James Helsby

LRE #33: The Last Airbender

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Little Red Envelope

In my mailbox this week:
The Last Airbender

Release Year: 2010

Staring: Noah Ringer, Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone

One of the most popular US animation series of the last decade gets turned into a major motion picture. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan, it has an amazing twist; It Sucks Balls.

First the disclosure; Yes, I watched and loved the animated series. No, I didn’t let that taint my judgement on this movie. With all honesty I can take and appreciate an adaptation of a cartoon series into a live action movie. I wasn’t bothered by the TMNT movies, or Dragonball Evolution, or Scooby Doo, or Flintstones, or Transformers. I don’t think cartoons are sacred, and if nothing else they are prime for live-action.

That said, there is something atrocious about creating a film like the ones I listed above, and just ignoring the lore and history that goes along with the cartoon series. As a director, you should always understand that people already know about the world you are trying to create. It constrains you on one hand, but gives you a better frame work to build off of. You don’t necessarily have to explain every little detail of your universe, you can elaborate on some and ignore others. But you must always pay attention to the fact that the audience (in general) probably knows more about the story you are trying to tell, than you do.

Just like how there are hundreds of different incarnations of the story of Alice in Wonderland or Cinderella, you become painfully aware of the difference, sometimes at a lack for the similarities.

While The Last Airbender was an adaptation of the cartoon series Avatar: The Last Airbender, it became painfully obvious that M. Night Shyamalan paid very little attention to the story, in order to focus on the special effects. And those effects were done poorly, or at least with poor planning.

But a review is a review, and I will try to focus on 3 key elements to The Last Airbender that made it such a horrible movie for me. 1) The Acting. 2) The Writing. 3) The Action.

There are primarily 4 main characters in the film. Ang (Noah Ringer) is an Air Nomad, trapped in a frozen bubble of his own creation for around 100 years. He is what is called the avatar. A singular person in the world who has the ability to ‘bend’ or manipulate the four basic elements; Air Water Earth Fire. But because he is so young, and has been trapped in the frozen southern arctic, he hasn’t yet completed his training. His abilities are limited to being able to bend the air only.

Ang is freed from his confinement by Katara (Nicola Peltz) and her older brother Sakka (Jackson Rathbone). Katara is the last water bender in the Southern Water Tribe, although no one outside of her immediate family is aware of that fact. She has been training away from her village, with her brother as her guardian. Katara and Sakka’s mother was killed when they were both young, and their father is away ‘fighting in the war with the fire nation.’ Which is a concept that is barely touched during the film. When Katara and Sakka free Ang, Prince Zuko (Dev Patel) sees their release as a beacon of light, and rushes to try and capture the Avatar.

Zuko, who has been outcast by his father, the Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis) has been charged with capturing the Avatar, as his only way of rejoining his kingdom. Zuko is joined by his Uncle, Iroh (Shaun Toub), a legendary military commander who is perhaps unequaled in battle. But has since learned to have a kind heart.

So Zuko pursues the Avatar, and each time he gets close, he loses his grip. Not only on the Avatar, but on the situation itself.

While the premise sounds all fine and good, I have never understood the notion of ‘Wooden’ acting before seeing this movie. Honestly, no character has any range of emotion in balance with their situation. Zuko is constantly brooding, and it is annoying as hell. Even when he has a grasp on the situation, he is just captain Emo the cutter, with magical fire power. The character of Ang seems like he is constantly fighting back a smile, almost like he is just happy to be in the movie. And while I know that Ang is supposed to be a whimsical character, it doesn’t work. He can be in the midst of a blood rage, and he still looks like he is choking back that smile.

Sakka, I don’t really know how to describe. Transparent? Boring? Trying too hard? He trys cracking wise, but the jokes are never really there. And as the joker, most times you find your jokes funny before you even say them. That just doesn’t happen her. But the most annoying character of the bunch is Katara. Infuriating is perhaps the best description of her I can use.

You know when you see a little girl in a movie that is constantly crying, or doubting themselves, or wishing the situation was different? That’s her. Shallow beyond belief, and so painful to watch that I was actually looking for excuses to get up and grab a drink when ever she would come on the screen.

Perhaps the most egregious error of the film is in regard to the writing. While the subject of converting the story to a 3 part movie might be a daunting challenge, forgetting about the things you brought to screen in the first act, by the third act, is really bad. For this, I will site one specific example that was just dumbfounding.

When Katara and Sakka bring Ang back to their village, Katara’s Grandmother has to tell her about the Avatar, and why the Avatar is so special, and that Ang is the Avatar. Fast forward to the end of the third act, and Ang is sitting in quite mediation. Katara keeping watch over him, she says to him, “Ang? Ang, can you hear me? I knew you were real. I always knew you would return.”

So, at the beginning she knows nothing about the Avatar. By the end, she had always known about the Avatar. Stupid mistake, and one that is critical to the plot.

Finally lets discuss the action. This was perhaps the death nail for my enjoyment of the film. But in order to describe my grievance, I have to present an analogy. Let’s say that you had never seen a gun, or a bullet. And you had never seen a gun firing a bullet. You don’t know how fast it travels, or the kind of power it possess. It is something new and totally alien to you.

Now, you have your first viewing of a gun firing a bullet. And that viewing is done in super-slow motion. The bullet looks like it is traveling very slowly, but with a fair amount of power. When the bullet hits it’s target, the target is pushed back slowly when the bullet passes through. Subsequently, every time that you experience a gun shot, it is done via the same super-slow motion. Your perception of the power of a gun is influenced by the slow speed by which bullets fly.

In The Last Airbender, M. Night uses slow motion on all of the fight scenes. Every time that a water-hit is done, or a fire-hit, or a rock is thrown, it is show in slow motion. While this may have been intended to ‘enhance the effect’ the result is actually that everything seems weak, and powerless. Nothing has any speed to it. Just like the target being blown back, you fail to understand why the victim of the attack is falling to such a slow maneuver.

And tied directly to this, the time that it takes for the attacker to prime their attacks is just a joke. There was one scene, where it took 5 earth benders stomping their feet in some sort of coordinated marching band tribute, to hurl a basketball sized rock. Or when Prince Zuko and Katara are attacking, they each have around 10 seconds to build up some sort of defense (water vs fire, fire vs water) before the attacker can land a blow. It’s just pathetic. The fire and water themselves (the CGI effect) I can’t fault. They look real, and believable, it’s just the execution of their fighting that bothered me to no end.

I honestly think this is a horrible movie, and one that I can not recommend to even add to your Netflix queue. If you really want the story, skip the movie. Just rent the Cartoon series. It does a much better job than the movie does, without the bewilderingly bad acting, effects, and writing. And while I would still love to see them fix the problems and make the sequel (Ang and the gang travel to the Earth Kingdom, and meet with the blind bender Toph, and in the third installment finally facing the Fire Nation) this film isn’t worth the time and effort.

How painful was it:  Bad. Could have been so much more, but it was very bad.

Rating: 3/10. The universe is their for them to continue to build, but fire the actors for the sequel.

The Wife’s Retort: Is it over yet?

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