The Last Airbender
Rated: PG :: Released: 01 July 2010
Director: M. Night Shyamalan :: Starring: Noah Ringer, Nicola Peltz, and Jackson Rathbone
By James D. Deaux IV
10 December 2010 You may be wondering why I'm writing a Tranquil Tirades review when I haven't written one in almost two years, and just a week after the launch of the new Tirades podcast. Let's just say that every once in a while there may come a movie that I simply have to tackle alone because of the colossal level of disdain that it educed in me. It would have to be a movie that actually offends me on such a personal level that I do not feel my podcasting partners could fully comprehend it. Boy howdy, did I ever find such a movie! I have made it no secret that I am a huge fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender. I've watched the entire series in a five-day span on two separate occasions, and I know virtually everything there is to know about it. The main reason it was such a brilliant show was because its characters are among the most enjoyable and well developed you will ever find in animated media. Every major character good and evil had definitive motivations and backgrounds, and was given tons of screen time over the three magnificent seasons to develop and become an even deeper and more complex person. Thus, when I found out there would be a live-action movie made about the series, I was immediately skeptical about how it could possibly be pulled off, and even come close to doing the series justice.
If I were doing a Tranquil Tirades podcast covering this movie, I would have been keeping a "facepalm count" as I spoke about it, because it seemed like I was bashing my head into my desk every two minutes. The movie was written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, whose directing résumé on the whole is crappy at best, and an utter joke at worst. Naturally, when I heard his name attached to the Airbender movie project, my mood went from nervous to complete horror. My immediate thought was, "So, are we going to find out in the last two minutes that Aang's father was Appa all along, and Katara and Zuko were long-lost twins separated at birth?" Shyamalan simply lacks the ability to construct a coherent plot that actually leads to a cohesive ending without tons of needless questions. (Though he will tell you that it's all some metaphysical or spiritual journey, and that you are simply unable to understand his artistry. Or some garbage like that.) Why he was chosen to direct this, I will never understand. No matter who would have directed this, though, the bottom line is there was absolutely no reason for this movie to have been made. We are talking about a series that spans over 60 episodes and contains dozens upon dozens of multifaceted characters. There is simply no feasible way you can give everyone adequate screen time to flesh out their unique quirks and motivations in a (according to the DVD case) 103-minute movie. (Though, honestly, looking at the counter on my DVD player, I am pretty sure this thing barely scratched 90 minutes.) It's nigh unto impossible. And sure enough, every conceivable problem one would expect to happen in translating the cartoon to a live-action movie happened.
Most notably amongst all of this film's many problems is that the entire movie suffered from too much exposition. Every scene felt like I was watching actors read from cue cards or Teleprompters. Character voiceovers would take the place of actual on-screen plot development, and instead of seeing what these people were doing, we got a narrative explaining what they were going to do. Even worse, in a couple instances, the characters actually are shown doing the opposite of what the narrative said they would be doing. One of these narratives actually states that the heroes Aang, Katara, and Sokka spend over two weeks at the Northern Water Tribe city and that Sokka becomes very good friends with Princess Yue of the Tribe. Is the audience supposed to care about this utterly forced romance that was given literally less than two minutes of screen time to develop? In the show, their romance is implied, but is complicated by a predetermined marriage, Yue's responsibilities to the Tribe, and Sokka's duty to protect Aang. Did we get any of that here? Ha. Surely you jest. Really, though, those are all just microcosms in one of the most putrid scripts I've ever witnessed unfold on screen. Princess Yue is an absolute bastion of cheesy, ham-fisted dialog: "We have to show them that we believe in our beliefs as much as they believe in theirs." What the hell does that even mean? Then at one point later on, Aang asks verbatim (in the middle of a massive Fire Nation assault, no less), "Is there a spiritual place to meditate?" I would have said that was the worst line in the movie, except that good ol' Princess Yue immediately replies, "Yes, we have a very spiritual place."
"And the Razzie Award for worst screenplay goes to... M. Night Shyamalan. Congratulations, Mr. Shyamalan. You're becoming a fixture of our fine awards presentation. You must be very proud."
The root of my apprehension with the entire idea of an Airbender movie was that it would have to remove important elements from the series whether they were people, places, or things. Sure enough, my fears were realized a hundredfold. Characters that were important to the mythos were either left out of it entirely (still looking for you, Suki and King Bumi), or if they were included, their live-action counterparts were given very little screen time. Moreover, when we get to critical junctures from the series, they are rushed, allowing no time for them to be absorbed. For instance, when Aang discovers the skeletal remains of his people, they quickly move on to the next scene. This is far from the only example, though. Literally every single scene in this movie is rushed through, and is given minimal effort from everyone involved. The heroes seem to aimlessly come up with plans of action and solutions to problems out of thin air. This leads me to my next problem: the heroes' main plan of action once they free the Earthbender village. (I feel it necessary to note that these Earthbenders are imprisoned around nothing but rock and mud. How, exactly, are the Fire Nation troops keeping these people prisoner?) Katara, Sokka, and Aang decide to set out and tour the countryside, fighting Fire Nation soldiers at every turn, and generally just letting people know that the Avatar is back in town. In the cartoon, the heroes go out of their way to keep a low profile so as not to let the Fire Nation know where they are. If the Fire Nation knew where they were, it would put not only themselves in danger, but the innocent people they come in contact with. But no, Shyamalan felt that it would be best to turn these three into a teenybopper trio and run around the world being as blatantly conspicuous as possible. Nothing like letting your enemies know exactly where you are at every step, right?
Just as they removed important elements from the cartoon, they added in things that really weren't necessary most notably, the Blue Spirit. Spoiler alert, for those of you who haven't seen the cartoon: Prince Zuko masquerades as an outlaw known as the Blue Spirit by night in various episodes throughout the first two seasons. It's a cool subplot that adds to Zuko's character depth in the cartoon, but in this movie it was totally unnecessary. The time they spent on the Blue Spirit stuff should have been applied to planting the seeds for Zuko's eventual hero turn, because they barely scratched the surface of his psyche. Then, at one point late in the movie, Aang and Zuko have a fight at the Northern Water Tribe city, and out of nowhere Aang says, "We could be friends," and runs off. I will repeat that. Zuko just tried to kick the crap out of this little kid for several minutes, and Aang arbitrarily offers up the possibility that they can become buddies before scuttling away. Before you ask, yes, this is an exchange that happens in the cartoon. However, in the cartoon, it occurs after numerous meetings between Zuko and Aang, and after the show had definitively established that deep down, Zuko is not a bad person: he's a prisoner of his inner turmoil. What it boils down to is, in the cartoon, Aang says it at the perfect time when it hits at Zuko's fragile mental state and where it means a lot. In the movie, he says it at a point where it makes absolutely no sense at all. (While I'm on Zuko, can someone explain to the makeup artists that a third-degree burn looks worse than a trio of moderately visible scratch marks and a bad haircut?) Another thing they threw in there that was completely pointless and wasted tons of time was Aang's constant trouble at learning Waterbending. Aang had difficulty learning Earthbending in the cartoon because it was his natural opposite element. He never had a problem learning Waterbending. In fact, Katara was the one who struggled with it at first in the cartoon, and Aang actually learned it quicker than her because it was so similar to his Airbending motions. But neither of these things can hold a candle to the idiotic plot device of the monk who came out of nowhere and betrayed Aang to the Fire Nation for literally no reason. Thankfully, neither this scene nor character were ever in the cartoon. Frankly, they couldn't have been in the cartoon because I'm thankful to say there was never anything as egregiously moronic as this in the show's entire run.
Of course, my biggest problems with the entire movie were the unmitigated butchering of characters and the pronunciation of their names. Let's start with Sokka. His name is mispronounced by everyone. (Is "Soak-uh" a high-powered, pump-action water gun from Boston?) More importantly, though, they completely remove one of his defining characteristics from the cartoon: his sense of humor. Sokka is my favorite character in the cartoon because, while he is unwavering in his drive to save the world and protect those he loves, he's also the witty comedy relief. That sarcasm is needed quite a bit, because the cartoon gets very dark at times. Hell, they practically dedicate an episode of the third season to how much his personality means to the group. In this movie, he's like a monotone drill sergeant. And the less said about Jackson Rathbone's acting, the better. Next on my lengthy list of "Who got ruined the worst?" is Fire Lord Ozai. All you need to know about Ozai is that he is the ultimate evil in the Avatar: The Last Airbender universe. He essentially torches his own son's face just for speaking out of turn. Plus, he was voiced by Mark Hamill, which only added to his sinister aura. In the movie, he's reduced to a parody of a parody of the original Ozai. On the intimidating scale, the film version of this guy ranks somewhere between a box of Tic Tacs and a Beanie Baby. Nothing he does or says has any kind of menace behind it in the slightest. If this were the cartoon, the very second that Admiral Zhao came to him to tell him about how he lost Aang, Ozai would have barbecued Zhao on the spot, yawned, and continued reading the sports section. Instead, Zhao tells him of his epic failure and they cut to the next scene; there was no transition or any potential punishment handed down, just a cut to the heroes. Speaking of Zhao and Ozai's multiple discourses, how is it that Zhao keeps travelling between the Fire Nation palace and the battlefields so quickly? Geographically speaking, those two places are probably thousands of miles apart, and Zhao (like all Firebenders, apparently) travels solely by warship. How much time is taking place between these scenes? Months? One last note about the Firebenders: despite what Shyamalan wrote, they can create their own fire. I do not know where this nonsense about Sozin's Comet simply allowing Firebenders to create their own fire came from, but it's absurd.
Before I wrap this up, I might as well speak about the title character himself, since he's bungled as much as anyone here. Aang (pronounced "Ahng" in the movie) is a great character because he is, like most others in the cartoon, very multifaceted. He's essentially 12 years old and was told he had to save the world. Imagine the weight of that. He never wanted to be the Avatar, but it was predestined. Despite that, he has great exuberance and interacts wonderfully with Sokka and Katara all throughout the series. He's also very mischievous in an innocent way. It's one of the many things that makes him so endearing over the course of the show, especially in the first season. In this god-awful movie, forget it. Gone are his childlike liveliness and mischief-making. In their place, they took those lovable traits away and made him a rigid, soulless, boring shell of the character I adore so dearly. There is not one single thing that is enjoyable about his characterization here; Noah Ringer looks the part, but that's about it. Finally, there's Katara, who in the cartoon is a warm, motherly character that personifies bravery and compassion. Here? She's absolutely useless. She makes no discernable contribution to this movie that I could determine; basically she just stands around in the background a lot and looks nervous throughout most of this thing. I am scared nearly to death to think about what they are going to do to Toph when they introduce her in the next movie.
I remain nauseous even several days after seeing this pile of excrement because I fear that there are thousands of children out there who have never seen the cartoon and have only watched this. Thus, they have not been exposed to the brilliance that radiates from Avatar: The Last Airbender, and they have been poisoned by watching this hideous cinematic eyesore. This movie felt less like an adaptation and more like a ludicrously hurried 90-minute prologue to the second season of the cartoon, which is odd because they needlessly used elements from said season here. Even if The Last Airbender wasn't an adaptation, it should still be considered an absolute embarrassment. The script is an abysmal collection of mini-narratives and cheesy lines spoken by people whose performances are, at best, pedestrian, and, at worst, outright dreadful. The special effects, which, knowing M. Night Shyamalan, were likely his main focus, were far from impressive and were really just distractingly silly most of the time. And the pacing of the movie is so ridiculous that you actually forget what is going on from scene to scene because the aforementioned characters are altogether uninteresting and lack any depth at all. Given the widespread critical bashing this thing has received, I truly hope that they do not go on to make two sequels. They would only serve to denigrate the source material even further, and bastardize one of the greatest plots of any cartoon in television history. (And they would doubtless continue to pronounce the word "Avatar" as "Ah-vatar.") Shyamalan and Nickelodeon Studios should be ashamed of themselves for churning out whatever the hell this thing was.
Grade: 3 / 100 Watch the cartoon all the way through. Then watch it again. Skip this utter abortion of a movie and pretend it never happened. I sure wish I could.