Remember how in the animated show Katara was, like, a person?
I’ll preface the following statement with the disclaimer that while I know some people thought it was a great film, I sat through Signs and laughed my ass off, but M. Night Shyamalan should not write scripts. Not ever. The dialogue in The Last Airbender is stilted, and often poorly-acted. The film also suffers from poor pacing in the first half, and these two things alone are enough to be the final nail in the coffin for most viewers. And at a stunted hour and forty-something minutes, the film could easily have fixed at least the pacing issue by adding another half hour to forty minutes. Yeah, it would have made the film a bit long, but let’s not kid ourselves: The Last Airbender was always going to be a geek film. Sure, it’s based on kids’ material, but geeks will sit still for stuff like this–even little geeks. Maybe not the tiniest of them, but it’s still a lot shorter than today’s standard fantasy epic.
I didn’t hate the film, though. It definitely has its good points. Visually, it’s stunning. This is the sort of project in which they could have gone crazy with the special effects budget, but the effects are used minimally and to good ends. I’m often bored to death by action scenes in movies, but I loved the action scenes in this film. The elemental effects were well-animated and the martial arts well-filmed. There were a couple of Matrix-y slowdowns, but nothing too extreme.
I’m writing this review from the perspective of a fan of the show, for others who’d like to read a review from that perspective. If you haven’t watched the animated series, do. It far surpasses what you’d expect from a Nickelodeon cartoon. This does contain some spoilers.
Fans of the show (myself included) will really dislike the dialogue. Another thing George Lucas has failed to realize is that you don’t need to write down to children. Shyamalan has made that error here, which is funny because I think the biggest reason the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender (they had to chop the “Avatar” part from the film’s title because of James Cameron) is so popular is because it didn’t do that. It took a simple idea (four nations, one for each element, and the fire nation is trying to conquere everyone else) and wrote it very, very well, and it worked. The characters were well-rounded and real. It was easy for the audience to empathize with the pain of all the main characters, even the antagonists (but not villains!) Zuko and Iroh.
It would be generous to call the film versions of Sokka and Katara two-dimensional, and Aang is just sort of there the whole time. We do get some introduction to the Fire Nation characters, who do a decent job with what they’re given. In general, though, no one talks like a normal human being like they do in the animated show, and much of the dialogue is just crammed with exposition because they needed to move the story along more quickly. This is disappointing, because as I mentioned earlier, the film itself isn’t all that long. Thanks to this, we’re mostly left with a jagged collage of moments from the first series of the show.
While the dialogue never improved, I did think the pacing improved from the part where Aang is locked up by Zhao (who is mostly referred to as “commander,” never gets promoted to admiral, and is once later called “general,” which is wrong because he’s navy, right?) and saved by Zuko as the Blue Spirit, on through to the stuff at the Northern Water Tribe. From then on, I sort of liked the movie. It wasn’t great, and a Katara voiceover, placed there for the sake of the kids, perhaps, ruined an otherwise amazing scene, but at that point it was decent. Not great, but not totally horrible. In fact, it would have been completely passable as a childrens’ movie from there on out had the animated series not pre-emptively had less patronizing writing than the film.
There’s another point that will specifically really piss off fans of the series: several of the names are mispronounced. They’re pronounced in such a way that you could understand them being that way if you’d never heard the names audibly before, but unfortunately most of us have. “Aang” is pronounced “Ahng” (and mostly by a very cardboard Katara), “Sokka” is pronounced “Soak-a,” and “Iroh” becomes “Ear-oh.” The last was the worst for me, but that’s because Uncle Iroh is my favorite character. Good job, M. Night, for actually watching the show before you made a film about it. Oh, wait.
On the other hand, the locations for the film were stunning, and the costumes looked great. Visually, it looks exactly what I would want this world to look like were it not animated. I never stopped being absorbed in the aesthetics of the film, not even when the dialogue became unbearable. The scene direction was nice, too, and I actually loved the action scenes. There’s no worry here about overuse of special effects; in fact there were a few scenes with Aang and Katara practicing their waterbending stances that I thought would have benefitted from a couple of CG water globules, floating in midair. None of the elemental effects were overexaggerated; they were all what I thought they should be. Hiring genuine martial artists to play many of the characters was a wise move and it lent a really authentic air to the fight scenes.
I won’t touch too much on the racebending stuff, because that’s been pretty thoroughly hashed-out. It is quite true that in most parts of the movie, the diversity of the cast is to be applauded. It was interesting to see diverse populations in the water, earth, and air divisions, whereas the Fire Nation was more homogenous. Now, I’ll lay two things out; I do think the kid playing Aang has the look of Aang, and I don’t consider Zuko the villain (that’s Zhao in this part of the story, and it’s Azula and Ozai in the later parts), so the fact that Zuko is the only POC in the main four doesn’t bug me because of that–but Sokka, Katara, and their grandmother were the only white people that I saw in a sea of rather non-white-looking faces populating the Southern Water Tribe. And those two were the worst-acted roles in the film, and that’s saying something. So, if those two were just the perfect, miracle actors you were looking for who just happened to be white, well, congratulations, M. Night, you have no perspective whatsoever. As for the Fire Nation being changed to match the look of the actor cast to play Zuko, not sure how I felt about that, I guess I could go either way. You could argue it doesn’t matter, but let’s be honest: I’m white, I don’t know how I’d feel. (I know that I still hate the Disney animators who made 101 Dalmatians, because the cat, Sgt Tibbs, in the book, is, in fact, female, but that’s the closest thing I can relate.)
While these flaws are glaring, however, I did think the movie could have been a LOT worse. The poor script didn’t help, but once the pacing picked up in the second half of the film, I found it watchable. It wasn’t awesome, but I wasn’t wanting to die in my seat. I know I earlier compared M. Night Shyamalan to George Lucas, but he’s got a few more points than Lucas here: the special effects aren’t over-the-top and the scenes are well-directed (in terms of movement) and in gorgeous locations, most of which did not appear to be digital. It was opening day and my theater wasn’t exactly packed (it was about an average crowd), so the film looks like it’s in serious danger of flopping, but if a second film is made, if someone else writes it, I’m sure it’ll be fantastic. Don’t write down to little kids. Audiences, even young ones, will be as smart as you want them to be. Conversely, remember that parents get dragged to these things too, something the late, great Jim Henson knew and was a master of handling.
But once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny. Is it too late for Shyamalan?