M. Night Shyamalan used to be one of my favourite directors. He knew just how to captivate the imagination with his storytelling; to bring a bit of wonder and fantasy to the ordinary world (even his American Express commercial capitalized on that specialty). However, his recent efforts have shown that he doesn’t really understand what makes a movie good (The Happening? What the…?!), and might even suggest that his first few successes were flukes. Nowadays only the most die-hard of fans have faith in his work, and those of us with some loyalty placed a lot of hope in The Last Airbender proving that Shyamalan’s still got the goods. Unfortunately, the failure of The Last Airbender not only crosses Shyamalan off the A list, it even tarnishes the legacy of its wonderful source material.
The Nickelodeon animated series adapted for this movie was one of my favourite shows, and possibly my favourite animated series of all. The fantastic story of Aang and his companions Katara and Sokka was not only epic, but full of charm, humour, imagination and great characters (both good and bad). This movie (supposedly the first in a trilogy, but we’ll have to see about that) covers the first “book” of the story where Aang, the latest incarnation of the Avatar, a powerful being who brings balance to the world, needs to learn water bending (in other words, how to manipulate water with his mind) by seeking out people who live at the North Pole. Along the way, the three companions stir up the people to rebel against their Fire Nation conquerors, and Aang is hunted by the exiled Fire Nation prince Zuko, played by Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel.
As a massive fan of the original show, it’s difficult to assess this movie with fresh eyes. There are many distracting deviations from the source that don’t seem to make much sense. A lot has already been said about the ethnically-questionable casting. Only the main characters were recast from Asian to White (or in some cases, Iranian, Indian or New Zealand Maori). Ironically the extras who played the rest of their tribe or nation were of the appropriate race (the water tribe all seemed Inuit — except the Northern Water Tribe seemed Renaissance European, go figure; the Fire Nation all seemed South Asian — which is a change from the original Japanese, but whatever). The justification for the strange casting definitely did not hold up. Shyamalan insists that they were colour-blind and just cast the best actors. If that were true, then they must not have held many auditions.
The actors playing the lead roles were quite wooden. Noah Ringer did not capture any of Aang’s whimsy or innocence, but maybe that was Shyamalan’s fault as he seemed to have stripped all the characters of their personality traits (perhaps he’s aiming for the George Lucas legacy instead). Aang was supposed to be playful yet sensitive. Ringer was kind of an automaton, his only acting ability being the flaring of his nostrils (which he did almost every other scene). Sokka was supposedly a clever strategist with a snarky, sarcastic wit, trying to prove himself a true warrior, but Jackson Rathbone (who also played Jasper, one of the vampires in Twilight) was blandly humourless throughout. Nicola Peitz played Katara reasonably well, but her character was supposed to be both the “mom” of the group and its moral centre. There’s none of that emotional weight here. Finally, Dev Patel as Prince Zuko is sorely wasted by constantly brooding and frowning.
For someone who was supposedly a big fan of the original, Shyamalan seemed to miss how crucial some of the thematic elements were that he left out. Zuko was on a quest to regain his honour, a word that was hardly mentioned by him in the movie. The very fact that Aang was the mystical Avatar was supposed to bring great hope for everyone, but that didn’t seem to be meaningful in the movie. The idea of bending, being able to manipulate the elements, was a central part of the original story. One of the things that was so creative about the show was how the various benders used their abilities in combat, etc. Water benders would turn a fall of rain into daggers of ice; earth benders would form stone armour around their bodies; and fire benders shot flames from every part of their bodies (another obvious alteration of Shyamalan’s which made it so that only the most powerful fire-benders could generate their own fire, the rest could only move already-lit flames). Unlike in this movie, there should never be any hand-to-hand combat in a world where everyone fights using their elemental abilities. Perhaps this was a budgetary limitation, but the very few occasions where the benders really expressed there abilities on screen were meager.
I could go on and on about how this movie has poorly adapted the show, but the only other thing I’ll mention is the strange way the characters’ names are pronounced. I can’t understand why Shyamalan felt so strongly about the pronunciation of these names that he would want to ‘correct’ them in his movie, but it was a splash of cold water to any fans of the show who were used to the original way the names were said. Aang had been pronounced “ang”, but now sounded like “ung”. Sokka had been “sock-a”, but now “soe-ka”. Even Zuko’s Uncle Iroh (a much beloved character on the show) was no longer “eye-roe” but “ee-roe” instead. What is your deal, Shyamalan?
There was so much potential, all wrapped up with a little bow. It was a fully-realised world, with wonderful characters, an exciting story and all he had to do was bring it to the big screen. I guess the twist ending of this Shyamalan story is how much it could be messed up after all. (2.5 out of 5)