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It would be easy to say Nickelodeon’s “Avatar: The Last Airbender” shouldn’t have been made into a film.
The defense would begin with a claim, such as the show was too long and rich to capture in one film. Next, that the world was too elaborate to recreate. And, finally, much of the show could only work in cartoon form. Well, according to M. Night Shyamalan’s ghastly adaptation, such assessments would be right on. In place of a smart adventure story in one of the most creative fantasy worlds, “The Last Airbender” is a monumental disappointment both as an adaptation and a film that fails on every level, regardless of source material. But let’s not chalk this one up to a “nice try” and simply say it couldn’t be done. There are many directors suited for bringing epic tales to life — M. Night Shyamalan will never be one of them.
Earth. Wind. Fire. Water. The world is split into four great kingdoms: the Earth Kingdom, the Fire Nation, the Northern and Southern Water Tribes, and the Air Nomads. Certain people are born into each land with the ability to bend that element. But only one person can bend all four, the Avatar. More than 100 years ago the Avatar vanished, right when the Fire Nation began to attack the rest of the world. The new Avatar, an airbender named Aang (Noah Ringer), has appeared. With the help of young waterbender Katara (Nicola Peltz) and her brother, Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), both from the Northern Water Tribe, they help Aang fulfill his destiny to save the world. But the banished Prince Zuko (Dev Patel) and his uncle Iroh (Shaun Toub), from the Fire Nation, are hot on their tail. Get ready for 100 minutes of element-bending with no emotion, and a storyline thinly held together with a narration by Katara.
The books are always better than the movies, and now, the TV show is mountains above its film counterpart. “Avatar: The Last Airbender” remains the smartest and most well-structured children’s show to hit cable networks, but its film adaptation makes every other film this year look like Oscar contenders. M. Night Shyamalan may claim to have watched the series with his family but he demonstrates no respect for it, stripping significant themes for the sake of a screenplay with no pace.
Central to the “Avatar” mythos is the difference between violence and defense. Aang finds ways to avoid bloodshed and only uses his bending to defend himself and others, never killing anyone. But the film opts for a more generic superhero structure that’s more willing to take on a cowboy sense of justice, condoning execution. “Avatar’s” examination of the Spirit World (rather important when a bunch of people are bending the elements) is also transformed, becoming a superficial replication of The Force, with a trivial attempt at character development, as Aang tries to deal with personal demons.
I have a new appreciation for the magic of the early “Harry Potter” films, not just for the wands, but for their ability to direct child actors. Ringer, as Aang, was chosen for his ability to move like the cartoon character, rather than his poor acting. It wasn’t worth the cost. To his defense, along with the rest of the film’s cast, it’s difficult to decipher what is at fault for this film: bad acting, Paramount Pictures or Shyamalan. My money’s on Shyamalan – just look at his catalogue, peaking early with “Unbreakable” and everything gradually going downhill since.
The film is at its most disturbing with the character names. Rather than stick with the television series’ American pronunciation of names like Avatar, Aang and Sokka, they use “proper” pronunciation. This is odd considering the main characters are supposed to be Eskimo in origin but are recast as white, revealing the film’s cowardice at depicting diversity when it really counts. Shyamalan’s race bending just reaffirms white norms in Hollywood. Even worse, the film makes the Fire Nation non-white, erasing a critique on Western industrialism, instead demonizing minorities.
Don’t bother with “The Last Airbender”. Supporting this film only allows Paramount Pictures to bask in the illusion of positive audience reception. Instead, go watch Nickelodeon’s “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and enjoy one of the best fantasy/sci-fi shows of the decade. With a balanced dose of humor, fantastic animation and mythology, it’s a provocative tale rich with narrative joy. “The Last Airbender”, however, will go down as one of the worst films of the past 10 years. Shyamalan has ruined his last film. It’s time for the industry to end his slowly digressing career. He truly owes all the fans of the show and general audiences an apology for wasting their time and damaging their sense of wonder.
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