Monday, December 27, 2010

M. Night Shyamalan Creates A Film That Doesn't Hinge On A Twist! The Last Airbender Still Whimpers.

The Good: Excellent effects, Decent hero story
The Bad: Very obvious set-up/story arcs, Young acting is frequently melodramatic.
The Basics: A surprisingly engaging fantasy film geared for youngsters, The Last Airbender is almost tight enough to entertain adults, save the acting and anime delivery conceits.

It has been a long time since I saw a good fantasy hero story that I actually enjoyed enough to enthusiastically recommend. Appropriately enough, the same may be said for movies by writer and director M. Night Shyamalan. Both streaks have ended, though with the emergence of The Last Airbender and Shyamalan finally has the franchise he always wanted (Unbreakable was supposed to be the first in a film series, but its commercial failure prevented the director from continuing with that). In many ways, The Last Airbender, which is Shyamalan’s 2010 entry into Summer Blockbuster Season is a very typical hero story, but the density of its opening instantly clues the viewer into the beginning of a franchise, whether or not Shyamalan wanted that feel to it. In other words, even from the beginning, there is an appropriately epic quality to the film.

It ought to be noted right up front that: 1. The Last Airbender is a remake or reimagining of the anime work Avatar: The Last Airbender, and 2. I have never seen an episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender, read any of the manga nor even seen any of the new action figures that accompany this film. I went into the screening of it a complete blank slate. That said, The Last Airbender is an ambitious start to the franchise, even if it seems like Shyamalan and his production crew had to pull punches at certain moments.

There are four known elements in the world: Fire, Air, Earth and Water. The world has been devastated by a long war waged by the Fire Nation upon the Earth and Water Nations (Air has pretty much already fallen to the Fire Nation and those who identify with Air are now nomadic and spread thin). Hope, however, comes in the form of Aang. Aang appears to be only twelve years old, but he is actually far older as he was frozen and is reanimated through Katara and Sokka.  Aang is the last of the protectors and manipulators of Air, an Avatar known as an Airbender. Aang finds himself in the company of the Water Tribe and Sokka and his younger sister, Katara. Aang has the ability to airbend, manipulate air to do its bidding, but he soon learns that the other elements may be within his grasp with the right training.

As a result, Aang, Sokka and Katara set off for the north pole where they hope to find a master of waterbending who might be able to teach Aang how to waterbend and help them to repel the Fire Nation. Unfortunately for the heroes, they are hunted by the disgraced Prince Zuko, who hopes to regain the natural line to the throne by capturing Aang and prove himself to Lord Ozai. But just as Zuko is hunting the young Airbender and his friends, so too are other Fire Nation leaders and all signs point that if Aang falls, the world will fall to Fire!

The Last Airbender is an ambitious start to a fantasy series that feels incredibly familiar in some ways. M. Night Shyamalan, who wrote the movie, is clearly not attempting to reinvent the wheel with the hero narrative and the plot for The Last Airbender is simple and direct in a way that will not surprise most moviegoers. Given that this film was co-created by Nickelodeon Movies, it is no surprise that the plot is kept somewhat simple with reversals that one suspects even young people will see coming. Even so, it is not unenjoyable and there are moments that certainly seek to push the envelope of a fantasy film geared toward youngsters.

Even so, there is very little that is truly bothersome for parents in The Last Airbender. Despite having pretty incredible special effects at moments, the relationships are kept very much platonic. Aang appears to be 12 and his friends are only a few years older than him. The movie plays much more like a buddy film than a movie that is building romantic interests between the protagonists (much like the early Harry Potter films). And like many movies with a hero in the process of becoming, Aang goes through a lot of training and dispenses and receives a great deal of expository dialogue, in this case frequently delivered with inappropriately heightened senses of emotion. The movie is packed with enough information to make the universe it is set in seem plausible without it ever slowing the pace down or feeling the like the viewer is being unnecessarily lectured.

Aang is a likable protagonist as well. He has all the characteristics of the archetypal hero, including the desire to do good and to help those around him. What Shyamalan manages to do well with Aang is present the idea of responsibility and the way it clashes with Aang’s inherent desires to have fun and do his own thing make him a much more compelling and realistic protagonist. Similarly, Prince Zuko is appropriately fleshed out for a villain who might otherwise appear monolithic. Zuko is the disgraced leader and while there are moments he seems like he might simply be acting out of a sense of entitlement, his desire to regain his position as legitimate heir to the throne seems to truly come from his desire to see his people excel.

Zuko is played by Dev Patel, who might still best be known for Slumdog Millionaire (reviewed here!). In The Last Airbender, he sublimates his good guy nature and presents a character who is hurt, angry and works masterfully as a villain. In fact, the only real difficulty with Patel’s performance is believing his character is so young. Similarly, Jackson Rathbone (Sokka) and Nicola Peltz (Katara) give decent supporting performances that make one want to see where they might go in the future.

But much of the film hinges on the performance of Noah Ringer, who plays Aang. Ringer is actually a tween and he is charged with portraying a character who only appears to be so young. Ringer has moments when he stares, when he sets his jaw and when he speaks where he effectively connotes his character’s true age and that type acting ability is certainly uncommon. Ringer succeeds with what he has to and he holds his own as well in the physical scenes. But more often than that, Ringer and Peltz are compelled to give deliveries with the start and stop of melodrama that is common to anime works and this acts as a severe drag on the film, especially in the middle of the movie.

As far as the special effects go, they work in The Last Airbender, but are nothing groundbreaking. Fans of big special effects films will be pleased, just as fans of drama will be happy that Shyamalan does not go over-the-top with them.

Ultimately, The Last Airbender does just what one hopes a summer popcorn movie will do: it entertains and makes one care about the characters. Who could ask for more?

For other fantasy films, please check out my reviews of:
The Twilight Saga: Eclipse
The Chronicles Of Narnia: Prince Caspian
Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl


For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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  1. The awkward line delivery, which you think stems from the show, is purely the fault of the director and actors, NOT the source material. The anime is not a real anime. It's a Nickelodeon show made by two American animators. There is no manga to go with it.

  2. Thanks for the info! In that case . . . it might be a lot worse than I thought originally! Seeing the film the second time, the acting just was so clunky in parts. Thanks for the comment and thanks for reading!