Review: The Last Airbender

There’s only one pair of glasses that will make “The Last Airbender” a tolerable adventure and it’s not the 3-D kind. Based on the Nickelodeon animated TV series, “Airbender” is a kids movie, fully equipped with a PG rating and young protagonists asked to shoulder a majority of the workload. Expect just that: a film for young audiences.

In a post Lord of the Rings movie world, the expectations of fantasy are higher than ever: epic action, breathtaking landscapes and character-driven stories piloted by professional actors. Armed with the budget of an epic, “The Last Airbender” gives the illusion of such a film and will be judged primarily in all the ways that it fails to live up to those standards. But through the lens of a child, this film must appear as an awing big-budget spectacle that delivers itself directly at their eye level. If much-maligned filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan “did it all for the kids,” I suspect he succeeded, but for fantasy fans and matured fans of the TV series, the story is a heck of a dud.

Shyamalan fails this time as a writer. The script serves only to push the plot and is loaded with almost nothing but background information, running rampant like one of those faulty robotic floor cleaners scurrying about frantically with some false notion of purpose when it hits a corner and keeps backing up and re-treading over the same places, never covering all the desired spots.

The oft-repeated concept is that Aang (Noah Ringer) is the last of the Air nation (there’s Earth, Water and Fire as well) because they were exterminated by the Fire nation over the course of the last hundred years, during which time he was frozen in ice. The reason for their extermination was because the Fire nation, bent on ruling the planet, knew the next Avatar, or the ever-reincarnating human who is connected to the spirit world, can bend all four elements and exists to preserve peace, would be born an Airbender. That Avatar is Aang. Fire nation is after him (and not to kill him, because he’d be reincarnated so it’s pointless) and he’s destined to save the world. The script has very little faith in the fact that kids will understand that, which is probably a correct assumption in many ways, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be able to enjoy it if the script had been geared a bit more toward the 16-and-up crowd.

These young actors, Ringer and co-stars Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone as young Water nation friends that accompany Aang’s adventure, are asked to deliver almost all of this information-based dialogue, which sometimes even the best actors aren’t good at. You can’t expect a kid to act without giving them any kind of motivation-driven lines or some kind of an emotion to play out in the scene. Only Dev Patel as the Fire prince Zuko gets that luxury. Exiled by his father and shamed in front of his people, Zuko actually has motivation and it shows in Patel’s performance being the only decent one in the film aside from a few moments from the supporting character Princess Yue (Seychelle Gabriel), who impressively finds her character’s motivation in a story that doesn’t provide it outside of expository dialogue.

As for racist accusations in the casting of this film, every race and ethnicity is represented, (Earth people are Far East Asian, Fire are Persian, Indian and Italian, Air is a mixture of ethnicities and so on), but I can certainly understand it being suspect that the main characters (most of whom are Water nation citizens) are Caucasian. Without any frame of reference from the original series and expectations as to what the characters should look like, it did not affect the film experience or manifest itself in any way other than looks alone.

The visual effects, which you’d expect to be the saving grace in some way, are not prolific enough to redeem “Airbender.” The best scenes were already exposed in the trailers. However, the way that different martial arts styles for each element influence the way that element is “bent” in the fight sequences is interesting and unique and the way ancient Asian beliefs are incorporated into the fantasy lore certainly prevents any accusations of unoriginal or bad material.

The presentation of this viable concept is what ends up being a tangled, frantic mess, particularly for those beyond a certain age who can’t simply be awe-stricken into enjoying a movie. As a fantasy epic for children, however, “Airbender” will be like nothing they’ve experienced before because it will feel to them as if meant for older kids but they’ll be able to grasp the elaborate concept behind it. Unfortunately, it won’t hook their parents or older companions too.

2.5/5 Stars

The Last Airbender
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Written by M. Night Shyamalan, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko (TV series)
Starring: Noah Ringer, Dev Patel, Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone


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