Noah Ringer as Aang
Dev Patel as Prince Zuko
Nicola Peltz as Katara
Jackson Rathbone as Sokka
Shaun Toub as Uncle Iroh
Aasif Mandvi as Commander Zhao
Cliff Curtis as Fire Lord Ozai
Seychelle Gabriel as Princess Yue
Katharine Houghton as Katara’s Grandma
Francis Guinan as Master Pakku
Damon Gupton as Monk Gyatso
Summer Bishil as Azula
Randall Duk Kim as Old Man in Temple
John D’Alonzo as Zhao’s Assistant
Keong Sim as Earthbending Father
Written and Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
While “The Last Airbender” is a great looking film that will entertain kids, problems with the script and acting make this a movie that adults will likely be bored with.
This film is based on the Nickelodeon cartoon “Avatar: The Last Airbender.”
In a magical realm, four nations rule the world. Each has members of its society who are able to control one of the elements fire, air, water, and earth. The world was in balance thanks to the efforts of the “Avatar,” a reincarnated being with the ability to act as an intermediary between the physical world and the spirit world. The Avatar was also able to control all four elements. But when the Avatar unexpectedly disappeared, the world was thrown into turmoil. The Fire Nation overran the other nations and imposed a reign of terror.
One hundred years later, Katara and Sokka from the Water People run across a boy and an animal frozen in ice. When they are set free, they are surprised to learn that the boy named Aang is the long missing Avatar. Katara and Sokka see Aang as a way to restore peace to the four nations. But his training is incomplete. Can Aang gain control of his powers in order to embrace his destiny and save the world?
“The Last Airbender” is rated PG.
First and foremost, this is a great looking movie. The creatures, costumes, vehicles, and locations are all beautifully done. I loved the mix of machines and technology with the “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” type of world. ILM and the other visual effects companies did great work.
I also loved the fact that this movie incorporated a number of different cultures to create this world. You have an Inuit feel to the South Water People. You have a Viking feel with the North Water People. You have cultures that are blends of India, China, Japan, and more. It’s a great mix that gives the production design an interesting feel.
The score by James Newton Howard is also pretty good. The movie has a pulse-pounding theme that helps add to the excitement of the battle scenes. I’m sure you’ll be hearing this music in many movie trailers to come.
This movie is also presented in 3D and it helps a lot. You have fire, water, and earth shoot out of the screen at you. You have great sweeping scenes as things fly through the air. I believe this movie was converted to 3D rather than being shot initially in it. If that’s the case, then this conversion was more successful than the one done for “Clash of the Titans.” It looks quite good. If you see this movie, make a point to do so in 3D.
What Didn’t Work:
I was really looking forward to this movie. This summer’s films have been pretty lackluster so far and I was expecting “The Last Airbender” to break that streak. I haven’t watched the cartoon series regularly, but I enjoyed the little bits that I did see and thought it was a great concept. And as a fan of M. Night Shyamalan, I was curious to see what he could do with the story. So I should have been one of the people that enjoyed it most. While it was OK, I have to admit that there was a lot wrong with it.
First of all, it tries to hit us with too much too fast. When introducing an entirely new world, you need to use the fictional names, places, and characters sparingly. In the first 10 minutes we’re blasted with talk of Fire Nations, chi, spirit realms, Avatars, airbenders, and a million other things that mean nothing and make no sense to anyone that hasn’t seen the TV show. Much of the audience is in catch-up mode as the movie starts and you need to let them get immersed in the world and get them to care about it. Throwing out a lot of fantasy jargon tells me you have a big world, but it doesn’t make me care about it.
That leads to the next problem forced emotional scenes. In an effort to give weight to the characters and situations, we’re subjected to a bunch of scenes that are supposed to be emotional but aren’t because of the rushed running time. We see Aang walk into a prison camp and within 15 seconds he starts delivering a rousing speech that is supposed to spark a rebellion despite the fact that they’ve been oppressed for years. It doesn’t work. In another scene Sokka meets Princess Yue. Fifteen seconds later we’re told that he’s head-over-heels in love with her. What follows are awkward scenes of hand holding, flirtation, and other manufactured emotion. Again, it doesn’t work.
Then there’s the acting. I try to be forgiving because I realize these are young, mostly unknown actors and actresses. But M. Night Shyamalan has always been able to find great young actors. Remember Hayley Joel Osment in “The Sixth Sense”? Spencer Treat Clark in “Unbreakable”? Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin in “Signs”? They all did great performances and, unfortunately, the cast of “The Last Airbender” doesn’t match up. Noah Ringer looks good as Aang but he feels way too American to be a mystical reincarnated Avatar. Nicola Peltz as Katara and Jackson Rathbone as Sokka have a bit more life in them, but they too have some dialogue delivery issues. Dev Patel fares a little better as Prince Zuko, but he’s got such a big chip on his shoulder (which we’re reminded of again and again) that he’s not a particularly likable character. Overall, the acting is a disappointment.
A lot of people complain that M. Night Shyamalan’s movies are slow and plodding. That has never bothered me… at least until now. While “The Last Airbender” has a generous helping of action scenes and the movie has a tight running time, it still has a number of slow scenes that drag the pacing down. How many scenes do we need to see of Aang doing Tai Chi? Or of characters brooding? It gets old quickly. And I’m ashamed to admit this, but I almost fell asleep during this movie. I have never fallen asleep during a film and I think it’s extremely rude to do so at a screening, but thanks to jet lag and the sleepy pace of the movie, I was almost sawing logs. I’ll get caffeine next time.
“The Last Airbender” also ends on a cliffhanger. The creators were obviously hoping to do a sequel. (The movie even starts out saying ‘Book I: Water.’) Unfortunately, that makes this movie feel quite incomplete. You feel like you’re only getting a small piece of the story and it is ultimately unsatisfying. That’s even more the case since I’m not expecting this movie to perform well enough to justify a “Book II.”
All this being said, my kids really enjoyed “The Last Airbender.” They don’t watch the cartoon, but the movie definitely engaged them. They loved the fight scenes, the creatures, and the kids playing a central role in the story. But as any parent knows, a truly great family film entertains the whole family and, unfortunately, this movie didn’t do it.
The Bottom Line:
Is this movie worth checking out? If you are a fan of the TV show, then I’d say yes. You’ll be more forgiving of the movie’s flaws and you won’t be lagging behind the narrative. I’d also say it’s worth checking out if you have to take kids to the theater over the holiday weekend and you’ve seen everything else. The big visual effects scenes by ILM are worth seeing on the big screen in 3D. But if 3D and effects alone do not entice you, then just wait for the DVD and rent it.