Bottom line: The feature film adaptation of Nickelodeon’s anime series tells the story correctly, but in the wrong way.
As a child of the ‘90s generation, Avatar: The Last Airbender was a TV show that came a bit after my time. Nevertheless, I still associate the Nickelodeon cartoon with the fond memories of my childhood — memories I feared would be ruined by the translation of The Last Airbender to the big screen.
Thankfully, M. Night Shyamalan’s adaptation of the cartoon series, released July 1, pays due respect to the story’s integrity — albeit while adding a substantially more dramatic element to narrative. The film follows Aang (Noah Ringer), a young airbender, in his journey and reluctant acceptance of his role as the Avatar — who is able to control or “bend” the four elements: fire, air, earth and water. In order to master the other elements, Aang and his friends, Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone, Twilight) journey to the North Pole to learn waterbending from a master of the craft. Meanwhile, Fire Lord Orzai leads the Fire Nation in a war against the Water Tribes and Earth Kingdom, having already defeated the Air Nomads. Competing against his exiled son, Prince Zuko (Dev Patel, Slumdog Millionaire), in a race to find and capture the Avatar, Orzai battles to maintain the Fire Nation’s supremacy over the other tribes.
Having effectively adapted the television plot for a movie, Shyamalan’s greatest downfall in The Last Airbender is his complete cultural ignorance. The original Nickelodeon series was inextricably rooted in Asian culture — yet, disregarding the film’s extras — the actor scene is remarkably white. Until we get to the evil Fire Nation, which is almost wholly Indian and of a darker complexion than the “good guys.”
Noah Ringer plays Aang with a striking charisma, flaunting his martial arts skills in the movie’s abundant fighting and action sequences. Ringer’s innocence seeps across the screen, connecting to the audience; indeed, he conveys Aang’s wisdom beyond his boyhood years with stark accuracy. Jackson Rathbone and Nicola Peltz simply get passing grades for their supporting roles, as they often fall flat in their acting abilities.
Scene-stealer Dev Patel is perhaps the best thing about this movie: as Zuko toys with the line between good and evil, struggling to balance his personal desires and familial obligations, Patel emanates a palpable tension, conveying his contention to the audience.
The Last Airbender comprises Book One of the TV series. Undoubtedly, the transition from television to theaters is never without a hitch, but Shyamalan has transcribed the storyline well, setting a more serious and dramatic tone than that of the cartoon. As a stand-alone film, Airbender lacks a stirring climax. Conflicts, already masked with visually dynamic bending sequences, are resolved with dubious ease. But set against the context of a trilogy, the film’s crafting of plot ups and downs is perhaps more acceptable.
Despite being visually stimulating, the effects-heavy movie often detracts from what I loved about the cartoon series — the simple yet brilliant relationships between the characters. In Aang and Zuko’s final scene, the conflict is cut with light humor. “We could be friends, you know,” Aang tells Zuko as he rushes off to rejoin the battle. Yes, waterbending may be graphically compelling, but it often overshadows these crucial moments of character development.
And it’s “3D.” But not Avatar 3D, more Clash of the Titans 3D. The full force of the third dimension is only felt in a minimal number of scenes that the use of such technology cannot be considered worthwhile. Shyamalan would have done well to focus his efforts on the pure acting dynamic; instead, it seems he is too caught up in the computer-generated action and fight scenes.
In spite of Airbender’s shortcomings, there is something inexplicably captivating about entering Aang’s world of elemental manipulation. And Aang, in his journeys between the real and spiritual worlds, experiences intangible things which nonetheless exist. Such an intangible satisfaction is also evoked by the movie itself — because by the film’s end, I was ready for part two.