Given the controversy over the decision to cast white characters in the majority of the leads, and director M. Night Shyamalan's recent track record, The Last Airbender should have been a gift to a critic like me. The jokes write themselves: "Pfft, more like The Last Aryanbender" was one I'd planned on using. But having seen the film now, I have a different message for Hollywood, and specifically for every disappointed young Chinese-American or Inuit or Japanese or whatever actor in town:
Kids, you just dodged a bullet.
Based on Avatar: The Last Airbender, an American cartoon in the anime idiom, this movie will end careers. Shyamalan was clearly trying to make a franchise along the lines of The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, but instead he made The Golden Compass—an incoherent and boring spectacle, so full of nothing that almost everything good about the source material had to be left out.
Avatar is Asian fusion—the fantasy is primarily about the myths and legends of Asian cultures, their martial arts and even Buddhist notions of what it means to be a hero. In this realm, certain people can magically manipulate one of the four classical elements: earth, air, fire or water. "Balance" is kept by the frequently reincarnated "avatar," who can bend all four elements.
The action starts with the missing avatar Aang, young and untrained in anything but airbending, showing up after a century-long absence, just in time to thwart the imperialist machinations of the Fire Nation. For a cartoon, it's sophisticated stuff. For a movie, it's deadly dull.
Shyamalan made a career out of coaxing excellent performances out of child actors like Haley Joel Osment and Spencer Treat Clark—to name two kiddies who dropped off the face of the earth once they had to depend on their own skills—but with the elementbenders here, the director has failed utterly. Shyamalan and his staff insisted that they were "color blind" when casting the film, that they simply wanted the best actors available, and yet every one of the leads is third-grade-school-play awful. It is absolutely impossible that these brats were the best a major director and big studio could find for a potential tentpole picture.
Noah Ringer, who plays Aang, speaks with all the nuance and subtlety of Stephen Hawking's robot voice. Nicola Peltz is so dense that you could probably flick pennies at her forehead starting at sunrise and she wouldn't even notice till noon. Then there's Seychelle Gabriel as Princess Yue. There's a bit where Princess Yue stumbles over the line "We believe in our beliefs just as much as they believe in their beliefs." When Aang asks if "there is a spiritual place nearby," Yue responds, "There is a very spiritual place nearby." I was reminded of the exchange from The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T: "Is it atomic?" "Yes sir, very atomic." Except that in The Last Airbender, nobody jokes.
Spoiler alert: in the film, the Princess drowns herself to save the moon spirits. Disappointment alert: Uncle Iroh, who suggested the course of action, doesn't follow it up with "You know, the rest of you kids better drown yourselves too, just to be safe."
The only kid not actively offensive is Dev Patel as Prince Zuko. Not because he's actually Asian, but because his crimes are limited to staring wide-eyed at the camera, as if to beg the audience to walk out of the movie before they see the credits and make note of his name. Where's Boo Boo Stewart when we need him!
The adult sides are little better. The Fire Nation general has a scroll that will allow him to find and kill various spirits. It came from "the Great Library." We know this because he says no fewer than half a dozen times, "With this scroll I stole from the Great Library, I can find and kill the moon and ocean spirits ... " An adult waterbender asks Aang if he'd "like to spar. You haven't sparred recently," as if the word "spar" were some nonsense fantasy word the actor was previously unfamiliar with. Fire Nation idealist Uncle Iroh is the only bright spot, as actor Shaun Taub brings a strangely Tommy Chongesque Yoda vibe to the proceedings.
Shyamalan is also credited for the script, but I suspect his kids wrote it for him. Aang, Katara and her mundane brother Sokka start a rebellion among the southern cities and villages, but this potentially important plot point or at least exciting action scene is done away with in two lines of dialogue. At another point, Katara steels her nerves to talk to Aang, who wants to visit an airbending temple Katara knows to be abandoned. (It's also a trap—but how did the Fire Nation know that Aang would be there, and how did they get ahead of him with a squad of soldiers when Aang flew there and could certainly spot their march?) Then the scene with the actual discussion is skipped entirely. Likely because neither kid could handle more than three lines of dialogue at a time.
Shyamalan has also forgotten more basic storytelling. Cities and villages most often go unnamed entirely, despite the movie being about the liberation of cities and villages from the Fire Nation. Aang is traveling this world, see, to learn how to bend the other elements in order—The Last Airbender is even subtitled "Book 1: Water." (Don't hold your breath for Book 2.) But we really get no sense of Aang's mission or its urgency because the pacing is so terrible. Even the fight scenes are boring, as the characters perform a little martial-arts talou—waterbending looks a lot like Yang-style tai chi—and only after they're done with their moves do the elements start flying around. This means that the opponent is usually just standing in the corner like a simpleton waiting for the hit to come.
Characters also come and go for no reason—Yue and Sokka leave Aang alone with Katara to meditate and then appear again right after Katara has been beaten and Aang kidnapped. Wait, what? Why did they leave? Where did they go? How did they know to come back, if they even did? The movie is full of scenes and shots that are utterly disconnected from one another, and from the greater plot. Shyamalan also loves inexplicable close-ups of people walking into rooms. Oh, have I mentioned that The Last Airbender is in 3-D but the only real 3-D effects come from people's noses jutting toward the camera? Aang doesn't even take out the major antagonist of the film—four extras do. Aang should not use his Avatar powers to hurt and kill, we learn, but if he happens to enable his new friends to kill a bunch of folks, I guess that's okay.
There are a couple of bright spots that hint at the themes of the cartoon. Aang isn't a warrior and is even willing to be friends with his rival, Prince Zuko—it's legitimately refreshing, or would be were Ringer at all believable as Aang. The very last scene rolls out a new antagonist, and Summer Bishil as Princess Azula nails her one smile and one line with all the ferocity and fun that was missing in the entire rest of The Last Airbender. A switch-up in the last 30 seconds of the film isn't enough to save Shyamalan this time, though. This franchise picture was supposed to save the once-acclaimed director's career, but Hollywood is done with this guy.
Next up for Shyamalan—directing a series of Chester County, Pa., used-car-dealer ads ... with twist endings!