a critiQal film review The Last Airbender (2010)

  • DVD
  • Blu-Ray

Plot: Caught between combat and courage, Aang (Ringer) discovers he is the lone Avatar with the power to manipulate all four elements: Air, Water, Fire, Earth. Aang teams with Katara (Peltz), a Waterbender, and her brother, Sokka (Rathbone), to end a war that has been raging for over a century.

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A while back, Nickelodeon had a cartoon named Avatar: The Last Airbender (TV). A Japanese import, it turned out to be pretty popular among young teens. Last year, just a few years after the show ended, M. Night Shymalan brought a big-budget live-action version to the big screen with The Last Airbender, and, it seemed, the kids went nuts for it. But, would The Last Airbender be fun for everyone, or had M. Night finally gone soft?

For M. Night Shymalan, known for bringing supernatural oddities like The Sixth Sense (1999) and Signs (2002) to the screen, directing a film like The Last Airbender was viewed by many as a last ditch attempt to resurrect his flagging directing career (while we liked Lady In The Water (2006), many viewed it as just another in a line of failures). So does the film prove that true?

Honestly, we’re not sure. Following along the storyline of the cartoon faithfully (at least in the beginning – we never made it past the first couple episodes), The Last Airbender – like Zack Snyder’s Watchmen (2009) – seems a bit too dry. Whether that’s due to it’s attempt to follow the storyline to the letter or just because M. Night is new at directing PG rated films is unclear, but whatever the reason, the viewer never really gets wrapped up in the storyline.

The acting is decent, but with the film on uneven footing directorial-wise right from the get-go, the actors struggle as much to find the center of their characters as the audience does trying to keep up. Aasif Mandvi, known for his “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” (TV) antics, is a perfect example of this. Thrust into the storyline without any background, the viewer expects him to be the comic relief, based on his previous exploits. Instead, he becomes one of the villains of the pic, and the viewer never can quite take him too seriously.

That seems to be a problem with the film as a whole, however, not just in casting Mandvi as a villain. It seems to be a mishmash of comic relief mixed with strong emotional baggage for the characters tied all together in a pretty bow with some dazzling special effects.

The gist of the story centers around Aang (a wide-eyed, ponderous Noah Ringer), who, despite some fanciful titles, is nothing more than a scared little boy at heart – and he’s this fantasy-land’s idea of a hero. Oh, sure, eventually, he has to face up to his overly-intense emotions (projected onto him moreso by his colleagues, among them a constantly tear-streaked Nicola Peltz) in order to master elements like water, but while he may entice viewers with what he can accomplish, his journey does anything but.

Thankfully, viewers are distracted throughout the film by some dazzling special effects, including multiple sequences of wind, water and fire being used to attack combatants (why the Avatar can combat – and supposedly kill – his opponents in battle but is admonished he is not supposed to use his power for destruction, only peace, is one of the nonsensical plot points that is glossed over during the course of the film). Unfortunately, while the effects are impressive, they only distract the audience for so long, and then the viewers must plunge back into the disarray that is the rest of the film.

Like films like Spider-Man (2002) and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001), The Last Airbender shows once again what happens when filmmakers spend more time on the special effects than they do on making the film work as a whole, and, like it’s predecessors, The Last Airbender sadly fails that test.

Some dazzling special effects can’t save M. Night Shymalan’s first – and, despite a sequel-ready ending, probably only – attempt at kiddy-friendly filmmaking, leaving The Last Airbender to spend most of it’s time constantly disappointing the viewer. Adults will be very glad they waited for M. Night’s latest to arrive on NetFlix® before they watched it.

Kids should eat it up, however, because while it does touch on serious subjects like war and death, the movie never seems to take these things too seriously, keeping everything on about a 4th grade level of understanding heavy concepts like that. Top it off with the Tai Chi-like maneuvers of Aang and his pals that kids early into their double-digits seem to immediately begin to emulate even as they walk away from the film, and The Last Airbender seems to work for kids – at least once or twice, although even their enamoration with the film should fade quickly.

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