While on vacation in the Smoky Mountains, Derek and I decided to go see “The Last Airbender.” Now, when I first began seeing trailers for this movie I was uninterested for 2 reasons.
First, the title just made me giggle. Think about it for a minute… if you can’t figure it out, well, then, you just weren’t blessed with the Walker sense of humor.
Second, it’s an M. Night Shyamalan movie. After sitting through the debacle that was “The Happening” – a movie not worth the film it was shot on – I had pretty much made up my mind that I was never going to watch another Shy-o-melly-o-man (as Evan pronounces it) movie again.
However… Derek was curious, and so he started doing some research on this movie. As it turns out, the movie is based on a 3 season children’s cartoon that aired from 2005-2008. I still wasn’t sold, seeing as how I haven’t been a fan of any cartoon that aired after the 90s, but Derek discovered that the cartoon was available on Netflix’s “watch it now” feature (if you are unfamiliar with netflix, “watch it now” means that you can stream some of their selection straight to your computer without waiting for a DVD (or to your television, if you’re like us and have a Wii)).
So, we started watching the cartoon. It didn’t take long to get us all hooked. The cartoon is called: “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and Leiana refers to it as “Alatar!” The cartoon is very well done. The script is fun, the characters are lovable and compelling, and the story is a well-written arc that moves the plot along from start to finish without many “throw away” episodes in between, which is pretty different for a kid’s show. After watching the last episode, I was ready to see the movie, although I did tell Derek that I was pretty sure it would be hard for the actors to live up to the characters I had fallen in love with during the cartoon.
The basic story goes like this: there are 4 nations – The Fire Nation, The Water Tribes, the Air Nomads, and the Earth Kingdoms. In each of the nations there are people who are able to “bend” or manipulate their people’s basic element. There is one soul in the world who is capable of bending all four elements. This soul (the Avatar) is reincarnated throughout the ages. However, 100 years ago, he went missing and the Fire Nation took the opportunity to attack the rest of the world in an attempt to conquer the rest of the nations and become all-powerful. Two water tribe teen-agers: Kitara and her older brother Sokka discover the new Avatar at the South Pole frozen in a block of ice. They release him and discover that he is the Avatar and that he ran away from the air temple before he could learn the other three elements. He is shocked to discover he’s been in the ice for 100 years, to him it has seemed only like a few days. The world has changed and they must get Aang (rhymes with “rang”) teachers in the other three elements (water, earth, and fire) so that he can stand up to Fire Lord Ozai and free the world from the oppression of the Fire Nation.
Enter the movie. The first installment in a planned trilogy (to mirror the 3 seasons of the show).
I’ll start with the things I liked about the movie. The visuals were absolutely stellar. The sets (most likely a lot of CGI) were perfect real-life replicas of the scenery from the cartoon. The CGI was almost impossible to spot. Most of the story-line followed the story of the cartoon, often making it feel as if the cartoon had simply been transferred over to real-life acting. I really can’t say enough about the visuals. The actors they picked looked the part and most of the non-verbal acting was quite excellent.
The things I didn’t like… I think most of what I didn’t like can be summed up by saying that “The Last Airbender” simply suffered from bad directing… but I’ll go into specifics for you:
1. This is a tiny little thing, but it really annoys me when they can’t get pronunciation of names right in movies. ESPECIALLY when said movie is based off of a cartoon or another movie… it’s not like in a book where there might be some leeway for how a name was supposed to be pronounced. They mispronounced “Aang,” “Hiro,” and “Sokka” three of the MAIN characters’ names, they mispronounced “Avatar” at least half the time. (It’s kind of like whenever anyone in a movie or a TV show mispronounces the word “nuclear” – it just grates on my nerves).
2. The delivery of lines was very wooden. There wasn’t much in the way of well-delivered lines, except perhaps during one of the final scenes in the movie between Ue and Sokka (I don’t want to give away a major point for anyone who isn’t familiar with the story), but I felt that in that scene, Sokka really delivered his lines well. I chalk this up to a bad director. (sorry, M. Night) Because except for line delivery, I thought that the actual acting was pretty good… at least until anyone opened his or her mouth.
3. The bending. In the cartoon, the bending of any element is like someone holding a weapon. The martial art-esque movements manipulate each element as though it is an extension of the bender. In the movie, however, the bending requires an interpretive dance that is at least 5-10 moves long before they can get their elements to do ANYTHING. This was frustrating, and again, I chalk it up to a director’s choice (correct me if I’m wrong about that, John). It felt as though they knew they had 2 more movies to make, and they didn’t want to pull out all the stops in the first movie, and so they held back. I felt that this holding back hurt the movie more than anything else.
4. Kitara’s narration. While she does narrate the opening sequence to every episode in the show, every time she interrupted the story to narrate what was going on or to show that time had passed during the movie, it jarred me out of the moment. It was like M. Night kept slapping me across the face and yelling, “HEY! You’re watching a movie!!!!” It really broke up the flow of the story for me and made it hard to just watch.
5. The final part of the battle between Aang and the Fire Nation when they are attacking the Northern Water Kingdom. So that I don’t spoil it for you, what he does in the movie is NOT what he does in the cartoon, and the pacifistic agenda annoyed me.
6. How long it took for them to decide what they were doing. In the first half of the movie, the three main characters seem to be wandering around aimlessly. This, again, I believe we can chalk up to the writer/director, good ol’ M. Night again. Unfortunately, this one may not be his fault. See, if you think about the movies that M has directed, they almost all have an “aha!” moment at the end of them. They’re psychological thrillers and deep, poignant, mysteries (with the exception of “The Happening”… what was he thinking?), but they are definitely not fantasy adventure quests. The story of “Avatar: the Last Airbender” is a classic quest/adventure story. Now remember, the cartoon did fairly well, and it’s fairly new. A large percentage of the audience in the movie theaters, I have got to believe have either seen the cartoon or are familiar with the story (at least, that was the case for our theater, I could tell by the conversations I overheard afterwards). Throughout the movie, it felt like the story was trying to “surprise” me. There was the big moment when Aang reveals he is the Avatar! (Oh wait… even if you didn’t see the movie, that much, at least, you could infer from the trailers). There is the moment when they decide they have to find Aang a water bending teacher! (Oh wait… duh!) Then there is the moment when Zhuko reveals why he cannot go home and why he has to capture the Avatar! (Oh wait… this moment occurs three quarters of the way through the movie, and if you hadn’t figured out most of his story by then, you really weren’t paying attention… even if you hadn’t seen the cartoon and already knew his story). There was the big moment when Aang goes into the spirit world (Oh wait… he does that several times throughout the movie and really doesn’t accomplish much by doing so).
All in all, I actually did enjoy the movie… but I walked away from it equating it with movies like: “The Seeker,” “The Spiderwick Chronicles,” the new “Prince Caspian,” and “Percy Jackson” – it was good, I enjoyed it, I might even be willing to watch it again, but it simply did not live up to my highest expectations. Here’s hoping they get a different director… or M. Night learns his lesson and does a better job on the sequel.