My family moved around quite a bit when I was younger. In fact, up until after college, I hadn’t lived anywhere in my life for longer than four years, max (and those four years were when I attended high school in New Hampshire). As you can imagine, moving around often means friendships were short-lived (maybe now, in internet-land, some of those friendships could’ve endured, but back then, when your parents were worried about long distance phone bills and you weren’t big on writing letters… doomed), and living environments were in stark contrast to each other. Which is the point of why I’m telling you this: the Summer we moved from NJ to NH, my Dad and I went out to what NH, at the time, considered a “mall.” I was looking for comic book shops, video games, and the like, things all in steady supply throughout the malls of NJ. In NH, though, it’s all about arts and crafts or tourist-bait nonsense. Simply, not my cup of tea, which I remember ranting about all the time. “NJ is better than this… this is better than that… NH doesn’t have this…” and on and on. Understandably, this annoyed my Dad to no end, and he finally stated, very simply, “You know, you’ll be a lot happier in life if you stop comparing things and just accept that things are the way they are now.”
I tell you that because those words were in the forefront of my mind when I sat down to watch “The Last Airbender.” My wife is a huge fan of the Nickelodeon animated series, and as such, I became a huge fan of the show by watching it with her. Going in to the live-action, M. Night Shyamalan directed, feature film version of the series, I knew that if my mind was set in the “let’s see how this matches up to this, and this matches up to that,” that I’d likely be disappointed (at the point of viewing, I’d heard enough negative buzz about the film to know the better mindset I had going in, the better I’d have coming out). But that’s the rub of this film; in comparison is where it both shines and shatters. In adaptation is where it fails, but mostly because it is trying to be too faithful, and when it tries to step out and do something new, something like changing the pronunciation of main characters’ name, it falls over itself because if it ain’t broke, why fix it?
For a quick synopsis, “The Last Airbender” begins the tale of Aang (Noah Ringer), a young airbender (one who can bend the element of air to his whims), who is freed from a century-long slumber in ice by two Water Tribe members, Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) and Katara (Nicole Peltz), who also happens to be a waterbender. Aang is rumored to be the Avatar, someone who is proficient in bending Air, Water, Earth and Fire, and as such works as the one who will promote and maintain balance throughout the land. Of course, while he was missing for 100 years, the Fire Nation decided to invade and conquer the remaining Element Nations and would like nothing better than for things to stay in their favor. In other words, if the Avatar is alive, the Avatar shouldn’t stay that way for long.
Again, I went in trying not to compare the film to the series, but my favorite moments of the film were when I saw familiar moments from the series rendered in beautiful live-action, such as Aang being freed from the ice, or Aang’s air bison Appa flying through the air. Unfortunately, as I said before, it is in being faithful that Shyamalan disrupted his own adaptation.
See, this film is a truncated version of 20-some episodes of the first season of the series and, as such, whips through the material like a whirlwind, dropping exposition through voiceover or on-the-nose dialogue so poor it doesn’t allow for any mystery. I understand the wanting by the director to remain faithful to the material, but this adaptation shouldn’t have been attempting to cram as much as the first season into it as possible, but instead taking the subtext and main elements of the first season and crafting something better suited for a feature film. I’m not saying that would be easy, I’m not saying I know how to do that, but I am saying I’d be far more appreciative of a film that strayed but elevated than I am of a film that hangs tight but drags all down. In its current form, “The Last Airbender” plays like a movie where the director forgot to shoot enough coverage and, therefore, has to edit random things together at a slipshod pace because, really, there’s no other option.
The tight gallop through season one in the film means that there is little-to-zero character development, cameo moments only those faithful to the series can appreciate and very little of the fun that the original allowed to sneak into cracks between the important moments. On top of that, the acting is poor, but to that end, so is the expository dialogue, so I question how any actor could elevate their performance above this material. Shaun Toub, playing Fire Nation General Iroh, is the best of the bunch, or at least the most fully-formed, so credit where credit is due.
I honestly am not criticizing the film due to its comparison to the original, instead all my comparison has done is allow me to understand the “why” of much of the material presented, and the needing and respecting the original series when a bolder touch could’ve been better. When I criticize the film as it stands alone, the pace is rushed, the acting is horrible and I question the point of creating it at all; why did M. Night need to make this film? What was the message he was trying to convey by doing so? That said, I have seen worse, and this was not the most miserable time I’ve had at the cinema. Instead, it’s mostly “eh, so?” for me. I don’t see the point of the film at all, and it moved my emotions very little, one way or the other.