Thursday, July 8, 2010

Bent Until Nearly Broken

The Last Airbender

Release: 07.01.10
Rated PG
1 hour, 43 minutes

Second Run Seats

In a world of martial arts and elemental mysticism, the four kingdoms, Water, Earth, Air and Fire, live in harmony. While members of each nation are masters over their respective elements, balance is maintained by the Avatar; a person capable of controlling all four elements. When the Avatar vanished, the Fire Nation waged war. One hundred years later, Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone, Twilight) of the Southern Water Tribe have stumbled across a boy and his flying bison frozen in a sphere of ice. Once young Aang (Noah Ringer) thaws and proves himself to be the last Airbender, it isn't long before word spreads that the Avatar, and the world's last chance for peace, has returned.

The Last Airbender is based on the award-winning animated Nickelodeon series, Avatar: The Last Airbender, created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. The adaptation was written, directed, produced and fucked by M. Night Shyamalan (Lady in the Water). Twenty episodes of mythology to draw upon and yet the man couldn't even regurgitate the story in a compelling way! As a fan of the series, maybe my expectations were too high, but I can easily set my qualms about his reimagining aside to criticize the plethora of other problems.

Casting is the obvious issue. I didn't buy into the racist spiel/media hype surrounding his choices. I didn't care the Water Nation was comprised of white folks; I did care that not a single cracker could act their way out of a wet paper sack. In more than one scene, Katara seemed to read lines off a cue card. Aang wasn't much better. It wasn't just the kids. I love the comedy of Aasif Mandvi (The Proposal), but Commander Zhao is an unhinged badass, not a man with a deer-caught-in-the-headlights stare. It's like he wanted to exclaim, "Look Ma, I'm in a big boy part!" The only smart casting choice Shyamalan made was not putting himself in the movie.

The film's budget was definitely dumped into the special effects and it shows. Appa, the flying bison and Momo, the winged lemur looked great, even if they were only set decoration.

Dirty Undies
To the good, the action sequences were decent, just way too showy. If all benders spent that much time posing and articulating to manipulate the elements, a quick gut punch or kick to the groin would end most battles before they start. All the flourishes were probably meant to keep the PG rating rather than explore the mystical world of bending.

Even though a healthy dose of action can overcome the worst acting, it can't make up for a jumbled plot. Shyamalan crafted a few shot-for-shot scenes, but left the spirit of the series on the cutting-room floor. Levity is one of the most important elements to the cartoon. Aang's childlike innocence is infectious. It serves as a counterbalance to the serious, anger-driven motives of the Fire Nation. Shyamalan also spent far too much of the story's runtime relying on character voice-overs to explain backstory. You know, the medium of film can also be used to create these wonderful things known as flashbacks. Next time, use them instead of boring the audience to tears with exposition.

The Money Shot
I hoped The Last Airbender would be the beginning of a fantasy franchise I'd actually care to follow. I also thought it would restore my faith in Shyamalan's skills as a director. I can safely say that I won't waste another dollar on future installments as long as Shyamalan is at the helm.

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