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.