(Paramount) Noah Ringer, Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone, Dev Patel, Cliff Curtis, Aasif Mandvi, Shaun Toub, Keong Sim, Seychelle Gabriel, Katharine Houghton, Francis Guinan, Randall Duk Kim, Damon Gupton, Summer Bishil. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
There is the school of thought that all of us were born for a reason. Whether that reason is to accomplish something, or to be with somebody, we all have a destiny we’re meant to fulfill. That’s the idea, anyway.
Based on the Nickelodeon faux-anime series, the movie takes place in a world that has been divided into four nations, each based on an element – Fire, Water, Air and Earth. Each nation has a group of people within it that can bend the element endemic to their nature; Earthbenders can cause rocks to hurl themselves at aggressors, and protect their Bender by creating a shield wall. Waterbenders can encase their enemy in ice, while Airbenders can create a little tornado. Firebenders can hurl flames at those they wish, which can come in very handy when you want to fricassee someone.
However, Benders can only work with the element they’re native to and none other. Only one person, the Avatar, can bend all four elements. He also can communicate with the spirit world, wherein reside dragons and other amazing creatures who act as mentors and guides. The Avatar is reincarnated whenever he dies and while he lives he keeps the world in balance.
However, Aang (Ringer), the most recent Avatar, ran away before he could be fully trained and disappeared. Without the Avatar to maintain balance, the aggressive Fire Nation attacked the Air Nation and wiped it out, and has occupied the Earth Nation while besieging the Water Nation. The world is at war.
A hundred years later, two war orphans of the Southern Water Tribe are hunting for very scarce food on the ice floe. Katara (Peltz) and her brother Sokka (Rathbone) find something buried beneath the ice which turns out to be an ice sphere, which turns out to contain…drum roll please…Aang, who has remained in suspended animation for more than a century. He is completely unaware of what has transpired. However, releasing Aang sends a bolt of light sure to attract anyone in the vicinity.
And it so happens that in the vicinity is Prince Zuko (Patel) of the Fire Nation, who is in disgrace for showing leniency to the soldiers under his command. He has been banished by his own father, the Fire Lord Ozai (Curtis) until Zuko brings the Avatar to the court of the Fire Lord. The beam of light attracted Zuko’s notice and he, along with his uncle, General Iroh (Taub). They march into the village of the Water People and capture Aang. However, Sokka and Katara rescue the lad with the aid of his luckdragon. Okay, it looks like a luckdragon.
At Sokka’s urging, Aang heads up a rebellion, which gains some steam. After awhile, Aang confesses to Katara that he was only trained how to bend Air, and needs to learn Water, Earth and Fire in order to attain his full power. Sokka and Katara must take Aang to the Northern Water Tribe where they still bend water openly, and get him trained. However, Zuko is pretty hacked off after losing his prisoner and is looking for him with a vengeance, and Ozai has sent his slimiest general, Commander Zhao (Mandvi) to trap the Avatar himself. Considering the armed might of the Fire Nation and their infernal machines, can anyone stand up against the most powerful nation on the planet?
The critics have been universally harsh on this one, and I can see some of their points. Certainly the acting is on the wooden side here. I mean, I know they’re supposed to be one with the earth but do they have to be trees?
I know, har de har har har. However, Shyamalan, who has been on a cold streak lately, cast a kid in the lead role that has a certain amount of natural charisma but not enough acting chops to pull off carrying an entire movie. He has some impressive martial arts moves, but mostly what he does is wire work. Ringer would have benefitted from a few more acting lessons before cameras were rolling. However, the boy has a certain natural charm that you can’t teach; hopefully in future movies he’ll be much better.
Another problem is the battle scenes. If you look at most Asian martial arts movies, the battle scenes look realistic and beautifully choreographed. Here, it looks like a bunch of guys waving their arms around. There’s no sense of conflict.
There has been some grumbling that the bad guys are mostly played by Indian actors. I mean, can we just take a chill pill for a moment? The director wanted the four nations to look ethnically similar, so the Earth people look Chinese and Mongol, the Water people look Scandinavian and Germanic and the Fire people look like Eastern Indians. Shyamalan is of Indian-American background; how people would have had a coronary if the Fire People all were African, or Italian. Take it easy people; this is a fantasy movie, not an indictment of any particular ethnic group back here on Earth and certainly not the director’s own. Sheesh.
To the good, the art direction is marvelous. Shyamalan succeeded in creating distinct cultures with their own architectural look, from the steampunk-styled warships of the Fire people to the igloo-like dwellings of the Water people. The costumes and the overall look of the movie is very satisfying, to say the least. The bending effects of fireballs, ice walls, flying rocks and tornadic dust clouds while not groundbreaking are at least reasonably high on the wow factor scale.
The dialogue could have used some work, but then again what do you expect for a movie based on a Nickelodeon animated series? It’s simplistic in places, full of pretentious New Age babble, and portentous pronouncements. I suspect some of the acting performances would have been better had the actors had more naturalistic dialogue to work with.
This isn’t a very good movie, to be sure but it does have some redeeming qualities, despite the critical bashing that it has been taking for awhile. I haven’t seen the original anime that this is based on so I went in as something of a blank slate, without any preconceived notions of how this movie should look or feel. Without any knowledge of the show’s canon, I can safely say that the premise is very intriguing, if a little child-friendly, and I liked some of the concepts here. Unfortunately, those concepts weren’t well-served by the script. The movie did moderate box office in its first weekend and unless it turns out to be word-of-mouth proof, chances are those numbers are going to take a nosedive in the coming days. So, it is sad to say that this will take its place in a long line of recent attempts to create a new fantasy franchise that have ended after a single chapter (see Eragon, Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, The Dark is Rising: The Seeker, Inkheart, The Spiderwick Chronicles and The Golden Compass, to name just a half dozen). Maybe the studios should stop looking for the next Harry Potter and try some adult fantasy fiction, like the Wheel of Time, or the Shannara series or perhaps the Magic of Xanth. I wouldn’t mind any one of those making it to the screen.
REASONS TO GO: Great concept and some truly impressive visuals. The set design is just outstanding.
REASONS TO STAY: Really bad acting in some key roles. Battle sequences look just awful. Dialogue too “Nickelodeon Cartoon” to make sense in a live action film.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some fantasy violence and a few battle scenes, but nothing bloody or disturbing enough that you wouldn’t think twice about letting most kids see it.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the series this is based on is entitled “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” Paramount dropped the “Avatar” to avoid confusion with the James Cameron movie released in 2009, and also to avoid possible legal action from 20th Century Fox, who had already registered the name.
HOME OR THEATER: Some of the sequences are visually impressive and deserve to be seen on a big screen; otherwise, it’s your call.
FINAL RATING: 5/10
TOMORROW: Death Race