The Last Airbender Review (2.5 of 5)

The Last Airbender is getting some horrible reviews, but after seeing it myself I feel that it’s undeserved or at least not to the level that it’s getting panned. 8% on Roger Ebert gave it a half star. A half star!

This movie is not THAT bad. Certainly it’s not a great movie, either. It is imperfect (understatement), but as far as summer entertainments go, it was more than watchable. To say that it is anywhere near  as bad as Shyamalamadingdong’s abysmal ‘Lady In The Water’ would be a lie. It is also BETTER than recent franchise fiascos like GI:Joe, Clash Of The Titans or the abominably bad The Spirit.

I don’t want to spend a lot of space on the alleged ‘racist casting’ accusations surrounding The Last Airbender. I’d rather write about the ACTUAL MOVIE, but I’ll quote Roger Ebert.

“After the miscalculation of making the movie as live action, there remained the challenge of casting it. Shyamalan has failed. His first inexplicable mistake was to change the races of the leading characters; on television Aang was clearly Asian, and so were Katara and Sokka, with perhaps Mongolian and Inuit genes. Here they’re all whites.”

Do these characters look “clearly Asian” to you? They don’t to me, so maybe some of the casting controversy needs to be aimed more at the animators of the source material. They may be garbed in Eastern style clothing (or Eskimo clothes), but “clearly Asian” they are not. The kid that was cast as Aang (the lead) looks JUST LIKE THE FRICKIN’ CARTOON. As far as matching appearance, there may have never been a casting for a live action film that is any closer to an original cartoon source than this one. He looked like the model for the animators.

None of the other castings looked that far off, either. The characters may in fact be Asian in the cartoon, but they don’t appear to be.

Not being a fan of the series, I would not know how close they remained to the source material, otherwise. I didn’t go in with a whole lot of expectations. Quite the opposite with all of the horrendous reviews out there. What I got was mildly entertaining summer franchise fare.

The movie opens in a world where the earth is in chaos. There are now 4 basic tribes/kingdoms that all revolve around the basic elements of fire, water, earth and air.

There are no longer any ‘airbenders’ except for the reincarnating messiah like figure the ‘Avatar’ who has been absent for  a hundred years. The Avatar is a link between mankind and the spirit world. Only he is capable of manipulating all 4 of the elements and uniting mankind.

In the absence of the Avatar the warmongering Firebenders seek to dominate the others and separate themselves permanently from the spirits.

Their plans are interupted when (in the opening scene) a brother (Jackson Rathbone) and sister (‘Coca’ Nicola Peltz) free Aang, the Avatar (played by Noah Ringer) from a sphere of ice. The Firebenders see this as a serious kink in their plans. Hijinks ensue.

Throughout the film there is a lot of exposition and explaining and flashbacks and motivations spelled out and some poor story choices (like the sacrifice made towards the end, IMO). It is muddled, there’s no denying that. But it’s not impenetrable. That’s really the overwhelming negative of the film. The clarity.

Another offshoot of that was the lack of interaction between the main characters that would allow the audience to fully empathize with their plight. There was sporadic humor, but on a whole the movie lacked emotion or passion.

Could've used more of this.

I would disagree with those that say the acting and characters were completely wooden, though.

The visuals were striking. The locales and sets are impressive. The FX are for the most part well done especially the ones involving Aang.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a character move so much with the nimble quality of an agile cartoon character while still retaining a toe in the real world of gravity, physics and weight.

I also enjoyed the Tai Chi style martial arts movements to denote the Avatar’s airbending prowess. He also had some tricks associated with his staff that I liked.

The Avatar’s flying steed (Appa?) was rendered in a friendly way seeming to exist somewhere between live action and the cartoon world. Every time he popped up onscreen was fun.

There were some other creatures that the folks at ILM did a great job with. There was a spirit dragon that would pop up from time to time that I would have liked to have seen more of.

There were some Dewbacks running around for Star Wars fans.

There were also a large number of FX laden action sequences. The martial arts aspect gave the film a beautifully artistic quality to it. For me, Shyamalan proved that he’s capable of  handling action sequences in a competent manner. The pace of the entire film was MUCH quicker than any other M. Night Shyamalan film (admittedly, that’s not a bold statement).

A big drawback: there was a complete lack of tension that hampered the film almost from the beginning and that’s surprising to me. Shymalan has always proven to be able to build suspense with very little. In his past efforts he sometimes evokes the style of Hitchcock, if not his genius so much. He also has a pretty good eye for the big screen.

From an artist’s perspective he really knows how to frame shots. In this, just the fact that audience knows that if the hero Aang is killed he’ll just be reincarnated to fight again lessens the stakes involved. But this WAS a distant cry to the truly awful ‘Lady In The Water’.

There might have been a little much sympathy heaped upon Dev Patel’s character Prince Zuko. I thought he did a good job, but didn’t have quite enough to do in the villainy vein.

Or perhaps a little more attention could have been paid to the Firebender ruler Lord Ozai played by the underutilized Cliff Curtis, who never gets enough praise. He’s a very underrated character actor who could play the lead if it’s given to him. Here, his character takes back seat to a subordinate officer and to his son (Patel’s Zuko).

I don’t think this was a success of a movie, but I was entertained throughout. I’ll give it the mediocre rating of 2.5 of 5 whatevers, but that’s a high 2.5. The confused way that the story was told, the lack of focus on the main characters and the lack of dramatic tension ultimately keep this from being a ‘good’ summer movie… but it’s watchable. And once again, instead of making a good film, the intent seemed to be putting out a stepping stone to the sequels with an ‘open’ ending to lead into the next chapter. The priority has to be on making a good film first.


7 Responses to “The Last Airbender Review (2.5 of 5)”

  1. I agree with you about the cartoon having ambiguous features for the characters being Asian. However, the fact is the entire world IS supposed to be based on parts of Asian. What pissed me off was the fact that the ‘default’ setting for the ambiguously Asian characters was white. It’s strange seeing mostly white people eat with chopsticks, walk around in Asian clothes and read calligraphy.

    I will never understand why it was supposedly justified or reasonable to cast white people in a role clearly meant for an Asian, and that people say it was a ‘stretch’ to find people who look more like the characters in the cartoon. I have never seen that logic applied to a series where there is nothing but white people. They simply cast whoever even looks vaguely similar, throw in a dye job and call it a day. Yet when it’s with Asian people, suddenly it’s not feasible to cast ANY Asians because of eye color, or hair color or minor facial feature differences. What a ridiculous double standard.

    Noah Ringer looks nothing like Aang. Maybe it’s because of his crappy acting, but I just don’t buy it. The little Asian kid from Tropic Thunder, Brandon Soo Hoo, would have made the PERFECT Aang. Not only does he have acting experience, a martial arts background, and LOOKS like him (with some contact lenses I guess), but I get the feeling he would have mimicked the zany goofball character that is Aang very well.

    • Crash! Landen Says:

      There are any number of reasons why the filmmakers cast who they cast. I don’t know if M. Night Shamalamadingdong is entirely responsible, because many times its the producers/studios that step in and make inexplicable decisions and it’s not just limited to casting. i’m sure there were marketing groups involved much like in the case of John Carter, where the producers didn’t want to put ‘Of Mars’ in the title because they thought some wouldn’t want to see it because it’s ‘science fiction’…
      I still stand by Ringer looking like the title character, though, as do the other characters. Do I agree with them changing the race of the characters? No, but at least in this case, they do look like them. Samuel Jackson, on the other hand, still doesn’t look like a blue eyed white guy that served in World War II. And producers once wanted to cast Will Smith as Superman. It’s not the first time that Hollywood has made questionable choices and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

  2. The movie was fine if u hadent watched da cartoon . The movie seemed as a poor attempt to mimic the series and did not have a ounce of creativity . Don’t watch the movie buy the series instead just saying the movie was not worth seeing

    • Crash! Landen Says:

      Fair enough, but I would disagree with the creativity part. The movie IS cluttered and lacks in the storytelling, but It’s hard for me to just dismiss the work that the artists and FX people did.
      I think it’s like the new Green Lantern movie where they put the emphasis into the FX and design, instead of story. I think even the most jaded anti-CGI movier or hardcore fan of the show can scroll through some of the pictures above and see some fairly dazzling images.
      But I probably liked it a lot more than most.

  3. Crash! Landen Says:

    It wasn’t as bad as Lady In The Water. No way. Not even CLOSE. And that one did not have a ‘good acting and a cohesive plot’.
    I wasn’t bored by the action sequences like you were. I thought they were fairly well done, especially for summer movie CGI action. I would have never guessed this was an M. Night movie. The pacing was much quicker than all of his other films.
    I think there are a lot of ‘haters’ that want the movie to fail, whether it’s because they feel cheated by his past work or think that he’s a racist because of the casting. This year alone, I’ve seen far worse. Sure, it’s got major flaws but there’s a good bit of ‘piling on’ going on…

  4. Skinner Says:

    As bad as Lady in the Water?
    At least that movie had good acting and a cohesive (if absurd) plot.

    Even the action sequences are dull and slooooooooowwwwwwwww.

    While pretty, this movie is a soulless and lifeless corpse of which M. Night should be thoroughly ashamed.

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