The popular Nickelodeon anime series Avatar: The Last Airbender gets the big screen treatment in an Action/Fantasy that closely follows the events of the show's first season in which a child avatar is the only hope for a world at war. After the twin disappointments of Lady in the Water and The Happening, writer/director M. Night Shyamalan needs a hit--and so does a summer box office that has seen precious few successes. The Last Airbender will no doubt enjoy a robust opening weekend as the show's fans turn out at theaters, but its long-term prospects rest on its ability to attract moviegoers beyond its base. That is a big "if" with a movie that proves emphatically Shyamalan is neither an action director nor skilled at adapting the work of others.
In a world where certain people have power over the elements earth, fire, water and air, bending them to their will, only the avatar can control all four and thus has the power to keep the planet in balance and at peace. When the last Avatar disappeared 100 years ago, the Fire Nation declared war against all the others, bent on world domination. One day, when young water bender Katara (Nicola Peltz) and her older brother Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) are out and about, they come across Aang (Jackson Ringer) and quickly realize that the little boy with the air bending skills is the missing avatar. The discovery is not lost on the Fire Nation with exiled Prince Zuko (Dev Patel) in a race with Commander Zhao (Aasif Mandvi)-top general to Zuko's father, Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis)-to capture the child before he can interfere with the Fire Nation's plans.
The Last Airbender has been awash in controversy since the trades reported Shyamalan was casting white actors in key roles instead of Asians, but the real scandal is that a property with the potential to become a franchise arrives nearly stillborn. The problems begin with Shyamalan's script, which is an orgy of exposition. The characters explain and explain and explain some more, points driven home with the subtlety of a jackhammer. There is almost zero character development and perhaps most egregious of all, most of the humor that peppered the TV series has been stripped from the big screen translation. Added to that is Shyamalan's wretched direction of his actors. Based on Dev Patel's overacting here, one would never guess this Slumdog Millionaire star was a critically praised performer with awards and nominations. The younger members of the cast fare even worse with the filmmaker apparently unable to coax more than flat performances from any of them. Only Shaun Toub emerges from the wreckage unscathed, delivering an effective performance as Zuko's wise, sympathetic Uncle Iroh.
Story issues and bad acting aside, The Last Airbender might have succeeded if it had delivered on the special effects and action. The CGI is terrible and the mediocre 3D only calls attention to just how bad it is. Rather than immersing the viewer into this strange elemental world, it inadvertently underlines its own fakeness. Neither the Fire Nation's war ships nor Appa, Aang's flying bison, are remotely convincing. Only the "bending" sequences, in which characters control the elements, are effective. The fight and battle sequences involving martial arts and wire work have a curious, enervating quality. Scenes that ought to be tense and exciting simply aren't. The tight fight choreography is much too obvious. Not a moment appears spontaneous.
The Last Airbender ends where season one of the series did, on a cliffhanger. Whether that next chapter will ever come or the would-be franchise goes the way of The Golden Compass is a cliffhanger in itself. Shyamalan did the property no favors with his clumsy effort, but between the fan base and a huge international release, there may be life in the boy avatar yet.
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Cast: Noah Ringer, Dev Patel, Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone, Shaun Toub, Aasif Mandvi, Cliff Curtis and Seychelle Gabriel
Director/Screenwriter: M. Night Shyamalan
Producer: Scott Aversano, Frank Marshall, Sam Mercer, Kathleen Kennedy and M. Night Shyamalan
Rating: PG for fantasy action violence
Running time: 103 min
Release Date: July 1, 2010