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Movie Review: The Last Airbender

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There is a pretty good movie hiding within M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender – really, there is. It’s not the disaster you’ve probably heard it to be at least. It has affecting little moments, wonderful moments. At those times, it’s nearly great.

One does have to overlook – or endure – some sizable problems though. This is one of those movies that calls for a set of scales. Place the good stuff on one side and the laughable on the other and see which way the thing tilts.

For those who don’t know, The Last Airbender is based on the Nickelodeon television series Avatar: The Last Airbender about a boy named Aang, the reluctant One. He’s “The Avatar,” one capable of controlling all of the elements — air, water, earth, and fire — and bringing peace to the planet.

Not desiring a monkish life, he fled before his training got beyond air bending. He now, with the help of a band of companions, must overcome his reluctance and complete his training before the evil Fire Nation reduces the world to cinder.

The series spreads leisurely over three seasons totaling about 24 hours with each centering on a different phase of Aang’s training. This movie encompasses only the first season, Water. Only time will tell if we’ll ever see Earth and Fire. It looks unlikely.

“What about those scales?” Here goes. Bad stuff first.

Every time a character, any character, opens his or her mouth, your mouth will drop open as well, in disbelief. This must be the worst, most exposition-laden dialog I’ve ever heard. It tumbles from tongues and lands with a thud.

The actors literally look embarrassed to be speaking these lines. They appear to be seeing them for the first time ever, reading them from a seemingly endless teleprompter. I haven’t seen actors appear so uncomfortable since Dune.

Actually, Dune is an apt comparison. Like that movie, The Last Airbender tries to cram a lot of elaborate world-building into a tiny space. It proves that trying to force eight well-crafted hours into 90 minutes is a perilous project.

Because of this, the movie’s pacing is relentlessly exhausting. It spends so much time racing from one story point to the next that it seldom has a chance to settle in and savor the moment.

Action is a good thing, but recall any exciting movie you’ve loved and it’s the moments to catch your breath and perhaps have a quick laugh that you most fondly remember. The Last Airbender doesn’t find enough time for these necessary pleasures.

I’d like to see a “director’s cut” some day. I think an extra hour or so would make a big difference. The movie is always visually beautiful (I recommend seeing it in 2-D) and when it occasionally slows down and savors the moment it is actually quite stunning.

When we see flashbacks to Aang’s early training, it evokes similar scenes from many a great martial arts epic. When the camera gracefully tracks around Aang and his companion Katara as they practice martial arts or when the camera pulls back to allow us a glimpse of the lovingly detailed world Shyamalan has created, I felt love for the movie.

And there are scenes in a cave involving Yin/Yang Koi fish so perfectly fitting of the movie’s and series’ particular brand of pop-mythologizing that the scale ended up favoring the good, for me at least.

Yes, the movie is a mess. But how many messes can you recall wanting to be longer messes? That certainly counts for something.

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About Todd Ford

  • Michael

    Disagree. I’m not sure a longer version would do much to improve this movie. The writing/dialogue would have continued to be terrible, and we don’t need more of that. Also we see enough of this world in this version (the fire nation ships, northern water tribe, the air temples) to appreciate, that extension is unnecessary. The main problem with this movie was the writing. It was abysmal and everything else failed as a result – like the acting and pacing. Oddly enough the writing is one of the primary strengths of the show. In fact I would say the writing in the show is truly brilliant at times. I wasn’t really impressed with the look or action of the movie, but even with Shyamalan directing I’m convinced this movie could have been good if written by someone else – namely the writers of the original series.

  • IA

    Why can’t people think of it as a live-version of a Saturday morning cartoon? Like real life of version of Smurfs running around and speaking slowly in simple sentences.

    The movie is for kids.

    Geez.

    All the complaints about bad writing and dialogues. Why do you think there are no blood or foul language?

    I love this movie.

  • robinclank2

    i actually thought that the movie was good

  • Nene

    The movie was horribly bad, the writting, acting, just about everything. I believe that the original writers could have done a much better job or if he would have stuck to the series it could have been a much better movie. A lot of key characters were left out of the movie and a lot was changed which will affect how the movie goes on. He has destroyed it for me, I left feeling like i wanted my money back even my son felt like it was ruined. I would like for the other movies to be made but with another director.

  • Kelly

    I went with my 10 year old son to see this movie. I did not read any reviews before seeing it. We loved it. The only complaint my son had was that the names were said wrong and that he wanted it to last longer. He wants to go see it a 2nd time. I was suprised at all the bad reviews that I have seen. We saw it in 2D so I don’t know how much of a difference that makes

  • http://mattmchugh.com mattmchugh

    This is a terrible movie… no two ways about it. But I agree that, spread throughout the muck, are some gems. I’m a huge fan of the TV show so watching this film is particularly painful. I know the source material well and can see how Shyamalan labors mightily, but incompetently, to capture its essence. Sometimes I felt like I was watching a 12-year old given $150 million and 1000 extras to act out his favorite show in a CGI backyard, so amateurish is the work.

    Despite my love of the show and hate of the film, I did manages to find 12 small things I liked about The Last Airbender movie. Too long to list here, but you can check out my blog entry.

    If there is any justice in this world — or a shred of business sense at Paramount — Airbender 2 will go ahead without Shyamalan involved. I truly hope this terrible version doesn’t consign the excellent original to the dustibin of pop-culture history. It deserves much better.

    – mattmchugh

  • Mekayla

    I was really disappointed with the movie. The tv series was my favorite show and I was excited about the makings of a movie. But in this case I think it should have been left untouched.

  • Will

    I watched and loved every moment of the series but this was just a mess. Even as a kids movie this is horribly done. I have enjoyed some of Shamylon’s (spell check)other movies however this was horrible. An extra hour would have done nothing to help the movie because it was just complete and utter crap. It took an amazing show and made DBZ evolution look like a masterpiece.

  • IA

    From what I gather, this movie is good enough to attract non-cartoon fans who are unfamiliar about the series.

    So why all the mean remarks from the die-hards?

    You would rather leave the story untouched in animation while all these little kids who like the movie get no sequels?

  • IA

    Is there a kid’s poll for this movie?

    Is not Shyamalan’s new ending- having Aang to show the power of water rather than destroying all the fire nation ships- more appropriate for young children?

  • mc in LA

    Why am I not surprised that all the good guys in “The Last Airbender” have light skin, and many have light eyes, while ALL the bad guys have dark eyes and dark skin? Oh, and did I mention only the evil (dark skin, dark eyed) characters have accents? I could scarcely keep myself from guffawing and groaning out loud throughout the movie. Is it too much to ask that, when we make movies, especially for children, we don’t reiterate the same, toxic stereotypes about light/good, dark/bad, that plague society? The dialogue, the kitch, all that pales in comparison to the casting. Oh, and did I mention that there isn’t a one African-looking person on screen (well, not for longer than 30 seconds)? To me all this is unforgivable. So, all you darkly complected parents out there — of whatever background — keep your kids away from this movie. They’ll be better off eating fast food and drinking vats of hydrogenized oil for a week. This movie will do some serious emotional damage. I suspect it is also unhealthy for light skinned, light eyed children to see such a cool movie with a cool story line and cool characters suggest to them that people like themselves are better, “fairer,” more virtuous than those poor, intrinsically bad dark folks. We all know about the black doll/white doll experiment of the civil rights era, so while I am sure some readers will poo-poo this entry as paranoid and overly sensitive, those of you who are students of history know I am not off-base in my criticism. Look, I know from watching the cartoons that some of these “dark” fire nation characters turn to the side of Good in the end, but that’s just too little, too late. I can’t believe I gave these people my money. GRR! I will not be patronizing part 2, and I hope you won’t either. Enough is enough.

  • kandyztick

    My son was really excited about this movie being made, but then we saw all the negative reviews about it.

    Glad some people actually like it. Will be watching this!

  • http://www.cinema100.com Todd Ford

    Btw, I saw the movie with my 14-year-old daughter who is an Avatar and all things anime nut. She’s seen all three books of the series enough times to memorize the dialog. She made me sit through the entire series about a year ago. Driving home, I asked her to tell me what she thought and she was hesitant. She said, “I really liked it, but there were some things I didn’t like and I’m afraid you’ll only quote the bad things in your review.” At that point, I confessed — and I think it surprised her — that I actually liked the movie. We then had a great chat the rest of the way home and all up and down the aisles of the grocery store as we bought stuff to toss on the grill for dinner. It was actually the most fun we’ve had together during and after a movie since The Karate Kid. How could the scales not tip in the movie’s favor after that?

  • Jonathan Goldstein

    About your comment “not desiring a monkish life,” you are wrong. He was very happy living his life with his teacher, his friends and he loved his home. He left because he did not want to be separated from his mentor and father figure Monk Giatsou (I think that’s how it’s spelled). Another main reason why he ran was he was afraid of having all of the responsibly that the Avatar would have.

  • Marylyn Leonard

    Listen, I completely agree with a previous writer, Michael. First of all, let me say that I’m 35 years old, female obviously. The series is amazingly written and it tailored to family, not only kids. It’s written so brilliantly that most children would not begin to understand everything going on, also there is the humor that makes it so darn enjoyable, there is the romance of young love as well as courage and a developing friendship which made the series such a masterpiece.
    I have to again agree with Michael, it would not have mattered if the Shalayman made this movie longer, he just didn’t get it. He rewritten this and left out everything that made the animation so great. Of course this could have been done very well had this been done by another producer it had a chance of being GREAT. I still believe it can be done.

  • http://www.cinema100.com Todd Ford

    Thanks Jonathan. I stand corrected, twice. My daughter read the review and said the same thing. I think she’s going to make me watch the entire series again as penance.

  • M

    I also want to add that I wasn’t impressed with the acting. I felt it was dry, and believe me I hate saying this because I am one of those TWILIGHTERS, lol, so believe me when I say I am a fan of Sokkas character played by Jackson Rathbone, who also played Jasper in the Twilight Saga, so it pains me to say that he acting was a bit dry for the comical Sokka that the series made such a likable personality. He wasn’t alone in this, so I have to put the blame on more that the cast. It took a serious turn as Shalayman said because he lead the movie that direction. This was so far from how the series originated till it sort turne off most of it’s fans watching this.

    However I can say this, I have been reading a lot of reviews and there is one thing for sure I have noticed is that the more negative reviews have come from true fans. I think that people who have never truly watched the series and judged only from what they saw are not as critical because they don’t have a clue what to expect, they had no expectations whatsoever. I find they say my kid enjoyed it, but I have to add to that , I too went with my 8 year old and 4 year old who are huge fans as well. My 4 year fell asleep, before that he was bored out of his head. My 8 year old said he thought it was good, but then he was confused as to why everyone looked so different with the exception of Aang than their characters on the series. I could not justify an explanation to him. All I can say is obviously you have to be a bit clueless about the series or a school age child who watched the series to appreciate the movie. That’s all I can see. I also notice a few critics trying to critique the movie but they too were still in the same category as many others who have never seen the series, and by that I don’t mean one or two shows, but the complete 3 seasons and enjoy it. The only flip side to that is that the critics despise the movie because even though they aren’t so familiar with the series, they are completely lost in this movie, especially if they saw the 3D version as I did, which I have to say was a rip-off. It blurred in and out constantly and last in 3D for probably the first 10 minutes or less into the movie. Overall, this movie was a failure in comparison to the series. So I have only one suggestion for those who never watched the series but saw the movie and thought the movie was descent. Please, watch the series, start from the beginning, you’ll be hooked. See how beautifully written it was and then come back and see if you feel the same about the movie.

    Marylyn

  • ricardo

    i watched the movie and i like it. I do not know why others noted negatively. There are good lessons on this movie. A lot other movies are none sense but people love it and you could not here any bad comments. I personally invite people to watch this movie. I guarantee it is a touching movie and I hope producer will continue the sequel like TWILIGHT. Thanks…

  • Gideon

    1: The movie was horrible.
    2: The series totaled about six hours, not twenty four.
    3: Aang did not fear a monkish life, he fled because the monks were going to move him to the western temple. He did not want to leave Monk Giatso.

  • Gideon

    Forget the above number one:

  • Gideon

    I mean number 2 not number 1 The movie was horrible

  • Kadia

    First of all the AVATAR epic anime was not just for kids. The damn director F’ed up an amazing anime and made it kiddish. Who reviewed it? Who picked the characters??? This is supposed to be a complete fantasy! People of the fire nation have wild hair and a distinguised top knot. In the movie those damn people were friggin low cut hair. You dont even get that they were fire nation at first. Fire lord Ozai was sooo bad!! Not bad as he should be but bad acting, bad script, not mean enough not intimidating enough. Forget that they were Indian, I wouldn’t care so much about the race swapping if the acting was GOOD. OMG but it was terrible!!!!

    I actually liked Zuko, HE did the best I think with what he had to work with. But he is supposed to be angry, load and pissed off at the world and disrespectful to his uncle!!!! Instead he comes off as a wimp!

    AND OMG Aang! Are you kidding me? Where is the goofy kid? Thats the whole point of Avatar!!! One kid had to mad up and face his destiny within a year, there is inner transformation. This going to the spirit world bull what the hell!!! The spirt world is a place to fear!!! not a place where a random dragon speaks to you and tells you information!!! OMG I could go on!!!!

    Sokka! omg the funny protective guy is just protective and lets his sister do anything she wants??? Eh?

    Did M. Night Shyamalan even watch the series? At least 2wice? Nickolodean even had AVatar extras!!! Did he see those? And still he didn’t get it????

    I think we should petition to get the original writers on the film, recast or remake it properly. With fantasy and humor and discovery and sadness.

    I will check back but if anyone knows how and want to band together let me know.

  • Kandy

    My kids are HUGE fans of Avatar the last Air bender. My 4 year old left in TEARS he was so disapointed. None of the charicters acted like they should, even my 4 year old knew that! NO ONE acted the same they were NOT the same people at all! Zuko didn’t look a thing like he should have in the water book. All in all two thumbs WAY down!

  • Icw

    I don’t know what movie everyone else wtach but I absolutly loved this movie please people who have’nt seen this movie yet don’t believe the bad hype its really a great movie

  • Tiffany Brown

    I totally agree on how bad the movie was, but some of the effects were just ridiculous. The little boy who played Aang, whose name by the way was pronounced wrong, to forever to fly in the air and plus did a terrible job with acting. I’m still confused on why the Fire nation could only bend fire through pots or candles that have fire in them. And please don’t let me get started on the Earth Benders; they did all that moving around just to bend one rock that took almost a day to get to the target. And what was with this “Dragon Spirit” I don’t remember Aang talk with a Dragon to help him understand his place as an avatar. What ever happened to him talking to the others avatars? Anyway, I can go on forever about what the movie could’ve been, but there’s really no point. I think that the director needs to go back and watch the episodes and then stop all together adding his own twist to what really happened.

  • Jedirevg

    I don’t know why people think it was sooo bad….I went and seen it in 3d and loved it. Compared to going and seeing Clash of the titans in 3d (Which in sucked). Go and see it…..the effects were awesome. I came home and watched the tv show (Which I have never seen) and felt like they put the most important parts in the movie……

  • Nanfoodle

    I’m so happy to see a good review! I’m not a parent and I didn’t bring a child along with me and I like this movie all the same. The acting was stiff and the pace was quick but like you said,it’s hard to do it all in 90 minutes. I think if it’d been alloted more time,it could’ve been better. Sure the acting would’ve still been bad but people seem to really enjoy the acting in Twilight and I don’t see too much of a difference.

  • Hart

    M Nightshyamalan is a below mediore director. He should have captured the “spirit”of the Nick series. I guess he took on the project because he is lacking personal funds…rusting away…if he is a true artist he should leave a good legacy of good works…tsk! And why do I see the whole of India as casts? They don’t act well…it’s like Last Airbender was made in BOLLYWOOD.