The film follows three plot lines, a brother and sister from the water kingdom, a exiled prince of the fire kingdom, and the last airbender who just so happens to be a mythological deity, or Avatar, that has been missing from the world for the last 100 years. The prince has been looking for the Avatar and after the brother and sister accidentally awaken him from his unknown slumber the group’s destinies become intertwined.
Now, the film was one that I was excited for, I was intrigued by Shyamalan doing something that wasn’t his own, ILM’s work looked great in the trailers, and the source materials praise was enough to get excited. But sadly my excitement was not quenched and I never really fell into any true enjoyment of the picture. I have not seen the TV series and if you have not either you’re not going too have a lot to grasp onto when watching this film as it moves forward skimming through the 13 or so TV episodes it is based on. Things move fast, we don’t get a lot of substance, and characters and relationships are built up with little to no ground to stand on. It is just impossible to become engaged in what is going on and not feel like we are skimming the surface of something much deeper and rich. And you do feel like there is a ton of potential as an uninitiated viewer, the world seems rich and full of interesting mythology and fantasy but we rarely feel like we are experiencing something unique and special. The feel or the material feels very familiar for any fans of fantasy and stylistically you can see a lot of Shyamalan’s inspirations from other big budget fantasy films of recent years. The film only occasionally feels unique and owns itself and its material as something original but Shyamalan’s direction seems to not quite work with the film.
Shyamalan can be a great director and I am not a basher of the man like many have become. But his dialogue has always been fairly simple and minimal and he does nothing to enrich the source. Added to this, he gets some pretty bad work from a few of the films actors. Everyone seems to be shouting their dialogue the whole time and overacting beyond belief. Shyamalan also seems to not quite be up to the action in the picture as everything just feels like it is moving in slow motion when things should be lightning fast. I get it is trying to be graceful and beautiful but there were too many occasions where I felt like I could have ran up and punched someone while they tried to bend the elements or make their next move. The final fight sequence of the film though, as Aang heads up to the top of the wall, was the only awesome thing in the movie. Also, the 3-D, it looked good for the post-conversion process, but they really didn’t try to do a whole lot with it. This might have helped actually as they didn’t try to make everything pop and instead just focused on the money shots not looking horrible and in that the succeeded. But, I would have much rather watched it in 2-D if I had to watch again, without a doubt, it seemed way darker than usual for a 3-D film. Also, the sound in our theater seemed out of whack, which might have heart the film a bit, but nothing of great significance.
Of the actors, the Fire Nation were the only ones to really do anything of interest with Dev Patel surprising us as a fairly interesting villain and an appropriate tone and performance. Aasif Mandvi is also slimy and good in his first major film role and I think people will remember the Daily Show vet as one of the better parts of the film. Jackson Rathbone luckily has Eclipse coming out this week as well, as he is superior in that compared to his blah work here, but Nicola Peltz takes the cake by being by far the worst thing about the movie; sorry Nicola. Noah Ringer looks the part and handles the action well of Aang, but I am not quite sure how I feel about his characterization beyond that. Maybe a fan of the show could clue me in on if he fit the bill. If it is of any worth, I don’t think anyone really had a whole lot to work with as they are basically spouting pure exposition, please show us, don’t tell filmmakers, most of the time and there is nary a fun line to be found in the uninspired script and direction.
In the end, The Last Airbender feels like a huge missed opportunity. There is a potentially fun and great movie in here and apparently I will have to go to the TV show to find that; which I plan to. So as a promotion for the show it does a good job, sadly it is in the vein that I am thinking, “Wow, there is something kind of cool here. Too bad it isn’t this.” It will be interesting if they will get to make books two and three, and I imagine if this does well they will bank roll the next two at once, let’s just hope they turn out better than this. Oh well, at least it sounds like there is one great version of this already in existence.