Friday, July 2, 2010

The Last Airbender: Not The Worst Movie Ever Made

The Last Airbender, which went into wide release this week, is based on "Avatar: The Last Airbender", an animated series produced by the American cable channel Nickelodeon, and broadcast from 2005-2008. Avatar ran for 61 episodes and three seasons, and it was a critical and popular success, resonating with viewers far beyond the network’s very young demographic. I count myself among those adults who, in the summer of 2008, eagerly awaited its concluding episodes. In January 2007, months before the show`s third season had begun, it was announced that M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Signs, The Happening) would write, direct, and produce a live-action feature film adaptation. I greeted that announcement with the usual trepidation of one who hears that a beloved novel has been tagged for Hollywood treatment. And so, having been following the film’s production for over 3 years, and putting my creative concerns aside, I walked into the theatre with genuine anticipation. But it wasn’t ‘the new M. Night Shyamalan film’ that I came to see, nor the summer’s next highly-promoted ‘3-D fantasy epic.’ No, I came to see The Last Airbender, the big screen adaptation of a television series that I genuinely love.

And to put all suspense aside, especially in light of the unexpected heaps of critical vitriol the film seems to have already generated, let me just say this: I enjoyed it. It’s not a perfect film of course, but (and here is something I didn’t think I’d have to say), this is not the worst movie ever made. Despite the admittedly muddy and underwhelming 3-D effects , and after an awkward and over-expository opening sequence, the film and its characters soon get their bearings, arriving at a decidedly epic and emotionally satisfying conclusion. I didn’t always agree with the choices Shyamalan made regarding which of the original material to keep or leave out, but I neither agree with nor understand the public whipping the movie has been getting.

Why does the film seem to be almost universally panned? The response is so out of proportion to my experience of the same movie that I suspect that the twin forces of “let’s see how bad this Shyamalan film is” and “what’s up with all these weak post-production 3-D conversions” met to produce a perfect storm, with the unfortunate The Last Airbender sitting at the epicentre. Another possibility lies with the film’s origins in a Nickelodeon cartoon aimed at the under-14 demographic. No doubt for those who haven’t watched the series, that simple fact would in itself show as much promise as a feature film based on a video game or a breakfast cereal. These admittedly hypothetical people would, however, be mistaken.

The television series creators’ Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko had ambitions far in excess of the network norms and its medium. Each season was presented as a book (Book One: Water; Book Two: Earth, etc) and each episode was presented as a chapter. The series took character and continuity seriously, and gave all of its characters (heroes and villains alike) space and time to grow and mature over the course of its run. And most impressively in an industry which tends to measure success solely in terms of longevity, the series was ended once its story had been told. In its three seasons, DiMartino and Konietzko successfully created an entire world, populated by morally and narratively complex characters, whose stories are told with an always entertaining mixture of myth, action, humour, romance, and depth. The story is set in an Asian-influenced fantasy world, and the look of the show is a fusion of anime and American animation.

The basic premise is this: the world is populated by four nations, each defined by a different natural element: Air, Water, Earth, and Fire. In each of those countries, there are special individuals who, when properly trained, can practice the art of manipulating their element. This is what is called ‘bending’— waterbending, earthbending, firebending, and the titular airbending. As the symbolism of the four elements implies, in an ideal universe these four nations can and should live in harmony. In every generation, an Avatar is born, one individual who alone can harness the power of all four elements, and whose destiny it is to keep and preserve balance among the nations. However, almost a hundred years ago, the Avatar disappeared. The Fire Nation, intent on establishing a new world order, took advantage of his disappearance and initiated an imperialistic programme of conquest and domination. The animated series, and the film, open a century into this war, with the re-discovery of the Avatar, a young and inexperienced airbender named Aang, by two young members of the Water Tribe, a waterbender named Katara and her brother Sokka.

With its well-written characters, sharply realized plots, and beautiful anime-inspired animation, the series compares favourably to the best material produced for children in the past 10 years, and would be a legitimate companion to the Lemony Snicket novels and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Despite its humble cartoons origins, the challenges of adapting it for the length of a feature film are similar to adapting a novel.

And so, how does The Last Airbender fare, in light of all this?

First, let’s dispose of the 3-D issue. The 3-D was added in post-production, using a conversion process on a film conceived and shot for conventional viewing. As a result, it doesn’t really add much to the experience. More often, it actually takes away from it, as the technology muddies and darkens some indoor, dialogue-heavy low-special effects scenes.

As for the script, Shyamalan was compelled to make a number of difficult choices due to the natural time constraints of a feature film. (The first season consisted of 20 episodes and a total of 8 hours of story, while The Last Airbender clocks in at 103 minutes.) Experience has taught that when it comes to what gets left out, plot and narrative always win out over character and heart. (Witness: the first Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.) Understandably then, the film’s story turns its focus primarily on our protagonist, Aang (played by 12-year-old newcomer Noah Ringer), and our main antagonist, Prince Zuko (played by Dev Patel, Slumdog Millionaire).Both Aang’s and Zuko’s stories are deftly laid out, and in some ways, the film’s telescoped telling concentrates and clarifies aspects of these two characters.

However, the biggest victim of this shift in focus is the character of Sokka (played by Jackson Rathbone, of Twilight fame). The woodenness of Sokka’s characterization will be particularly frustrating to fans of the series, where his character had the clumsy charm of, well, a 15-year-old boy. In the series, Sokka successfully communicates the goofy awkwardness of a boy trying to a warrior, forever overreaching and failing. Think Xander, in the early seasons of "Buffy, The Vampire Slayer." The 25-year-old Rathbone’s maturity and adult good looks immediately undermine this. As a result, the crucial sibling relation with Katara (played admirably by the more age-appropriate Nicola Peltz) never really gels. While Peltz does a lot despite her diminished screen time, much of the story’s heart is built on the brother and sister relationship. I expect the flatness of the film’s opening sequence can be credited largely to this failing. Another unfortunate choice was the elimination of the themes of sexism and misogyny, whose deft handling made the original series such compelling viewing. Their removal is no doubt due to the sharp focus of the film’s narrative, but I felt the absence of those themes and characters deeply, as they had originally played such a crucial role in Katara’s character arc.

But there is a lot here that does work quite well. Dev Patel portrays the exiled Prince Zuko as a sympathetic and challenging villain and Shaun Toub plays his Uncle Iroh with a subtle intensity and generosity which adds new layers to an already well-drawn character. Most impressively, Shyamalan films the martial arts sequences beautifully. The animated series took its martial arts very seriously, and I was pleased to see a comparable care taken by Shyamalan. Few American made movies have succeeded in demonstrating the extent to which East Asian martial arts are about more than hand-to-hand fighting and breaking stuff. As a result however, those coming to a see a kung fu film might well be disappointed. Due to the conceit of this fantasy world, the arts practiced are refined to their most formal essentials, as practitioners only really fight one anotherindirectly, by way of their manipulation of the natural elements. The training sequences are lovely to behold and quite effectively communicate the spiritual core of the art form.

My final recommendation?

Ignore what everyone is saying and see the movie, but see it in 2-D, if you can. And, by all means, check out the animated series! The entire show is available on DVD and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone, especially those with children—boys or girls—over the age of 8.

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on July 2, 2010. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.