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The Last Airbender / *** (PG)

Posted Monday, July 12, 2010, at 11:26 PM

(Photo)
The Emmy-winning animated series "The Last Airbender" makes its live-action big screen debut.
Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies present a film written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Based on the animated series "Avatar: The Last Airbender" created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Running time: 103 min. Rated PG (for fantasy action violence).

Perhaps I'm a little too easy on movies this year. I do seem to be handing out three stars like it's going out of style. But I'm genuinely enjoying a great many of the movies being released this summer that I never thought I would.

My most recent cinematic enjoyment came under the title "The Last Airbender", a live-action treatment of the popular animated children's television series "Avatar: The Last Airbender". Critics have universally despised director M. Night Shyamalan's adaptation of this mystical story of a future world where people are divided into four tribes, each dedicated to one of the four elements--earth, air, water, and fire. Although, the box office receipts indicate the fans don't agree.

As I watched the movie, I couldn't see what had caused such a rash of criticism against it beyond fairly minor and typical blockbuster flaws. One of the most vehement voices against this new movie has been that of Chicago Sun Times critic Roger Ebert. Although I usually write my reviews without consulting other reviews, I had to know what I was missing that he couldn't stand about it so much.

Ebert's primary argument against the movie was the use of the 3D format. This is neither fair to the movie, nor to the 3D format. Now, I'm not a complete advocate of the 3D format. It does seem designed mostly for studios to capitalize on the higher ticket prices. The shame of it is the way it takes advantage of a film like "The Last Airbender", which was never intended to be in 3D to begin with. Ebert complains that the 3D images in "Airbender" are flat and never really utilize the added dimension. While I watched a standard version of the film, rather than the 3D, I'm sure he's correct. This is because the movie wasn't filmed in 3D, but rather transferred to the format after the astounding success of James Cameron's "Avatar". To blame the movie or the filmmakers for the poor use of 3D is just wrong. That was the studio's decision and the 3D postproduction team's fault, not Shyamalan's. He did not film a 3D movie, and my guess is audiences are better off seeing the standard version.

Secondly, Ebert is critical of another format issue, the fact that this is a live action version of a cartoon. Ebert is famously a huge fan of anime, the form of traditional line drawn animation embraced by Japanese film culture. Anime places a great deal of emphasis on character facial expression and mystical action. Since this live action movie is based on an anime style television show, Ebert argues the movie should also be in the anime style. While I am also a fan of anime, I'm not sure what the point of that would be, since it already exists in the anime format.

The movie retells the exact story as the first season of the television series. Certainly if one prefers the anime format, they can just rent the TV show. The movie takes 16 23-minute television episodes and compresses them into a 103-minute movie, so there's a great deal of trimming down on material. Some fans of the series might feel the movie rushes some aspects of the story; and it does, as it must. However, most of the essential elements are here.

Ebert complains, "This plot is incomprehensible." As one who has not seen more than a couple scattered episodes of the show, I can assure you it is not. It involves a world where the four elemental tribes contain some gifted members known as "benders", who can manipulate their own tribal element. A sort of deity known as the Avatar helps to keep these tribes in peaceful relations, but with the disappearance of the Avatar over 100 years ago, the Fire Nation has implemented war against the other nations. When a boy named Aang appears that may be the Avatar, the Fire Nation makes his capture their primary goal. A brother and sister from the Water Nation become the boy's protectors. While there is more to the plot than that, it's hardly incomprehensible.

A great many critics, including Ebert, have also attacked the movie for not casting Asians in the lead roles, accusing the filmmakers of discarding the culturalism of the series. This is the most absurd criticism I've heard against the film. First, although the show is done in the anime style, it is an American television show, not Japanese. Nor is anime a purely Asian style of animation as its origins can be traced back to Europe before the Japanese adopted it. Plus, the casting of the film is quite racially diverse, with actors from many cultural origins including, Chinese, American, Indian, Iranian, New Zealander, and Korean, all in major roles.

Ebert does go on in his critique of the film to point out some problems that I can agree with. The characters are underdeveloped, especially the relationship between the exiled prince of the Fire Nation, Zuko, and his protector and uncle, Iroh. Shyamalan's more old school direction, which often involves the audience not being able to see certain actions, doesn't work well with this movie's more modern fantasy elements. Ebert cites a good example in an opening scene where the Waterbender Katara manipulates a ball of water through the air and accidentally soaks her brother Sokka with it off screen. This gag would've been more effective had we seen the soaking.

What Shyamalan does right with "The Last Airbender" is create a new and original movie fantasy universe with a deep mythology, exciting action, and even a slight environmental message to be learned. He recreates the television series storyline faithfully and makes me want to revisit this world to see where the story goes from the end of this chapter. "The Last Airbender" is certainly not the best film I've seen this summer, but it's effective in what it wants to be, and I was involved in the story in a way that didn't have me looking for the strings being pulled. "The Last Airbender" was better than I anticipated, and now I anticipate further chapters to improve upon this one.

"The Last Airbender" is currently playing at Galaxy Cinema in Sedalia.

Visit A Penny in the Well for movie clips, DVDs, and star rating scale.



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ANDREW D. WELLS
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Andrew is a professionally trained actor and stage director. He was a reporter for the daily newspaper The Marshall Democrat News. He has been critiquing film since Mr. Lucas released the first of his "Star Wars" prequels in 1999. His reviews can also be seen at his blog site.
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