The Last Airbender May 1, 2019 14:30:01 GMT -5
Post by StevePulaski on May 1, 2019 14:30:01 GMT -5
The Last Airbender (2010)
Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
From the jump, M. Night Shyamalan's The Last Airbender feels like a fantasy/adventure film from the late 1990s and early aughts. The kind of cheap, inoffensive, hokey YA drivel that hoped to kickstart a franchise, when in reality, it could barely function as a standalone feature due to innumerable shortcomings. Such films of its class are Eragon, City of Ember, The Pagemaster, and Hoot, just to name a forgettable few, but some would go as far as to say Shyamalan's bastardization of the beloved Nickelodeon anime program is far and away the worst of its kind. That would be a hard assertion to brush off, although I will compromise by saying that, for a bad movie, it has a lot of interesting quirks that further illustrate why Shyamalan is such an enigmatic director.
The Nickelodeon program, Avatar: The Last Airbender, was one of the network's most unique shows in the 2000s. From its art direction, humor, and cultural richness, it quickly became popular amongst a large, devoted fan-base who was eager to see it eventually make the leap to the big screen. That excitement was promptly stomped when it was confirmed that Shyamalan and Paramount Pictures would opt to make the film adaptation live-action. By and large, I can't understand why so many studios are eager to turn material that is often born to be animation into something they feel should exist in the real-world. The result is often ugly and clumsy, not to mention, entirely ineffective. Just like when it came to straining the ingenuity and animated creativity of The Fairly Oddparents by making a handful of live-action movies, Nickelodeon has been ultra-ready to send its properties and fans up the river by harboring the belief that any animated show can be brought into the real world.
The convoluted plot is set amidst a world where four tribes exist, each representing an element (air, water, earth, and fire). In this world are individuals known as "benders," who can manipulate a respective element, but none so powerful as the "Avatar," who can control all four elements. The "Avatar," as he's known, has been missing for 100 years, but reemerges in the opening minutes of The Last Airbender when siblings of the water tribe, Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), discover him frozen beneath a large body of ice. The Avatar is Aang (Noah Ringer), who is dismayed to realize that the monks who once trained and guided him many moons ago are dead, mostly slaughtered as a result of unrest between tribes. Soon after he's reintroduced to society, the three find themselves under attack by members of the fire tribe, guided by the rebellious Prince Zuko (Dev Patel), who initially captures Aang but not long enough for him to slither his way out of Zuko's captivity. This leads him to be hunted by Zuko and Fire Commander Zhao (Aasif Mandvi), while Katara and Sokka assist Aang in taking him to the land occupied by the earth tribe so he can make an attempt to awaken some of his powers — whatever they may be.
Anyone who has familiarized themselves with Shyamalan or the themes in his diverse catalog of movies can understand why he would proclaim a story like The Last Airbender's as one so personal and moving to him. The simultaneously interweaving of spirituality and story of a young boy finding his identity in a cruel and relentless world would understandably have an effect on someone who was both built up to new heights and later ravaged by a fawning media and audiences of all ages. As such, it's hard to ignore what an emphasis on mood and tone there is throughout the movie. Shyamalan, a very visual filmmaker, teams up with cinematographer Andrew Lesnie (Lord of the Rings) to accentuate an eye-popping color palette of cool blues and deep reds that, if nothing else, tantalize because they are so germane tonally to the events occurring in a specific scene.
But the most immediate problem with The Last Airbender is it's adapted from material born to be turned loose in the boundless realm of animation as opposed to live-action. Imagine Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away brought into the real world. It doesn't make a bit of sense why a concept nor source material of this magnitude should exist in the real world, as the very premise is so far beyond logic and the confines of reality that bringing them into any kind of setting, regardless of how fantastical, just looks silly and superfluous. Having originated from a Nickelodeon series (one of the only Anime series, not to mention debatably the most popular Anime series in America for a long time), there is indeed a reference point for how the characters should look and how the material should entrance the audience, all the more reason why making The Last Airbender live-action was a flawed, creatively detrimental decision that handicapped the entire movie.
Beyond that, it's a daunting challenge to take a story this rich and make it into a sub-120 minute film. From a rushed prologue that segways into a choppy first act and a discombobulated second half, The Last Airbender fails early and fails often at establishing characterization and structure. The abundance of narration is only a telltale sign of how botched this film had to be in post-production, with much of its richness and dialog finding home on the cutting room floor, leaving cloying voiceover as the only solution to an otherwise greatly incoherent project.
The three leads are not incompetent actors by any means, but they are inexperienced, and too often, Ringer, Peltz, and Rathbone look like they are struggling to get comfortable working with objects and characters who do not exist in the real world. Their performances come off as hokey because they are novice actors, working in a production that smothers them from the start, not to mention forces them to carry themselves with the confidence they do not seem to possess as performers quite yet. Dev Patel's dark, sinister performance works on some level because he seems the most self-assured, but during bits where his Prince Zuko is at the center of a scene, it only shows how out of place he is amongst such novice actors.
Subtextually, it's not hard to understand why Shyamalan found himself so captivated by the material, but he just can't make it digestible for others to appreciate either. The Last Airbender is too incoherent, sometimes too visually drab, and the actors just aren't charismatic enough to carry the lion's weight of it all. I remember when the film's trailer was released and the uproar it caused. At the time, I was still very much attached to many of Nickelodeon's shows and my research into the production of many of them was at slowly moving off its peak. I, myself, not a fan of Avatar, sympathized with fans disgusted by the bastardization of an enriching story they not only grew up with and loved for the nostalgia it brought, but deeply connected with on a personal level. From the jump, it disillusioned the loyal fans of the Nickelodeon series, and by looking and feeling like a third-rate fantasy film from a bygone era, it effectively pleased no one, which explains why its legacy is ignominious at best.
Starring: Noah Ringer, Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone, Dev Patel, and Aasif Mandvi. Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan.