Friday, August 5, 2011

"The Last Airbender" (2010)

Starring Noah Ringer, Nicola Peltz and Dev Patel
Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Rated PG - Fantasy violence
Running Time: 103 Minutes

So what happens when you want to adapt a beloved animated series into a live-action feature film?  I tell you how it shouldn't go: don't try to compress an entire season of television into less than two hours unless you're willing to make a lot of sacrifices.

The setup of "The Last Airbender" is taken straight from the series: a young airbender named Aang (Noah Ringer) is found frozen in the ice by Katara (Nicola Peltz) and her brother Sokka (Jackson Rathbone).  Not long after, their Water Nation village is invaded by exiled Prince Zuko (Dev Patel) of the Fire Nation, who is seeking the Avatar - a legendary being capable of commanding the four elements, Earth, Fire, Air and Water, who is said to bring balance to the world.

Aang escapes from Zuko and his uncle, General Iroh (Shaun Toub), and along with Katara and Sokka decide to make their way to the northern Water city so that Aang can learn to bend water.  Along the way, they stop to free a few towns among the Earth nation, attempting to inspire a resistance against the conquering Fire Nation.  Meanwhile, Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis) commands Commander Zhao (Aasif Mandvi) to locate and kill the Moon and Ocean spirits, which will deprive the Water benders of their powers. 

M. Night Shyamalan used to be the golden boy of Hollywood with a string of hits starting with "The Sixth Sense."  Somewhere along the way, he lost the spark of intelligence that he injected into his films, producing movie after movie that were becoming increasingly overwrought.  Audiences no longer lined up for his films in droves and critics openly blasted what they saw as thinly veiled egotistical fantasies. 

"The Last Airbender" could have been a way for him to get away from such things, to take someone else's property and translate it to the big screen.  Unfortunately, the film is a boring, flat-out mess.  It tries to be slavishly faithful to the TV series... so much that it adapts specific scenes and tries to get the entire storyline of the first season into about one hundred minutes of screen time.  This means that the film plays pretty much like a 'greatest hits' version of the first season, trying to hit the high points of the story.  But none of these points have any context, since they're presented without any of the buildup that led to them in the series. 

So as a film, "The Last Airbender" is disjointed at best.  The problems with the script don't even begin to address the issues with the cast or the limp direction and boring action sequences.  There are some decent special effects on display, but mostly in the foreground of each shot.  So for example, you'll see the characters that the shot is focused on using their special powers, throwing air, rocks or fire around... but all the background characters are just fighting hand to hand, with no sign that they were capable of anything supernatural. 

The casting is problematic, as well.  Whoever thought Dev Patel and Aasif Mandvi would make effective villains has issues.  These two stumble around the film just as you'd expect: nice guys pretending to be mean.  It doesn't help that neither actor is given sufficient story or dialogue to make a real character out of.  Perhaps if we were talking about a 20-episode TV series, these two wouldn't be so bad, but instead it's too brief and pointless. Noah Ringer has almost zero presence as the supposed hero of the story, and Jackson Rathbone barely appears as Sokka.  Why he's suddenly saddled with a love interest in the last fifteen minutes of the move is entirely pointless (though it made total sense in the series).

All said and done, "The Last Airbender" is just a plain bad movie.  Nothing about it is entertaining.  The storyline is a jumbled mess, the action sequences are limp and poorly constructed, and the cast is weak.  If you're a huge fan of the series, you'll either be hugely disappointed or thoroughly enraged.  If you're not a fan of the series, you'll never understand what the hell is going on or why you should have bothered with this cinematic failure.