THE LAST AIRBENDER
M. Night Shyamalan
M. Night Shyamalan (Based on Animated TV Series)
Noah Ringer, Dev Patel, Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone, Shaun Toub, Aasif Mandvi, Cliff Curtis, Seychelle Gabriel
PG for fantasy action violence.
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How do you translate a twenty-episode story arc of a popular animated television series into a 103-minute feature motion picture? You don’t, but that doesn’t stop The Last Airbender from trying.
The story goes that four kingdoms at peace, each mastering one of the four elements (earth, air, fire and water), are torn apart when the Avatar, Aang (Noah Ringer), the perpetually-reincarnating master of all elements runs away from his temple afraid of arduous task ahead of him in accepting and learning the role of the Avatar.
Centuries later, after the Fire Nation has destroyed every member of the Air Nation that lived, they dominate the world seeking out the reincarnation of the Avatar wherever they may so they can capture him and keep him from reuniting the Water and Earth nations in an effort to thwart their power. He is found isolated in a large, icy orb unaware of the passage of time. Rescued from his frozen prison by two young members of the southern water tribe, Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), Aang begins a search to find the friends and family he left behind and ultimately realizes why his destiny as the Avatar is so important.
Although the film succeeds in some very minor aspects (art direction and occasionally visual effects), it is mostly a failure from open to close. The film starts with four martial artists performing complex movements to symbolize the four elements in silhouette against a tacky, ruddy orange backdrop. It is never duplicated and never necessary and sets the audience outlook fairly low for what’s to follow…and even manages to dip below those expectations.
I generally give child performers a bit more leeway in terms of performance since they aren’t generally trained thespians and don’t have backgrounds in acting. Yet, these kids aren’t even worthy of defending with such statements. Director M. Night Shyamalan displays no real talent for leading impressionable mind, which is fully evinced in the performance of Dev Patel who plays the disgraced Prince Zuko seeking the Avatar to restore his name. In Slumdog Millionaire he was not great, but was at least believable within the framework of that film. Here, he can do nothing but glare, pose and growl his lines barely yielding the impression that his character is a spoiled brat, leaving it up to the audience to realize this fact on their own instead of showing it to them.
Ringer, Peltz and Rathbone are equally atrocious with Rathbone taking the prize for worst performance in the film. Not only can I not believe he falls in love with Princess Yue later in the film, but I can’t even believe he cares about his sister. And when that’s a key element to his purpose in the film, he becomes a superfluous character without merit. Even the adults can’t escape unscathed as Aasif Mandvi (as the Fire Nation commander attempting to track down and kill Zuko and capture the Avatar) and Cliff Curtis (Zuko’s father) each find the absolute worst scenery to chew.
The television show lasted three seasons, each focusing on one of the surviving elements, water, earth and fire. The film concerns itself only with the events of the first season, which at 30 minutes each totals about 10 hours of programming. What possessed writer/director Shyamalan to think he could compact so much into a single film is beyond vain. It drops details and explains through narration most of the film’s backstory making for a rough time in such a visual medium. What’s worse is that his skills as a writer are proven nil as we’re expected to believe that Sokka and Princess Yue fall in love. We are told the two become “fast friends” with a lazy wink in Katara’s narration and then shown absolutely nothing to convince us of these events.
It’s what leads to the most bungled scene in the film. The scene is a result of Yue’s sacrifice for the common good. It could have been conceived, orchestrated and executed so much more profoundly and is one of many examples of Shyamalan’s inability to drive his narrative effectively. He seems to have no concept of alternating shot selection as evinced in a scene where Aang and Katara discuss “important issues”. The scene plays out in two shots, a close up of Katara and Sokka and an extreme close up of Aang. The two shots are cross cut in conversation, but it’s irritating to repetitively be forced into the too close shot of Aang.
The best analogy for this film comes from within the plot itself. M. Night Shyamalan is too similar to the character of Prince Zuko. Shyamalan’s like a spoiled brat trying to prove to the world that he’s not a failure. He’s trying hard to shout down his detractors and show that he knows how to direct and how to be a serious filmmaker, yet what we get is a consistently garish arsenal of interesting ideas shot through with his idiotic ramblings.
The Last Airbender should have been retitled The Last Shyamalan. Because if nothing else, it will be the last of his films that I waste my time with and it will hopefully be the last film for which people throw money at him in hopes of getting another Sixth Sense, a feat that will never occur.
July 7, 2010
The Last Airbender