“But the Effects Were Decent”: A Review of The Last Airbender

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The fires of critics have declared blasphemy. But some believe there is still hope.

A week ago, I may have unnecessarily shot off more that I can stomach when I ended a previous article [this one] by stating the upcoming live action film adaptation of Avatar the Last Airbender as a possible candidate for the beginning of what could become the next Harry Potter, or even Star Wars.

Well now I’m back, and after sticking three or four toes in my mouth, I am left to salvage what ashes are left after a fleet of critics and die hard fans have swept through this film and burned it to the ground.

Now, I myself have been a fan of this series since the very beginning. I was in the theatre Thursday evening where half the movie goers were people I had a personal hand in introducing to the show. Unlike a lot of them, I had a long time to massage the fact that this movie could very easily miss it’s mark. I told myself, ‘no matter. I’ll just be the optimistic one, laugh it off, and quote Sokka’s final line at the end of ep.317.’ Low and behold… that was more or less exactly what happened.’

Okay, I’ve done my fair share of bashing. I’ve devastated Transformers for it’s pointless unlikable human characters and making the robots the C story of their own movies. I’m appalled by even the thought of Twilight and the negative messages it sends to its young female demographic (including my own sister), not to mention obliterating anything and everything that was once cool or scary about vampires and werewolves. And as for all the complaints 20th Century Fox has got for destroying so many popular Marvel characters: Galactus, the Phoenix, Deadpool (or should I say ‘Barakapool’)? Completely legit.

But this… I feel like I’m getting Spiderman 3 vibes all over again. By that I mean, was the movie disappointing? Yes. Were there things that frustrated the crap out of me as a fan? Of course there were. Did I think these things justified the sheer amount of scorn and trash talking this movie has received to put it at the same level of travesty as the crap I’ve listed above? Absolutely not.

Yeah, surprisingly enough, I didn’t completely hate The Last Airbender. And I’m going to tell you why.

Katara: Aang, no one said this was going to be easy.

Aang: Well, it’s not even going to be possible.

To start, I believe it is necessary to bring up just how ridiculous of a task M. Night Shyamalan was presented. Not only is he dealing with a genre that he has never once touched on in his entire career, he has the pressure of condensing this source material into less than two hours. This isn’t like other shows with dozens of filler and irrelevant loose ends. Nearly each episode of Book 1 shares some way in furthering the progression of the plot, the world, and it’s signature characters (yeah, even The Great Divide). I almost feel like anyone attempting this might as well be given a thirty-foot diameter arch-reactor and told to condense it to fit in the grip of someones hand.

“I’m sorry. I’m not Tony Stark. But for the love of Aang, I’m going to try anyway.”

“Thanks positive attitude.”

Let’s talk about what was good about the movie, because contrary to popular belief, The Last Airbender had plenty of redeeming qualities. I could tell right from the start that the creators did their homework when it came to creating the universe. The set pieces were crafted brilliantly. It almost felt uncanny how well these locals translated into live action. All the costumes resonated well. The crafting of the Fire Nation ships and other machines were spot on. For a movie with such a huge focus on special effects, the crew did an amazing job with all the finer details.

Here was one of my favorite locations. Spirit oasis = gorgeous!

Speaking of effects, they were better than decent. I don’t think I could be happier with how they turned out. The bending did just what it needed to do and definitely made me go “oh snap!” at points. Appa and Momo both turned out a lot better than I was initially expecting. Their scenes were few and far between, and I can understand if they were skeptical about putting them in too much. But hey, if your only complaint about something is that you wish there were more of it, that’s a pretty good sign.

Couple both of those with a downright heart pounding music score by James N. Howard. Huge expectations were set for him by Track Team, and he definitely rose to the challenge. This has got to be one of the most epic original movie themes since the Harry Potter movies started.

So, for all elements that were done really really really well, I’m giving the movie one redemption point.

Now for the cast. Before you ask, I’m not going to address any of the race issues in the movie, because, quite frankly, I’m sick and tired of the whole freaking argument. For starters I liked that very few of these people were big names, so I’m not sitting in my seat thinking “That’s just [such and such actor]saying [such and such character’s]lines.” Pelts, while she doesn’t look like Katara, I felt nailed the personality, after toning down a lot of her whining and hope speeches. I have a friend who’s a huge Tai Chi practitioner, and from what he’s told me, her motions were pretty spot on. Patel acquit himself quite competently as Zuko. While his performance was simple and strait forward, I didn’t think Zuko became that complicated of a character until Book 2 anyway. He did great with his fight scenes though. Aasif Mandvi was a definite surprise as Zhao. Shychelle Gabriel’s Yue was a huge improvement from what I’ve seen her in the past. (‘cough’ The Spirit) To confess, I got more teary-eyed in her final scene than when (SPOILER ALERT!) Dumbledore died at the end of The Half-Blood Prince.

If anyone was under used, it was Jackson Rathbone and Shaun Toub, which sucks because both play probably the most dynamic characters on the show. It just felt like they were given nothing to work with. I understand that when Night toned down the overall mood, it took away from their character’s sense of fun and intrigue. Still, it’s nice to see a former one-dimensional wannabe vampire with a constant look of pain on his face attempt a character with a little more meat to him.

Ha! Get it? Sokka? Meat?

“You are The Last Airbender, Noah. The fate of the movie lies in your hands.” And people wonder why he looks so nervous.

I haven’t seen all of Shyamalan’s movies, but the one’s I have seen (Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs.), I’ve always been impressed with his kid actors. Now I’ve thought and thought about this, and honest to Roku, I can’t see anyone else playing Aang’s part better than Noah Ringer. In my opinion, he was perfect. Very few people share this opinion, and in fact, many thought his performance was appalling.

Here’s a scenario: You are a 16 year-old-boy. You are soft spoken with a good heart. You have no professional experience in acting whatsoever. What you DO have experience and a passion in is a wave of medieval folklore tools. You are an amazing swordsman, an impressive archer, and even skilled with a grappling hook. One day, some big producer or director comes up to you and says “You’re a talented kid. I want you to play Link in a Legend of Zelda movie.” You’d probably pee your pants. And then you’d do it.

That’s basically what’s happened to Noah here. For everyone saying that he looked nervous, self-conscious, didn’t smile enough, whatever, I’m saying, “Well gee! Aren’t those the emotions you would expect of a twelve year old boy given the task of being the world’s only hope of defeating the baddest man on the planet and ending a hundred year war?”

That’s what made the performance so perfect for me. The pressure put on Noah to perform in this film was an amazing parallel to the pressure placed on Aang as the Avatar. Also, I know this might sound hypocritical coming from an English-Writing major, but I’m a strong believer that actions speak louder than words, and what Noah DID in the movie was nothing short of phenomenal.

Clearly, Shyamalan has never seen this special puppetbender video about Name-Identification-Terrible-Pronunciation-Ignorance-Control-Keys. He might want to look into it.

Now for the problems, and boy were there some doozies. To start, ‘Awng’ ‘So-ca’ and ‘Eero’ all had their names butchered. It’s astounding how something as little as pronouncing a character’s names incorrectly can utterly destroy the entire mood of a scene. But you know what’s worse? It’s not even right to call them mispronunciations; They were repronunciations. Shyamalan and everyone else in the production made a conscious decision to change the syntax of these names. Obvious reason: they wanted the names to sound more authentic to the culture they were trying to create, and not sound too cartoony. Okay, I can understand the reasoning behind that. They made a decision and they did it for the right reasons. But it didn’t work. It just made us fans cringe and killed the mood every time we heard it. Therefore I’m docking one point from the movie’s overall score.

Oops! What went wrong there?

With what little screen time the Earth Kingdom was able to get, you could imagine my disappointment when Suki and the Kyoshi Warriors never showed up. It’s not so much the shock that characters were cut by any means, but more the fact that they were openly advertised as being in the movie. There was photos of them in production. The statue of Avatar Kyoshi was in the movie, and I’m pretty sure I knew at what point their scene was suppose to come. So this must have been some last-minute-development. I actually feel worse for Jessica Andres and the other girls that must have put quite some time and effort into their performance. I’d like to hope they will be in deleted scenes or an uncut version of the movie on DVD, but for now, this is an instance of false advertising. So there goes another point.

I’m taking a third point away for the writing. While there were maybe a few bits of dialogue that I felt were presented really well, overall, it was pretty dang bad. Major reason is that 90% of it was forced to be exposition to progress the plot. While that was unavoidable, it left very little room for the characters to actually stretch their vocal cords and express themselves.

All other liberties and qualms other people had, I was able to swallow pretty well. Rookie firebenders needing a source of fire: while unnecessary, they made it work. Sozin’s comet coming in three years as opposed to three seasons: for continuity sake, they would need time to make the sequels. The Dragon in the spirit world: I saw it as Roku speaking though his animal guide Fang, so it worked for me.

The Blue Spirit mask having hair: I thought it was kinda cool looking actually.

At this point, I have to wonder. Am I just trying to be like Aang? Approaching the movie from a different angle? Looking at how bad it could have been, rather than what I think should have happened? In all seriousness, it was nowhere near as god awful as Dragonball Evolution (sorry Mr. Pranger) (Pranger’s Note: Gus, I reviewed DB Evolution last year and said it was terrible, so…), but yes, I would have much more appreciated it if it was at the level of quality as the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (which after 20 years, is STILL the greatest cartoon-to-movie live action adaptation ever made.) (Pranger’s Note: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, while at the time experiencing popularity as a cartoon of the same name, was a movie with a plot based off the original comics). As it turns out, I’ve accepted that it’s somewhere in between.

“But I’m ready to do so much more!”

As it stands, I won’t be surprised if Shyamalan and the rest of the cast and crew are forced to drop camp and call it quits. I think that’s a real shame, because they obviously worked really hard and enjoyed themselves without any idea what they were getting into. After all the criticism, they know exactly what they need to improve on. Like our good old Uncle said in Book 2 ep.12 “I believe people can change their lives if they want to. I believe in second chances.”

Plus I gotta admit, Summer Bishil’s interpretation of a certain Fire Nation Princess is already creeping me out.

Final census: The Last Airbender, while undoubtedly flawed, is extremely underrated.

My final score is… let’s see? 5 minus 3, plus the one redemption point…

A 3 out of 5.

P.S. Anyone who’s been spouting that Shyamalan has “destroyed the series,” or “ruined my childhood,” take a deep breath and listen to yourself. Or better yet, open your eyes. He has destroyed nothing. The TV series still exists in its entirely, and guess what? It is still awesome. Nothing’s changed apart from your skewed perspective. Relax.

Want more movie reviews? Check these out:

Dragonball Evolution: A Fan’s Dreams Are Shattered

Forget-Them-Not: Toy Story 3

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2 Comments

  1. Katara was quite often a cry-baby through this series, always desiring for Hope but requiring it from someone else. She shown no personal interest or struggle for the events around her, and mainly took a backseat to the story. This led to a main question as to why she was even there, in many scenes.

    To compare this with her cartoon counterpart…
    She lacked her motherly counterpart
    She was no longer her bold, self-assuring, brave self
    She doesn’t show the same concern for all the lives harmed by the fire nation
    She is not at wildly headstrong in her beliefs (In fact, what beliefs…)

    In summary, she seemed more like the Ember Island Players actress Katara, than Katara herself. MAJOR let-down for me, seeing as she is my favorite character. Katara the female wuss: why did you have to replace the gifted, spirited Katara?

  2. will-kill-for-exclusivity on

    i liked the movie

    although the dialogues were few and far between yet

    it was a visual treat and more like …….whats gonna happen next 3.5 out of four stars for me.

    what made it fail was that shaymalan decided to give the movie a dark tone and yet trying to give it a PG rating.
    also almost 40 minutes worth of footage was cut. now 40 minutes is too much to suck the soul out from any film. remember the “KINGDOM OF HEAVEN”

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