The Last Airbender is the live action interpretation of the excellent cartoon series Avatar: The Last Airbender. The cartoon series was a huge success - the combination of action, sympathetic characters, and complex Eastern philosophy won it rave reviews. The live action version was almost universally panned by the critics - it simply misses much of the point of the cartoon. Without the baggage of the cartoon, the film is OK and has some absolutely great special effects. It is quite difficult to follow though because the dialogue is so clipped and almost entirely plot-focussed rather than character building.
The story tells of the Avatar, the reincarnation of the greatest of the elemental benders. Bending is a key part of the mysticism the world is built around in that each of the four elements can be manipulated through mental act. Avatars can bend each of them and presumably the purpose of the Avatar is to keep the balance between the four elements - the word balance appears only once or twice in the entire film which shows how far director M. Night Shyamalan missed the plot.
In suspended animation having run away from his responsibilities, the Avatar is still a child despite having been missing for 100 years. In the intervening period one of the four elements has come to dominate. The people of Fire have broken from nature and have used their element to construct mighty weapons of war such as steam ships. They are led by an exceptionally calculating leader who casts out even his own son in an attempt to quash any hope of the Avatar returning.
Reincarnation is a fundamental part of the Buddhist traditions the premise is built upon. The people of Air reflect those traditions most acutely and are even dressed in somewhat Tibetan costume. Each of the four elements has the reincarnated Avatar in turn, again reinforcing the message of cycle that so much of Eastern Mysticism is based on. With Air being the next in line when the Avatar is reincarnated (and his description of his identity becoming apparent is an explicit reference to the selection of Lamas in Tibet), the Fire people have attacked any Air benders in case they are the Avatar.
The Avatar played by Noah Ringer looks terrific. Visually he is perfectly cast for the role. He is also a decent mover and recreates the Tai-Chi style moves very gracefully. The more complex stick work is clearly performed by an adult stand-in though. Unfortunately Ringer suffers from his being a child and not really having the range of acting skills developed yet. He is wooden and a little annoying in his delivery. The American accent doesn't help.
The Avatar's two main companions are people of Water, one of whom is the last Water bender of the south - Katara. Nicola Peltz is not yet a good actor. Her dialogue is terribly written by Shyamalan and she does not deliver her lines well. Katara's brother Sokka is slightly better acted - perhaps not a coincidence that the oldest of the children (Jackson Rathbone) puts on the better performance. Sokka's character though is the best example of why this film did not work. There is no character development at all, he is not seen to have any emotional response with one exception, and there is no promotion of the premise through his voice.
Very early on in the film, Katara asks Sokka whether he would rescue her should he need to do so and he of course answers in the affirmative. The purpose of the question is to highlight that they should also save the Avatar but it is so clumsily handled that the moral question underlying it is entirely ignored. Equally, when the team head to the North and find a princess, Sokka possibly falls in love with her but the only way to know that is the two of them happen to walk alongside each other in a couple of scenes. As it is not directly germane to the plot, the dialogue was simply skipped.
The Fire people are the bad guys. Interesting in Shyamalan's film that they are Indian. The Fire people feature by far and away the best acting in the film through Shaun Toub. Not a surprise that the best actor in the film puts in the best performance. Toub has gravitas and when his character Iroh challenges the actions of evil Commander Zhao, he does so entirely in keeping with what should have been the moral foundations of the film and with the grace and force that a man of his standing should provide.
Instead of the complexities of morality and personal relationships that made the cartoons so enthralling, the film focusses only on personal responsibility. The responsibility on the shoulders of the Avatar is enormous and a child would undoubtedly find it hard to come to terms with such requirements. One might assume Tenzin Gyatso probably had to go through the same emotional trauma on his way to becoming the foremost spiritualist of his age.
So, with just one layer of character in existence, with relatively poor acting, and weak dialogue The Last Airbender is not going to make a challenge for greatness. It does exceed the terrible level that most critics pin it with because the other elements of the film are excellent. The action sequences are well crafted in making the most of the fighting techniques available. Dev Patel is embarrasingly stiff in his fight scene but Noah Ringer is excellent. Ringer is small enough for the wire work to be believable. His graceful floating, jumping, and landing are much better than similar wirework in more mainstream martial arts films. The moment when the Avatar pulls a standing opponent down into a triangle choke is an awesome bit of jiu-jitsu. Unfortunately though, the combatants are back standing again after a cut in the action.
The special effects are very well rendered. The movement of the elements seems organic and the visualisation of some of the major locations is impressive. The dream sequences where a meditative Avatar meets with his draconic spirit guide are very well lit.
Possibly the best parts of the film are the costume and locations. The location benefits from a couple of excellent places - Vietnam and Greenland. They both look fantastic and if nothing else are an excellent advert for tourism to those places. The costumes are also great. The distinction between the peoples of the different elements is well crafted. The fire people wear inflexible material, probably steel. The air people have the flowing robes of the Tibetan plateau, and the Earth people have colours in harmony with the ground and the trees.
It could be argued that with the positive features of the combat, the special effects, and the locations & costumes, that character development and interesting philosophy are not necessary. After all, The Last Airbender is possibly only a children's film. If it is aimed only at children then the characters would normally be the main point as children tend to prefer films with heroes they can cheer for. The cartoon succeeded because it had the complex features that are missing from the film. Unfortunately M. Night Shyamalan took all of the easy bits of the cartoon and missed what made it great.
The DVD Extras are short and not especially great. The only talking head section is with the creators of the cartoon. It is very interesting that neither the featured actors nor the director wanted to put themselves into an interview for the Extras. The cartoon creators talk about the cartoon exclusively, clearly something they are rightly proud of. Aside from some deleted scenes, the only other Extra is a gag reel which isn't the funniest but is the only behind the scenes action on the DVD.
Overall, a missed opportunity. This one could have been great. A film without interesting characters lacks charm so for all of the excellent effects and action, there isn't enough to keep wanting to watch it. The best way to see the film is to lower expectations beforehand in line with the critiques, and then enjoy the positive parts which do exist even if this film can only ever be seen as at best a missed opportunity.