M. Night Shyamalan’s cinematic compression of Nickelodeon’s stunning animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender has serious fandom boots to fill. And it needs much more time to fill them.
Like the Fire Nation’s obsessive, disgraced Prince Zuko, Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender, the first installment in a planned film trilogy, could use more patience and less tortured battles, waged in this iteration through Industrial Light and Magic’s elementally bending special effects. And perhaps, like Zuko, that patience will be found in the final third of the trilogy. Or perhaps not.
Shyamalan’s task is Sisyphean in nature. He must capably smash 20 episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender‘s alternately hilarious and thrilling first season into a mall-worthy feature film about a mystical world of warring tribes who can bend the elements at will that barely clocks in at over 100 minutes. And he must do it while dodging “racebending” fireballs from detractors angry that the series’ major roles — the air-bending savior Aang, water-bending girl prodigy Katara, her brother and comedic relief Sokka, and the surly but skilled fire-bending outcast Zuko — are mostly inhabited by bankable Caucasians.
Oh yeah, and he has to make lots of money for Paramount, as well as a film that doesn’t suck.
The good news is that The Last Airbender does not totally suck. It’s so-called 3-D sucks hard — and I mean hard — but that’s because it’s practically nonexistent. Don’t waste your time or money on it. The 2-D version will do you just fine. We’re in a recession, after all.
But the proper film hiding beneath the industry gimmickry is in fact an openly spiritual effort that faithfully captures the series’ chief concern: The global war between the bellicose Fire Nation, the occupied Water and Earth tribes it oppresses, and the reluctant savior Aang, the last Air Nomad alive whose uncomfortable destiny is master all four elements and bring balance and peace to the world.
The bad news is that both Shyamalan’s direction and overly expository script fly distractedly by without allowing both early adopters and late-coming noobs to catch their breath and process the film’s sprawling strands and deep thoughts. Let us meditate.
The better news is that Shyamalan’s cast mostly succeeds at their own smaller Sisyphean tasks, in spite of their alleged whitewashing. Noah Ringer is a blessed relief: Like his name implies, he’s a dead ringer for the original Avatar‘s Aang, possessing the martial arts and acting chops, as well as an uncanny physical resemblance, to satisfy most of the series’ loyalists. Slumdog Millionaire standout Dev Patel is positively magnetic as the sour Prince Zuko, who spends half the film seething with anger and the other half kicking ass on all the tribes, including his own.
But things get complicated with Twilight dreamboat Jackson Rathbone, who has transformed Katara’s lovably hapless but still sharply loyal brother Sokka, with Shyamalan’s guidance, into a mostly humorless soldier. He really could stand to unclench his jaw and stare with less intensity through The Last Airbender. But without the character’s resilient humor, there is little else left for Rathbone to do. Unlike the other characters, Sokka has no bending skills. Rathbone’s iteration also has little in the way of charisma, a glaring mistake that will need to be ironed out should the planned trilogy, which is dependent on the film’s performance, come to pass.
And as Katara, Nicola Peltz succeeds in digging up the necessary empathy and beauty required to gloss over the fact that she, unlike Ringer, isn’t a martial arts pro. But that’s about it. In fact, she spends most of the film emoting and very little of it water-bending, which is a shame for all the daughters, including mine, who have looked up to the strong-willed, skilled character from the series. Shyamalan probably would have never made this film if his daughter hadn’t asked to spend Halloween inhabiting Katara herself.
The cast’s troubles get further complex as the film proceeds and a deeply diverse supporting cast of actors, stunt doubles and more makes Peltz and Rathbone stand out like tween heartthrobs lost in the spotlight. For all the criticism of whitewashing, Shyamalan is correct when he says that this is one of the most multicultural American productions in recent memory. Most of the major speaking roles are indeed pwned by people without color, to put it indelicately. But the rest are thankfully brought to life by a rainbow coalition of talent.
And Shyamalan has taken the film’s unheralded multiculturalism a controversial step further by asserting the correct ethnic pronunciation of everything from the characters’ very familiar names to the term avatar itself, which is derived from Sanskrit. It may sound like heresy to hear everyone pronouncing Aang as “Ahng,” but it’s legit, said Shyamalan. So let’s call it a draw.
This vertigo of interpretation, as well as the film’s sloppy velocity, can get intimidating. But comic relief arrives, often in the strangest of places. The Daily Show‘s brilliant comedian Aasif Mandvi turns the series’ penultimate Fire Nation asshole Admiral Zhao into a perhaps accidentally hilarious asshole. It’s really hard not to laugh when Mandvi is trying to be a bad guy, if you’ve enjoyed his work on Jon Stewart’s fake news laugher. If you haven’t, well…there’s the rub.
Stepping outside of the original series towering influence is nearly impossible while watching Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender, getting back to The Sixth Sense and The Happening director’s Sisyphean task. And judging it on its merits alone is a tricky affair, especially if you’ve read any of the ghastly reviews written by journos who have sadly never witnessed the glory of the original animated series. But both camps, the loyalists and the noobs, are correct in their general criticism that The Last Airbender is a blurry homage to the series’ environmental spirituality and ethnic diversity that could use much more coherence.
It’s a fine film, compared to traditionally incoherent summer blockbusters like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. It’s also a much more accessible film than most of Shyamalan’s back pages, like The Lady in the Water and The Happening. And it will probably make much more money than both of those films, if not all of his.
But compared to the series, it’s a light-speed condensation in search of a rest stop.