Friday, July 02, 2010

MOVIE REVIEW: The Last Airbender

My sister-in-law, my daughters and I saw the movie yesterday and here is my review of The Last Airbender.

Approximate Genre: Children's fantasy, live-action adaptation of a cartoon, adventure

Viewing Method: Theater (in Chicago), 3D

Written and Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan

I am a big fan of the cartoon series and watched it with my kids when it was on Nickelodeon originally. For a kid's show, it showed some emotional depth and was part of a rich fantasy world that resonated as real.

Summary: It is a world of four nations and four elements; Water, Earth, Fire, Air. Aang is a boy who at the age of 12 learned he was the next Avatar, a spiritually important person who is imbued with the power to learn to control all four elements. Startled by this news, Aang runs away from home but gets lost in a storm and trapped in a block of ice for a hundred years. While he is gone, the Fire Nation begins a war of imperialistic conquest. Once Aang is released from the ice by his new friends Sokka and Katara, his quest to learn all the elements and defeat the Fire Lord begins.

Even at his young age, Aang is already a gifted Airbender. The cartoon series was three seasons long, one for each element that Aang needed to learn to master the four elements. The seasons each had a specific theme and were arranged in books and chapters.

The Movie

I enjoyed the movie and we had fun seeing it. The plot of the movie follows the first season of the show pretty closely, so if you've recently watched them all back-to-back (as we had), there will be no surprises. The biggest departure was an annoying one; they changed the pronunciation of many of the main characters' names. Hard vowels became soft and vice versa.

  • Aang became Ahng
  • Sokka became Sohka
  • Iroh became Eeroh

I can't imagine any reasons behind this change, except that the filmmakers specifically set out to annoy long-time fans of this story. As the movie played and the characters called each other by name, I found myself fighting the urge to shout out corrections at the movie screen.

Some other departures weren't as quickly noticed. For instance, Aang in the show is a fun-loving goofy kid who --at first-- can't be troubled to take the events around him very seriously. He's not afraid of danger and is quick to learn water-bending. In the film, Aang is more serious and doesn't goof off at all. In the show, Sokka is a brave warrior, but also a bit unlucky and drives much of the comic relief. The movie Sokka (played by Jackson Rathbone, better known as the vampire named Jasper in the Twilight series) is more serious and less capable. They could also have given him more screen time.

I very much wanted to love this movie from the moment months ago that I first heard they were in production. And though I don't hate it, the film failed to live up to my expectations. The fighting moves and bending moves just didn't impress at the same level that the cartoon series did.

Unfair Reviews

That being said, there are several really unfair reviews that are being circulated that I hope won't kill the possibility of a better sequel. For instance, E! Online asks "Is Last Airbender the Worst Movie Ever?". I think that's quite unfair. I mean "...Worst Movie Ever"? Really? There are so many other really bad movies that should better wear that title. For instance, here's a documentary available through Netflix that purports to document the 50 Worst Movies Ever Made.

Additionally, there was apparently some controversy prior to The Last Airbender's release involving the "whitewashing" of the cast. What this is referring to is that the story is heavily influenced by Asian themes, but very few of the main cast members are actually Asian. Whereas I'm all for fairness and equality, I don't even understand why there is a whitewash controversy at all! I want to be sensitive here, but I'm afraid this seems to me like an overreaction. Has anyone who may have been offended ever seen the original show? Granted the characters are all animated and perhaps there are different expectations for the casting of a live-action show, but I'm still left scratching my head.


All in all, the show is a great show and I urge anyone who hasn't seen it to catch it on Nick or put it in their instant Netflix queue. During one of the last episodes before the series ends, the heroes attend a play which was written about their own adventures and they get to see themselves acted out to applause. Hilarity ensues when certain secrets are inadvertently revealed and the young heroes don't link how they are portrayed. The play was pretty bad.

Watching this movie wasn't too bad, but it felt a little like watching that play. The actors didn't seem to be working that hard and as impressive as the effects were, they paled compared to the action in the cartoon. And I think that's the worst comment I can make about the movie. I liked it well enough, but I'd rather watch the cartoon on any given day. My hope is that the next one will be better, if it even gets made at all.

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