theatres today is a result of laziness and yes, exploitation. What could have been a wonderful film turned out to be the market-fueled film that made me skeptic about franchise movies to begin with.

I am definitely going to try my best to forget about this failure of a film and stick with my beloved animated series. I suggest you all do the same. And for the record, Shyamalan lost his last “free pass card” this week.

Adieu for now cool cats.

Sonny gives this film “1 Aang’s Airscooter” out of “5 Aang’s Airscooters”, a “D+”.


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