I must confess that I have missed out on chances to really vent about a remake or recreation of a story I like. The Star Wars prequels began when I was only nine, and my taste in film was not mature enough at the time to see how bad they were. Likewise, I had only seen the original versions of The Karate Kid and A Nightmare on Elm Street once before reviewing the remakes, so my understanding of those movies was informed yet rudimentary. The Last Airbender, director M. Night Shyamalan’s adaptation of the Nickelodeon series Avatar: The Last Airbender, has now granted me an irresistible opportunity. Shyamalan’s movie is such a hollow and anemic version of that superb show that the fan in me cannot wait to tell you how slipshod this product is.

Both the show and the film take place in a mythical land where people can manipulate, or bend, the elements of water, earth, fire and air. Near the end of a century-long war between the four nations, an Airbender boy named Aang emerges as the Avatar, the one who can bend all the elements and the world’s last hope for peace. The series is gorgeously designed, wonderfully staged and impeccably acted. The movie is the opposite of those attributes and is far less worthy of anyone’s time.

Writing was not always the series’ strongest asset (they had to work within the limits of a children's network), but the scripts were often funny and rarely boring. Shyamalan’s screenplay, which covers the show’s first season, is set on an exposition cruise control. The characters (especially Katara, the female lead and narrator) explain this world and their journeys ad infinitum, never trusting the visuals to tell anything effective. This recounting may have been more tolerable if delivered by persuasive actors, but most of the cast speaks with a default humorless inflection. Dev Patel and Shaun Toub succeed at retaining some of their characters’ defining traits, but everybody else seems to be acting with only a perfunctory knowledge of their characters.

Take the example of Commander Zhao, a Fire Nation villain with a tremendous disparity between his television and film counterparts. Jason Issacs (the Harry Potter films) plays him in the series as an arrogant lout with wavering respect to his superiors. Aasif Mandavi (The Daily Show with John Stewart) plays him in the movie as a teacher’s pet who is clearly too small for his britches. The only possible threat he poses to anyone is that he can shoot fire at people. Under Shyamalan’s direction, Zhao and the rest of the characters have become shallow remnants of the show’s terrific line of personalities.

I already expected Shyamalan would cut many great bits from the series, but the final film eliminates an inexcusable amount of character-defining moments and comedy relief. It retains so little material that it barely allows the audience to connect with the characters. By the end of the movie, Katara’s relationship with Aang still seems to just be that of an awed acquaintance because she is never shown interacting with him personally. Furthermore, there is no sense of accomplishment when the heroes finally reach the Northern Water Tribe because there is no personal investment in their struggle. These figures’ sole purpose here is to be harbingers for combat and special effects. This rushed and impersonal approach will be boring and confusing to newcomers and utterly colorless to the show’s admirers.

The Last Airbender is also quite inept as a standalone action movie. The choreography is so flourished that it makes the bending arts look more like magic spells than extensions of a person’s abilities. The presentation of these scenes is intermittent in quality. I was pleased to see Shyamalan willing to extend the shot length in the fights, contrary to the rapid cutting in movies like Prince of Persia and The Karate Kid. However, the continuous use of zoom-ins and slow motion and the oppressively tight framing of the subjects make the displays feel disorienting. The audience is not fully able to observe the action and, consequently, has even fewer reasons to care about the proceedings.

In the event that a sequel is produced, some serious retooling is needed to give this story the epic majesty it deserves. The filmmakers should lengthen the movie to give the characters more time to develop, and they should hire another writer, if not a different director, to enliven the dialogue and to include some more humor. I hope Shyamalan will pay attention to what critics and viewers are saying about The Last Airbender, because this would be a poor franchise if he continues it the way he started it.

First printed in The Coastland Times.


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