Other than getting to eat my roommate’s cooking all the time, one of the best things that happened last year was her introducing me to Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender. The show is full of fun episodes that form an epic adventure that spans all three seasons, is incredibly well written in concern to both plot and characters, and is beautifully animated. Basically it has everything needed to inspire a truly amazing live action big screen adaptation. Unfortunately M. Night Shyamalan’s interpretation of the source material is not something to show those who have yet to be initiated into the fan club.
Water, earth, fire, air. Though these basic elements have divided the four nations of the world throughout history, they lived in peace until the fire nation attacked. The people looked to the Avatar, the one person in the entire world who is the master of all four elements, to help find harmony once more. However their need would go unanswered, and for the next 100 years they were left to fend for themselves. Today the war still rages on as the fire nation continues to extend its reach further into the other weakening nations. As all hope seems lost, a brother and sister come across a boy frozen beneath the water’s surface of the southern pole, revealing himself to be the Avatar that disappeared so many years ago. Though a great amount of time has passed he must now return to the fight that he abandoned to bring peace and hope back to the four nations of the world.
In order to fit 20 episodes of the first season into under two hours of film it is expected that a lot of material will be lost, and in most cases this can be easily done without doing major damage. With that said, and as harsh as this may sound, after watching the film I felt as if Shyamalan was given a basic synopsis of the season and never actually watched the show himself. The overriding storyline stays intact, with the bookends of the season given top priority, while most of the material from the middle episodes is completely skipped over. It may sound like I am just a fan bitter about not getting to see my favorite moments, which is true in many ways, but a lot of what is recklessly ignored plays a major roll in the story to come (e.g. the Kyoshi Warriors) and the psyche of the characters (e.g. Aang’s first attempt at fire bending).
Not only are some major plot points and correct pronunciations of character names stupidly ignored, but the spirit of the show is completely abandoned. The major change is the complete lack of humor in the film’s script, which sinks more into doom and gloom. Sokka, the comedic go-to of the show, rarely cracks a smile let alone says anything humorous, and though Katara is the emotional center of the show, she was not always on the verge of tears as she is here. Even worse: for all the weight piled on Aang’s shoulders, what made his character complex was the fact that he was still a child and just wanted to be a child. He was lighthearted, fun, and slightly unwilling to come to terms with being the Avatar and savior of the world, a dichotomy that gives his character depth. But just like the dialog, the characters and relationships have become shallow, faint shadows of their former selves, making it almost impossible to judge the actors in their roles. Little was asked of the younger cast, and though Dev Patel and Jackson Rathbone have proven in other films that they are fine actors, we can only assess through hints in Noah Ringer and Nicola Peltz’s performances as Aang and Katara that they would have been more than capable of handling much more, even if they still have room to grow (à la the cast at the start of Harry Potter).
One thing that was done right was capturing the fighting style of the show. Though there is a certain understanding in the fighting and bending styles, they remain imaginative in how they are used in both offensive and defensive means, and the use of acrobatic influences and computer rendered elements is quite fun to watch. Plus, there are many slow motion shots in which we are able to fully take in the artistry of these battles. Yet even this comes with a downside. Outside these slomo shots the action is awkwardly slowed down in many cases as if to make sure the audience is seeing everything, which takes away the feeling of a real danger when the threat is inching towards the target. In my opinion, if a fireball is being flung at someone it should be singeing their eyebrows; not giving them time to apply flame retardant.
If you haven’t picked up on my bitterness, The Last Airbender let me down as a fan of the source material. It is shallow, poorly written in concern to both the story and characters, somehow manages to have little substance though it should have been bursting at the seams thanks to its ridiculously short runtime, and completely misrepresents the tone and spirit of the show. I still hope it does well so that a sequel will be given the chance to correct the mistakes made by this first film, but the wind has been taken out of my sails at this point. But at least I have three seasons of over 60 episodes to help me remember just how great this story really is.
Final Grade: D+