Jul 26, 2010

[Movies] The Last Airbender (2010)

Man, I bet a lot of my movie reviews read like witch hunts against all adaptations, revivals, reimaginations and the like. But given how such movies and TV shows in recent years have fared, I think I'm more than justified in my opinions. And as much as it's fun to see such old franchises brought back to life, what we're really looking for is some real passion and loving care put into their creations. Instead, we're constantly reminded that Hollywood is more and more just about the bottom line instead of the art of their craft.

When it comes to this movie, I'm not quite sure if Hollywood is more to blame or the creative team behind the movie itself. That's the question really - did this movie turn out the way it did because of Hollywood greed or using the wrong talent to drive its success. Throwing in the fact that the writer-director-producer M.Night Shyamalan whose success in recent years has become more and more of a risky gamble at best. As much as we all loved his earlier movies, you have to admit his creative efforts have been more and more inconsistent as time has progressed.

It probably didn't help at all that this particular adaptation involved an animated TV series that has a very wide and passionate fan-following. There are few things worse than hordes of angry fans to kill a movie like this.

The Last Airbender is a live-action action and adventure movie based on the popular Nickelodeon series Avatar: The Last Airbender. While the original series was created by the team of Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, the process of adapting into a movie was something M.Night decided to handle himself.

Like the original series, the movie starts with the Fire Nation waging against against the other nations. The Water Tribes are disjoint and separate from one another and the Earth Kingdom has already begun to lose hold of smaller towns on its fringes. The Air Nomads haven't been heard from in ages after a Fire Nation purge overran their temples. And the Avatar, master of all four elements and he who is charged with the role of bringing balance of the four nations, hasn't been seen in over 100 years.

Two Southern Water Tribe siblings - a novice waterbender named Katara (Nicola Peltz) and her old brother Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) stumble upon a figure locked in ice. It is revealed to be a young boy named Aang (Noah Ringer) who claims he had run away with home together with his air bison Appa. His emergence from the ice triggered a massive beam of light that attracted the attentions of the exiled Fire Nation Prince Zuko (Dev Patel) and his uncle Iroh (Shaun Toub). It is revealed that Aang is an Airbender and based on a test administered by Iroh, it is confirmed that he is in fact the latest reincarnation of the Avatar.

Thus the rest of the movie continues with the Avatar and his friends trying to help him escape the Fire Nation and master how to control the other elements other than air. At the same time, Prince Zuko is in a race to capture the Avatar first in order to redeem his honor with Commander Zhao (Aasif Mandvi) putting effort into capturing the little boy first.

It became an issue early on that the casting involved a lot of Caucasian talent instead of Asian ones. M.Night defended himself by stating his cast selections were based on their acting prowess but now that I've seen the movie, I'm not sure what he saw in these kids. It's either (1) they're not as talented as M.Night thought they were or (2) he managed to find a way to direct their acting such that they delivered all their lines without emotion or passion. When you look at his other projects like The Happening, that second possibility seems more and more likely.

M.Night claimed that he tried to make the movie more series as compared to the cartoon and I certainly see his efforts in how the movie was done. However I also think that another bigger reason for this is related to M.Night's inability to handle comedy well. There were still some efforts at making the movie lighter here and there but they were pathetic and horribly executed. Plus without the elements of fun and comedy that helped make the series so endearing, it became very pale and hollow as an end product. Especially when it comes to comic relief characters like Sokka, who became next to useless in the movie.

Then there was the bending itself. In terms of the special effects, it was certainly done beautifully. The animation of the fire, earth and water being manipulated by the benders was done very well and was quite impressive. What was annoying was how the martial arts motions weren't well-linked to the bending effects after. Instead of their motions actively manipulating the elemental forces and every new motion twisting it into another direction, in the movie it was more like a summoning spell. First the bender does the motions. Then stops. Then the element in question is finally manipulated.

Then the overall plot was warped in such a way that while it did touch on events featured in the cartoon, it also did this in a manner that was passionless and was unable to draw in the loyalties of the viewer. I never really felt like I was that emotionally invested in the story or in the eventual outcome. The problem there was the fact that I didn't feel the characters were substantial. There was no sense of relationship building between them or between the actors and the audience. We were never really given a reason to want them to succeed or fail other than the fact that they told us we needed to do so.

And that's the biggest failing of the movie, in my opinion. In the show-and-tell scale that all movie makers need to juggle and balance, M.Night decided to go more "Tell" rather than "Show" Thus the characters kept telling us about everything that had happened to them instead of showing us these events in flashbacks or the like. If this was a budget concern, I feel it still could have handled better. In the end, I feel this was more of a creative failing, which is disappointing since M.Night had been making a reputation for himself as a creative person who knew how to use the camera most effectively. Thus we had voice over upon voice over and overly long-winded dialog usually crossing over sequences or done from an over-the-shoulder perspective shot for some reason.

The Last Airbender wasn't quite as bad as a lot of reviews presented it to be, I think, but it was certainly not a good movie in the end. It had the potential to be a heck of a lot more and I wish that they had entrusted this franchise to another director, or at the very least involved a good editor to watch over M.Night. It gets 2 ridiculous bending sequences out of a possible 5.
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