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Movie Review: The Last Airbender

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Before I tear this movie down a bit, I want to clear the air. Everyone at my house is a big fan of the Avatar: The Last Airbender animated series that aired on NickToons. The combination of philosophy, growth, humor, and adventure made it a favorite of ours. So when I heard that M. Night Shyamalan was going to be making it into a live-action film, I started to get a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach.

Evidently I should have listened to the reviews and my gut because The Last Airbender simply wasn't as good as it should have been. When you start with an amazing story and end up with something lackluster, something's wrong. And yet, somehow, it's already made almost $80 million dollars at the box office according to Box Office Mojo. Will it make back its $150 million budget? Probably… Should we let M. Night do a sequel? Um, no.

The Last Airbender is the story of Aang (Noah Ringer) – the last of the Air Nomads lost in the ice for 100 years – and his journey to save his world from a war that started while he was frozen. When Aang is discovered by Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), they head out into the world to give the people hope for a future and a way out of the ongoing war.

The world has a few individuals born with the power to control a particular element – fire, earth, water, or air. These people are called "Benders". Each Bender uses martial arts and willpower to direct an element to do their bidding. And Aang is unique as the last Avatar – an individual capable of "bending" water, earth, fire, and water as well as interacting with the Spirit world.

The Fire Nation, led by Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis), seeks to banish the old peaceful ways of the Nations working together and embrace an industrial world by enslaving or destroying the other nations and forcing his vision of the future upon them. His son, Prince Zuko (Dev Patel), seeks to regain the honor lost as a child. If he could find the Avatar and return him to his father, his honor would be restored…

So as Aang comes to grips with the changes while he was gone and his being the Avatar, he's being chased by the Fire Nation at every turn. Eventually Aang, Katara, and Sokka find their way to the Northern Water Tribe so that Aang can learn how to waterbend.

I'm not going to go into great detail about the original series, but instead will focus on a few key items that led me to not enjoy this film as much as I would have liked.

First, there's the last minute decision to go 3D. This is a hot button for me. If you're using 3D – Use 3D! I don't remember a single 3D effect from the film. I remember them from the trailers before the film though… so why did I blow the extra $$ per ticket?

Second, Uncle Iroh in the series is a larger-than-life character with a great deal of humor. Shaun Toub, though a fine actor I'm sure, didn't fit the role at all for me. Iroh should be round and jolly and Toub's version is tall, skinny, and serious though polite.

Third, and last for me, If you're going to reinvent a property, whether it comes from a book, TV series, or earlier film, you have to do something with it. What do I mean by that? It can't simply be a rehash of the earlier work.

For some reason, the script for The Last Airbender felt like they compressed a season of the cartoon into a stack of paper, stripped the humor and humanity out of it, and regurgitated it on the screen. You can have the most amazing actors ever and still have a horrible movie if the script stinks (not saying that's the case here, but it mitigated my dislike for the quality of acting in the movie a bit).

You really need to rethink the original property and present it in a new, interesting way so that it's faithful to the source material and yet has something unique to offer in addition. The Last Airbender managed to be boring for me because I already knew what was going to happen. You can put as many great special effects into a film as you want, but they won't save it if the movie doesn't connect with audiences.

One brief note about the effects. I thought the effects used for "bending" water, fire, earth, and air were very cool. The flying lemur was either underused or simply uninteresting, I couldn't tell which. And the flying buffalo really only had one interesting scene in the whole film and it was in the first 10 minutes when its tail trapped Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) on the ice.

I still contend that the soundtrack was awesome from James Newton Howard (reviewed here). But it got buried in the film by the lack of anything interesting happening on screen.

So I walked out underwhelmed and really wanting to watch all of the episodes of the cartoon series again. That never bodes well for a movie based on an existing property. Sorry M. Night, but your string of boring movies remains intact.

If you have a couple of hours to kill and your kids are clamoring to see it, by all means take them. But The Last Airbender may just provide you the opportunity for a two-hour nap.

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About Fitz

Fitz is a software engineer and writer who lives in Colorado Springs, CO, with his family and pets, trying to survive the chaos!
  • allicoates

    I took my son to see it and I liked it. I would very much like to see the next two movies and I would like it if M. Night Shyamalan wrote the screen plays. I loved the boy that played the main character. I wasn’t the least bit disappointed. I don’t understand what all the fuss is about. I came to the internet to find out more about the animated series and was shocked to see how much the critics hate the movie.

  • @allicoates – I didn’t hate it, but I was extremely disappointed with some of the very safe choices that were made during the filmmaking process. I’m glad that you and other folks enjoyed it because maybe they’ll make changes to the next two to improve it. 🙂

  • Adrian Castillo

    I personally think this is the greatest review of this movie I’ve ever read. This movie had no humor little action and a horrible script. If you enjoyed this movie Its probably because you have either never seen the animated series or are just entertained by everything flashy with crazy graphics. The reason why so many critics hate this movie is because the whole entire movie is a bunch of cut up pieces of the animated series if u have never seen the animated series then this movie will obviously be great to you. If I went to go see this movie and never saw the animated series I would be so confused about what I just saw. I love the animated series so much because it has the action/adventure story and it pulls you into the character Aangs destiny. If u have seen the movie I would recommend that you watch the entire series then compare that to the movie. The last Air bender was the biggest let down to me. I truly hope that M. Night does not make a sequel. We should leave it at that. If u really want to enjoy a great story about a twelve year old child destined for greatness then watch the animated series because the movie literally had no connection to the animated series except the characters had the same names.

  • JCOL

    Good review. Sokka as depicted in the movie was god awful! In the tv show he is the comic relief, but in the movie he is a whiny &#*@#. M Knight have to change the pronunciation of Aang and Sokka? 90% of the movie was dancing! I can appreciate wanting to really show them practicing the forms… but at least have elemental bending involved! Could M Knight not have made Aang move a normal speed and the rest of the actors move slowly while filming so they could have sped it up to make Aang look like he was moving fast in the cartoons?! He looked like a 10yr old kid running, not at all like the tv show. Also you forgot to mention the biggest disappointed for me. Where was the massive fish spirit that takes over Aang’s body when his mate dies and destroys the Fire Nation fleet?!! The wave would have been cool…. if it would have done something! And the soundtrack was good up until the wave. The wave looked soooo epic and the music that was in the background was not at all…

  • Liz

    I for one kinda hate it. I knew the movie was going to get bad reviews but I wanted to give this movie a chance so I went with a friend who hasn’t seen the movie or the original animated series. Naturally, she loved the movie and I ended up hating it…I felt empty. Alot of keys scenes were cut off and the casting was just plain horrible! I mean Sokka and Katara are okay but the fire benders were supposed to be Asian as the show has a strong Asian influence (it was afterall a Korean cartoon that had both Korean and Chinese influence with the clothing, the culture and surroundings of the characters, and the different styles of martial arts) I hated the way they pronouneced some of the names in the movie including the word “avatar”. Princess Yue…..well her haired looked horrible like she just took a spray can and sprayed her hair to try and make it look white. Another thing that disappointed me was that they never showed the Kiyoshi warriors as they played a big role in the first season (seeing as how Sokka future girlfriend Suki was the leader of the Kiyoshi warriors) To me the movie didn’t feel long and the fact that the director tried to fit the whole first seaon into one movie was a horibble attempt.

  • Boofey

    I was disappointed in the movie. The thing that bugged me the most was the mispronounciation of the names of several characters including but not limited to the main character. You have to get the main character’s name right. Most of the kids sitting around me cringed every time they called Aang (Aing) Ong. It was really annoying. The 3D effects were okay, but not that spectacular. I have watched all the seasons of the cartoon and was so looking forward to the movie, it left me wishing I had never gone to watch it. I kept comparing it to the cartoon and found it to be lacking in the feeling I get when watching the cartoon. I hope if they do the other chapters in the life of Aang, that they do a better job than they did with this one.

  • AirBenderQua

    I hoped this movie would be at least decent but in the end i found myself thinking WTH. There was not much emotion to me in the movie everything seemed……..dead… The bending forms were decent but the actual timing of the bending effects were xtremely slow and that totally threw the rest of the movie off. Story wise blah I was bored. The actors were eh point blank this movie needs to be shredded and forgotten and if they were to do another; M should not touch it. If they are gonna do a avatar movie they should give some thought to taking it a bit more seriously as well as the characters who are comic relief should remain that way its creepy any other way. 0-10 for my taste

  • ZoozatheBink


    Well, I rather liked the film, and have seen all three seasons- and have read fanfiction, etc too. 😛

    I think it was rushed, and could have been about 30 minutes longer. I also think there were a few staging errors, and some lines were clunky- particularly those dealing with introduction/exposition. The film also started off on shaky footing, but got better and better throughout. The first scene with Iroh and Zuko and Aang all on the Fire Nation ship together is where I really started falling into the story- and that has a lot to do with Uncle Iroh’s actor, who did an excellent job with the role, in my opinion.

    The sets, the CGI, all the visuals were stunning. The martial arts was excellent. The acting was generally good, though the focus was mainly on Zuko and Aang, and due to the quick pace gave very little for Katara and Sokka to to in this film- other than exist, and be introduced for the following films.

    I find the criticism of Sokka to be completely overboard- the guy had like five lines. I think they tried very hard to please fans in that they kept to the major plot points of the first season- the ones that grew Aang’s and Zuko’s characters (the central characters, and the ones who arguably change the most through the course of the series) the most.

    I know things were cut, characters have been altered here and there- most noticeably Zhao, in my opinion. There are ideas present in the series that are presented quite differently in a few cases. “Re-imagined” if you will. But too often people focus on the changes and not on the fact that the core story, the characters, the major themes- and the beautiful scenery, the eye catching quality the original series possessed- have all been, in my view, admirably preserved, and sometimes amplified.

    So…generally comments about this film are overly harsh. It’s a very entertaining film, and one worth watching multiple times simply because it’s impossible to take everything in during one sitting. I’d probably give it at least a 3 out of 5 stars, with a very hopeful look forward to the sequel, in which exposition will be finished and expansion of our main characters, including Katara and Sooka (who have been set up to be important in the future) can be focused on more. 🙂

    On another note, if anyone’s interested, I’ve posted a video on youtube which deals with an interesting phenomenon that has cropped up in association with this film: the claim that the casting is racist. I felt this “boycott” movement was unjustified, and go through reasons why- along with including some comments on the film after watching it.

    Check it out if you’re interested! It’s titled “The Last Airbender Movie Review and Thoughts on the Boycott“. My user name there is zoozathebink. 🙂

  • Cubbyface

    The movie really disapointed me and it was as if he made fun
    of the tv series ’cause it was that good at all when they were
    “water bending” nothing came out of his/her hands and all the bending was so slow that it looked like a dance and they forgot suki (Which was my favorite) one thing I hated was the way they changed the names cause his name is Aang not ong!!!!!!!!

  • fawkes82

    I thought this movie was good. I can see where people would be critic, but one Huge positive of this movie that no one has mentioned is it’s age approriateness. Most “kids” movies are far too violent and sexual, this is a great action family movie. I look forward to following movies.

  • Disappointed

    I for one Absolutley hated this movie! Im sorry..but im a bit fan of Avatar and I love the Cartoon. I totally get taking a movie and putting your own spin on it..but for goodness sake at lease try to keep some semblance of the original! The sequences were all wrong, names were said wrong, characters were played wrong. Aang is a kid, hes funny and joking around, hes not this serious wise sage put in the body of a child. He doesnt act that way. My kids want to see it and I said no. I bought them the Cartoon series instead, they dont need to see thier favorite cartoon butchered like that.

  • m.night hatealon

    i hate it he destroyed it i do however believe they should make another. no more m.night though get someone to watch the series and try to fix what the idiot did. they invested too much in to the movie already they might as well get to at least meet toph in the movie

  • Dan

    I know Mr. Shamalyan was looking for a big trilogy to do – like The Hobbit or something. I was a bit surprised he went with this cartoon. But then again, ever since The Sixth Sense his movie choice has been odd.

  • No name

    I liked it!I watched all the cartoons with my brother and they were great,yes the movie didn’t exactly show everything i would’ve liked to see but it was still awesome.Some people only hate it because they probably don’t know anything about it.Nobody would’ve done it better the M.Night and i definitely think he should make another movie with the earth chapter and actually put most of it in hahaha.Most kids my age don’t watch this stuff anymore but this is one fifteen year old girl who loved this movie.

  • lulu

    I loved this movie, I had never seen the cartoon, but this movie made me want to watch them. the story was great, the action was great, I loved the characters. M. Night did an awesome job. Since watching the movie, I have watched the cartoons and I think people need to realize that you can’t fit everything from a season of cartoons into one movie. I cannot wait to see the next one.

  • lisa

    you people are so damm stupid this movie was great.if the movie contained all the details from the cartoon series than it would take about 50 movies to explain all the details. so stop complaining about the movie. i have seen the cartoon series and i belief they did a good good in making this movie i give it a 5. the movie inspired me and motivated me.if u didn’t like this movie than you are freakin stupid because you dint see the true meaning of this movie.

  • lisa

    i hope they make another movie. this is a great movie not only for kids but also for adults. even my older brother loved this movie and he doesn’t really like science fiction movies but he really liked this movie he also gave it a 5. i dont understand why people hate it. its not like they could fit all the details from the cartoon series into the movie.

  • steven

    i would like to say is i love the series but they messed this story up so much i do not know what this guy was on but he needs to quit making movies he sucks he messed up the names everything he destroyed the fundamentals of this movie if you cant make the movie great dont make it at all and also zuko sucks in this movie

  • laura

    I freakin loved it! But I didn’t watch the cartoon so I can’t compare it to that but just watching the movie I was mesmerized I can’t wait for the next films.

  • lolo

    One of the worst movies of 2010. I mean, if you haven’t watched the animated series you’d probably like it but if you did…
    Everything about the movie was wrong. First, the characters…what happened there? All the personality was drained out of all the them, especially aang and Sokka.
    The ethnics were completetly wrong, the anime was asian based-they could have at least gotten actors that look their age, Sokka (Rathbone) looked about 30.
    For people who loved this movie, did you not hear the terrible script? Watching it was so awkward…it got boring after a few minutes.
    The movie was messed up and gave a great nickolodeon show a bad reputation.
    Let’s just hope there isn’t a sequel.