Every now and again in this journal I like to review movies or video games that have really made an impression on me as an artist and a writer. Let it be known before I even begin talking about The Last Airbender that I am a long-standing fan of the original animated series that inspired it (Avatar: The Last Airbender). As a child of the early 80’s, I grew up with the golden age of animation still lingering and the slick adventurous and bold animation of the 1990’s – before children’s shows became all about sponges wearing pants and random inanity.
For me, Avatar: The Last Airbender was a breath of fresh air. Finally! An animated show that looked beautiful and smooth, with pleasant stylization and a rich tapestry of a fantasy world that really drew me in. Finally, a series that was paying attention! Here we had characters who were flawed and who changed throughout the course of the show. Moral lessons were not always on the surface of a story, especially when our beloved characters often did things that they knew were wrong, but that suited them as characters. DiMartino and Konietzko had created a story worth telling.
Unfortunately, little, if any, of this wonderful story translated to the movie adaptation of the series called The Last Airbender (darn blue cat people taking the rights to Avatar!). It’s true the heart of the story is still the same. We have a young monk named Aang who is burdened by the responsibility of being the Avatar, a driving elemental force in a chaotic world who is meant to bring peace. Instead of facing his responsibility, he runs away and by a twist of fate, pulls a Rip Van Winkle and ends up awakening 100 years later, where friendship and guidance from folks he meets on his journey puts him back on track to being a hero.
The movie fails in the respect that the entire story felt rushed. Characters blurt out plot points with plenty of emotion, but the driving force of their motivation seems left to the cutting room floor (considering this movie is about an hour and 40 minutes and still manages to create little emotional attachment to the characters and condenses an entire first season of plotline). Decisions are reached too quickly, characters rush headlong into blind belief and friendship in one another, despite having just met. Fight scenes feel like a waste of time when half of the driving philosophy that made the Asian-inspired world of Avatar so enthralling was the dueling philosophies of the nations and their particular styles of Bending, or elemental manipulation. We’re gifted one line of philosophy about how you must ‘give in to Water’, but really, how deep is that in the context of the movie?
Not so deep, just like the rest of the cast and its stilted performance handicapped by a shortchanged plot. First Rule of Movie Adaptation, do NOT try to directly adapt a plotline without repolishing the original story to fit your new, often condensed timeline. Most of this movie felt as if it were merely trying to reach important plotlines that happened in season 1 of the animated show. Line by line, as if it was a checklist for those who watched the series.
When is Hollywood going to learn that you can’t just rush through a plot, toss in a few action scenes, and then rake in the cash? Just like the last blockbuster disappointment, The Prince of Persia, characters had no lows where they could really bond with one another or express anything further than stereotypical surface emotion. (Though I will say, I enjoyed Prince of Persia far more than Airbender). Without safe ports in the plot for characters to contemplate and develop as characters to contrast against the many scenes of frenzied action, there is no spark of interest or resonance with your audience. And for the love of all that’s sacred, please don’t reveal the emotional life changing moments of an important character in a 2 second flashback with a couple of explanatory sentences!
I’m not going to say the entire movie was a complete failure. The effects were fairly well done. Waterbending looked especially gorgeous in the second half of the movie where many battles take place in a frozen tundra riddled with battleships, soldiers, and tribesmen. The wardrobe felt authentic and reinvented in a suiting way for a rustic Asian-inspired look. Even still, good FX and atmosphere were not enough to save this from being a mediocre production and a major disappointment (this coming from a fan of Shyamalan!)
Perhaps Shyamalan was rushed? Perhaps he was pressured to cut the material that would have made this movie feel less splintered into plot points? Whatever the reason, this fan was not pleased. I hope for the sake of the fans, they get their act together for the next two movies, if they even gross enough to finish production on them after this major disappointment.
Perhaps I’m also being harsh, but for a director who has professed so much love and respect for the source material, I expected much more from this production. Go see it if you’re bored, but please, just go rent the animated series if you want the full story.