According to The Last Airbender — the latest 3-D offering in theaters, yet barely functional in 2-D or even 1-D — the world’s separate kingdoms are built around fire, air, water, earth and impenetrable, rock-hard exposition. Bringing those first four to the screen no doubt intrigued writer-director M. Night Shyamalan. But the fifth keeps messing him up, as he struggles to find a rhythm for the quest involving a young leader’s date with destiny.
This turns into a series of flashbacks and voice-over explanations regarding the Northern Water Tribe (“where they openly practice water bending”) or Prince Zuko, exiled son of the Fire Lord, who’s …
… And I seem to be lost myself. I liked the original TV incarnation (Nickelodeon, 2005 through 2008), which was the first non-glib, non-obnoxious series to capture my preteen son’s interest. (It made up for all those installments of The Fairly OddParents.) Shot largely in Greenland, the film version tells the first part of the series’ story, in which Water Nation war orphans and siblings (Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone) discover, frozen in ice, young Aang (Noah Ringer), the reincarnation of the Avatar, who can bend anything and restore harmony to the warring factions while teaching the upstart Fire Nation a lesson in humility.
This is a world containing a flying furry bison and no shortage of battles waged by hurling fireballs and blasts of wind at your opponent. In one respect, Shyamalan was an intriguing choice to adapt and helm this project: He’s a grave soul, which means he’s in tune with the (relative) seriousness of the series.
Think back, though, to The Sixth Sense and Signs, films from the director’s pre-lost-mojo period. Shyamalan’s storytelling strengths are all about quietude, indirect suspense and treating supernatural elements with everyday simplicity. The Last Airbender (they couldn’t use the series’ Avatar title because another film got there first, without all the bending) is more about marshaling extras and interpolating tons of computer-generated effects and keeping the factions straight. It’s a tough sit.
And the casting is peculiar: Already the subject of some Asian-American protests, the movie has made the good-guy Water Nation folks largely (and dully) Anglo, with Mediterranean and Indian and other swarthy-type performers portraying the bad-guy Fire Folk. (Dev Patel from Slumdog Millionaire plays Zuko, who’s at least conflicted about his role in world events.) You wouldn’t notice the color-coding if the movie had any storytelling zip or visual magic.
But not since Kyle MacLachlan’s whispered voiceovers about the worm and the spice and the worm IS the spice in Dune has a fantasy franchise tripped all over itself trying, simply, to please a fan base while creating a new one.
—MCT, Tribune Media Services Respond: firstname.lastname@example.org