The Last Airbender (PG)
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streaming sites: iTunes; Vudu
Caution: vaguely spoilery type stuff for the movie, maybe (and a few spoilers for the series).
Well, for a few years prior to this film's release, I was anxiously anticipating it and simultaneously dreading it. It's based on the Nickelodeon animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender, which just happens to be my favorite TV series, like, ever. The show was three seasons long (planned that way from the start), and this movie is supposed to encapsulate the first season (Book One: Water); if it's successful, there could be two sequels to continue the story, each film representing a season of the show. Of course, there's no way to truly and properly tell a story that took 20 episodes, in a single movie lasting less than two hours, but I suppose most of the important elements were there (no pun... okay, pun only half intended). See, it's set in a world which consists of four nations: Fire, Water, Earth, and Air. Within each nation, there are some people who can "bend" or manipulate their native element, sort of telekinetically, using martial arts-style movements. Benders mainly use the elements as weapons in battle (the series does a better job of showing that the elements can be used for various other purposes.) There is one person in the world, called the Avatar, who can learn to bend all four elements, and who acts as a bridge between the spirit world and the living world, and maintains the balance between the four nations. The Avatar is reincarnated in an endless cycle, to each of the nations in turn.
The movie begins with some visuals that are familiar from the opening theme of the animated series, which I thought seemed a bit cheesy in the live-action movie. Then there's some set-up exposition which is both printed on the screen and read in voiceover by Katara, a 14-year-old waterbender from the Southern Water Tribe. After this introduction, we'll see Katara and her brother, Sokka (who is 15 in the series, and possibly in the movie as well, though the actor is 25), find a 12-year-old airbender named Aang, frozen (along with his giant flying bison, Appa), under the ice at the South Pole. At the time that Aang is released, a beam of light shoots up into the sky, which is seen by a firebender named Prince Zuko (16 in the series, played here by a 20-year-old actor). Zuko had been banished a couple of years ago by his father, Fire Lord Ozai, and cannot return home unless he finds and captures the Avatar, who is the last serious threat to the Fire Nation's plan of global domination. And of course, the light Zuko sees now alerts him to the Avatar's presence.
Well, soon after Sokka and Katara bring Aang back to their village, Zuko shows up, along with his uncle Iroh (once a great general, who is more honorable than anyone else from the Fire Nation that we see in this movie). The two of them command a small ship of Fire Nation soldiers. Aang agrees to go along with Zuko, in exchange for his promise not to hurt anyone from the village. Of course, Aang doesn't really understand what's going on, at this point, having no idea how much time had passed while he was frozen. Meanwhile, Sokka and Katara's grandmother provides some exposition to the two of them (which makes her role, however brief, a bit more important than it was in the series). Anyway, she encourages them to try to help Aang (which Katara already wanted to do). On Zuko's ship, Iroh administers a simple test which proves Aang is the Avatar, at which point Zuko tells him he's a prisoner. (Iroh had promised he could go free, having expected him to fail the test; but of course, Aang was the only one in the world who could have passed it.)
So, Aang escapes, and joins Sokka and Katara, who had been coming to rescue him, flying on Appa. They all head to the Southern Air Temple, where Aang expected to find his mentor, Monk Gyatso, and all his other airbender friends. But the only living thing they find is a winged lemurbat, which Aang names Momo. Then Katara tells Aang that there's been a war going on for a century, and he must have been frozen for alot longer than the few days he'd assumed. He doesn't want to believe this, but he finds the bones of Gyatso and the others. At the start of the war, the Fire Nation had eliminated all the Air Nomads, knowing the next Avatar would be among them. The only reason Aang had eluded them was because he'd run away earlier, after learning he was the Avatar, a fate he didn't desire for himself, preferring to be a normal kid (or as normal as an airbender can be, anyway). Learning that his friends had been killed in his absence nearly drives Aang mad, and he... loses control, and suddenly finds himself in the spirit world, where he meets a dragon spirit, from whom he'll seek guidance a few times throughout the movie. (I need to mention that in the series, he didn't enter the spirit world until later in the first season, and there he should have met the previous Avatar, Roku, not a dragon. But whatever.) Anyway, Katara's words manage to bring him back to this world.
They decide they need to find a waterbending master to teach both Aang and Katara, so they all set off for the Northern Water Tribe, but along the way they'll help out various Earth Kingdom villages that have been "colonized" by the Fire Nation, and thus begin to incite a rebellion among the people. Meanwhile, they are still pursued by Zuko, and separately, by Commander Zhao (who became an admiral early in the series, though I never noticed whether this happened in the movie, but I suppose it must have, whether it was specifically stated or not). When not chasing Aang or taunting Zuko, Zhao is often seen talking to Fire Lord Ozai, which I don't think ever happened in the series. To be sure, Ozai has a much more... visible role in the movie. Anyway, I don't really want to give away many more details of what happens in the rest of the movie, though of course Aang, Katara, and Sokka eventually get to the North Pole, where they find a waterbending master named Pakku (though I'm not sure his name was mentioned in the movie). They also meet Princess Yue, and she and Sokka fall in love at first sight. And eventually, Zhao shows up leading a Fire Nation fleet, and he has a plan to eliminate the Moon Spirit, thus depriving the waterbenders of their powers. (Iroh is very much against this plan, when he learns of it.) Of course, Zuko still hasn't given up on trying to capture Aang, himself. Well, I've probably said too much already, though I've also left out a great deal. But I suppose I should mention that the end of the movie introduces Zuko's sister Azula as the new major antagonist, if a sequel gets made, just as the first season finale did.... Anyway, now, on to my general impressions, likes and dislikes about the film....
1. The biggest problem, for me, was that there was no time for character development. While the amazingly epic story in the series was awesome, the best part was always how complex the characters were, with a full range of emotions and motivations, and lots of humor in addition to the drama and action. On the other hand, the movie seems to be mostly about action, interspersed with exposition of the plot (which was necessary because there wasn't time for the plot to be revealed at the pace that was originally intended, in the series). After the action, it seems an almost token effort was made to include drama for the characters. I actually didn't really mind some of Aang's flashbacks to his life before being frozen, to help understand his pain in the present, but it still wasn't done nearly as well as in the series. The drama certainly wasn't handled satisfactorily for the other characters, most of the time. But most importantly, there was no time for anything but action, exposition, and a bit of drama. I'm not saying there was zero humor, but... it was negligible here, whereas it was a vital part of the series. M. Night Shyamalan might think he was just getting rid of the slapstick which was "meant for the little kids" who watched the series, but he got rid of more than that. He got rid of the heart. The characters in the movie are barely one-note, they don't have much in the way of actual personality. (Some, especially Zhao, I would say were more "cartoonish" here than they were in the cartoon.) So you don't really get to know or care about any of them as you do in the series. It really saddens me, because the series made me truly love most of the characters, including both heroes and villains; what's extra sad is that my favorite characters from the show, Sokka and Iroh, were probably the least developed of the major characters in the movie. (Epic fail, right there.)
2. ...And speaking of "epic," the rushed pace of the story makes the whole thing... a good deal less epic than it was in the series. As I said at the outset, you can't really fit a whole season's worth of stories into a little movie like this. So there is a ton of stuff that's just left out, and the events that do get portrayed here happen much faster than in the series, things kind of blur together, and various plot points happen in different ways, at different times and places, than they do in the series. It's all just jumbled together and I felt like it was kind of incoherent and made little sense. (Fail.)
3. A lot of the actors were not only the wrong age to play their characters, but more importantly, the wrong ethnicity. The characters should be mostly Asian and Inuit, but in the movie they're either white or other random ethnicities that seem to have been cast just to avoid an all white cast, while still getting it wrong. (There were whole fan campaigns about this as soon as the cast was announced, before the movie was even made.) The producers, apparently, rationalize this by saying they were casting diverse ethnicities from around the globe. I don't have a problem with that in most movies, but here it seems like a cop-out. Most movies... specific ethnicity is of no real relevance to the plot, but for something like this, it's totally relevant. (Fail.)
4. As I've mentioned, there was too much exposition at various points, generally done much differently (and less effectively) than in the show. Often I felt that it wouldn't make sense unless you already knew what was going on, which rather defeats the purpose of exposition. (Meh.)
5. While I more or less thought everyone in the movie did okay with their lines, that's essentially meaningless if the lines they're given just aren't that good. And a lot of the dialog in this movie is just plain subpar, especially when compared with the dialog in the series. And the fact that the writing was better in the series only serves to accentuate that the acting was better in the show, too. (Fail.)
6. Many characters' names were pronounced differently here than in the series, which seemed pointless and irritating. Most characters even pronounced the word "Avatar" differently. (Just... WTF?)
7. In the end, Ozai mentions Sozin's Comet (which last passed by 100 years ago) would be returning in three years, enhancing firebenders' powers (see more about this under "Good no. 7"). In the series, Aang learns of Sozin's Comet from Roku a little ways into season one, so it bugs me that, as far as I know, Aang doesn't even know about it by the end of the movie (and this ties in to the whole spirit dragon vs. Roku thing I mentioned earlier). But what bugs me the most is that the entire series is set over the course of just three season of the year; Aang learns about the comet in winter, which will return by the end of that summer, which heightens the drama and urgency significantly. I suppose it's necessary to extend the time for the movies, considering the time they take to make, and the fact that a couple of the stars are young enough that their aging could prove noticeable. (I assume that's the main consideration.) Still, it's just... a glaring difference, which eh, it's not important, it's just... glaring, that's all. (Meh.)
1. The opening exposition, if a bit different from the one in the series, was kind of nice in that... I thought the actress playing Katara sounded, for that part, a bit like the actress who voiced her in the series. (Okay.)
2. The CG was fairly good, including most of the bending, and creatures like Appa and Momo, and whatnot... Though I still thought everything looked better in the series, at least I wasn't disappointed by this aspect of the film. (Let's call that a win.)
3. There were some familiar scenes that were interesting to see played out in live-action, even if they were still better in the series. (Okay, win.)
4. While I said that you don't really get to care much about the characters, I'm not saying there aren't moments that are sad; those moments aren't as sad as they are in the show, where you do get to know the characters, but... there were a few decent dramatic moments in the film, if not truly great. I think most moments that moved me were backed by the weight of my already having been moved by similar moments in the series, but even so... (Okay.)
5. In season one of the series, Sokka met a girl named Suki early on, and developed... something with her, briefly. So it always bothered me that at the end of the season, he met Yue and fell for her so quickly. Now, Suki was apparently cast in the movie, but didn't end up appearing in it. I assume that means she'd meet Sokka in one of the sequels, which I actually kind of think could work out better than in the series. She was more important later on in the series than in season one, and... I just felt better about the relationship after the whole Yue thing was... resolved. (Win? Time will tell.)
6. The way Aang deals with the Fire Nation fleet is considerably different here than in the series. And while I didn't appreciate it as much as the original ending of season one, in the long run I think it's actually more consistent with the way the series itself ended. So maybe it makes sense. I guess. (Okay.)
7. The movie provides a kind of explanation of why Sozin's Comet would enhance firebenders' powers, which the series never really did; but then, the series couldn't have given this explanation, as it hinges on a fundamental difference between how firebenders' powers normally work in the movie versus the series. And I daresay this difference actually makes more sense in the movie, considering in the series, firebenders were the only benders who could seemingly generate their element from within, rather than just manipulate it if it happened to be around, like the other benders. (However, there's another point about this in the movie that could do with some clearing up, which might prove even more interesting, concerning certain characters.) (I'm gonna say win.)
8. I suppose it wouldn't make sense to be entirely faithful to the source material. I mean, even if there was time to directly translate animated scenes into live-action, what would be the point of simply retelling the exact same story? So, while it can be frustrating for a fan to think of all the great stuff from the show that's excluded from the movie, it's also important to add some things that weren't in the show. Which can also be frustrating for a fan, because it just seems like they're telling the story wrong, but if you get past the instinct to look at it that way, you can appreciate different details of the new story. Sadly, I didn't notice much of this in the film, but at least there was one thing Aang mentions about his past, which helps establish his state of mind. And this anecdote also sets up a scene at the end of the film which concludes with a moment for Aang which suggests greater dramatic and emotional complexity than any other scene in the movie (while also being subtler, in a way, than any of the movie's earlier attempts at such complexity). I always felt that the series excelled at moments of complex subtlety, so it's kind of neat that the one thing that's noticeably designed to be new and different from the series, is the one thing that best captures the show's essence. (Win.)
...In the end, it's impossible for me to say how I would have felt about the movie if I'd never seen the series. I really feel my familiarity with the story and the characters helped me appreciate the movie more than I would have if I wasn't already a hardcore fan of "Avatar: The Last Airbender," but at the same time, the vastly heightened expectations couldn't help but leave me mostly disappointed. Even so, I kind of wondered if the way some things were handled in the movie was not just because of having less time to tell the story, but maybe also trying to set up the sequels (which of course would also have to happen differently than the other seasons of the series did). I mean, some of the writing choices that seem poor now might make more sense as part of a complete trilogy of movies. So I'm trying to give Shyamalan the benefit of the doubt here, partly because I have enjoyed some of his films in the past, and partly because... if the sequels really do get made, there's no way I'm not gonna see them. I might as well allow myself a little optimism. Oh, I suppose I could also mention the movie was released in both 2D and 3D (one of those movies that adds 3D after being filmed, rather than filming in 3D in the first place). I saw it in 2D, which is quite sufficient for me. Um... anyway, that's all I can think of for now, but as usual, I fear I may have forgotten some things I meant to say.
I suppose I should mention that there's a manga prequel to the movie, Zuko's Story, which I should have read before seeing the movie, but didn't get it til afterwards (I don't think I was even aware of it til after seeing the movie). It might help you appreciate Zuko's character a bit more, if you read it before seeing the movie....