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The Last Airbender (revisited)

In the summer of 2010, The Last Airbender was released. It came out at a time when the industry was still reeling from the world-conquering campaign of Avatar (in fact, The Last Airbender had to change its name, so the movie based on “Avatar: The Last Airbender” could have a chance to compete), so lavish 3D CGI spectacle was the order of the day.

At the time, I was still unfamiliar with the source material and the film was promptly eviscerated by critics, so I had no reason to see it for myself. My sister, however, was a huge fan of the show and she never really cared much for what film critics think, so she went to see the film and obligingly wrote a review in my stead.

(Side note: Thanks, Deb! I love you, sis!)

Cut to 2021. I’m now a decade older and wiser, with that much more experience in reviewing movies. Also, with the advent of COVID-19 and Netflix, I finally got the chance to catch up on the original run of “Avatar: The Last Airbender”. Plus, news recently came in that Nickelodeon built a whole new studio dedicated to building the Avatar world into its own multimedia superfranchise. So now I’ve got an itch to finally watch the film adaptation for myself and give it the proper Movie Curiosities treatment.

So grab your firearm of choice, gather around the barrel, and let’s shoot some well-deserved fish.

Right off the top, there are a few things we need to address before we even start the movie. First up, if you’re still unfamiliar with the franchise, I’ll direct you to the show’s opening. Seriously, for a basic introduction to the show’s premise and overall quality, nobody could possibly do better than those 45 seconds of finely-honed perfection. There’s a whole college thesis to be written about the selection and placement of every note of music, every frame of animation, every word of exposition. Remember that, we’ll come back to it later.

The second preface concerns the matter of race. The movie’s choice to race-swap so many characters was a massive controversy that’s hounded the movie since development and continues to this day. Though really, race has been a sore point for the franchise since the beginning.

“Avatar: The Last Airbender” was created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, two white guys who pulled extensively from Eastern folklore and mysticism in crafting their fantasy world. DiMartino and Konietzko were both among eight credited directors and 24 credited writers on the show, only ONE of whom (May Chan, credited writer on 14 episodes) was any kind of Asian. And that’s not even getting started on the cast — all three lead characters were portrayed as non-white, yet they were voiced by Zach Tyler, Mae Whitman, and Jack De Sena, all white. Likewise, while the supporting cast featured such talented performers of color as Dante Basco, the late Mako, and even George Takei himself in a brief yet prominent guest role, they’re drowned out by the likes of Michaela Jill Murphy, Grey Griffin, James Garrett, Jason Isaacs, Clancy Brown, Mark Hamill, and so many other white performers all playing characters of color. At one point, when Mako passed away, his replacement was a white guy named Greg Baldwin. Let that sink in.

With all of that being said, the Agrabah Principle totally applies here: It’s impossible to be racially or culturally insensitive toward a race or culture that doesn’t exist. All the cultures and tribes of the Avatar world are purely fictional, and absolutely nobody is pretending that anything about the franchise is supposed to be any kind of authentic representation of actual Eastern peoples, history, or folklore.

Everything about this franchise is solely the creation of the writers, directors, and producers, so they’re all perfectly free to make up whatever rules they want and cast the show as they see fit. Furthermore, in the specific case of writer/director M. Night Shyamalan (as with anyone else who sets out to adapt an existing property), he both needed and deserved the freedom to make whatever changes he saw fit for the purpose of making an adaptation that stood on its own and worked in the new medium.

Even so, there’s the matter of racial coding to consider. For example, while the Water Tribe is purely fictional — thus everything about their appearance, traditions, bylaws, etc. are the sole responsibility of the show’s creators — the Inuits are certainly not fictional. Yet (for better or worse) the show’s original creators very specifically utilized Native Alaskan imagery as a kind of cultural/visual shorthand, conveying a great deal of information about these people to the audience in virtually no time at all. Which is especially important in a half-hour show made for kids.

There is so much racial coding in the original show, and every single instance was done with great care and clear reason. In point of fact, the show was filled to the brim with sociopolitical allegories that only made sense because the characters and cultures were all coded in a particular way. This fictional show with its fictional characters had deeply thoughtful messages and intensely relatable characters, making a tangible real-world impact because they looked like people of color in the real world.

Moreover, so many characters in the original show became so iconic and beloved precisely because of all the care and attention put into every detail of their design. So when Shyamalan cast three white leading actors to go against an army played by people of color, that’s exactly the kind of careless and insensitive racial coding that directly undercuts all the hard work and good intentions that went into the original show. Plus, it shows a deep lack of respect for the original characters and the fans who love them.

Conclusion: Shyamalan had every right to race-swap the characters as he saw fit, but that doesn’t mean it was the right thing to do. And by the way, this is also how I feel about Shyamalan’s baffling choice to change the pronunciation of Aang’s name — sure, there’s technically no reason why he couldn’t do that, but there’s no conceivable good reason as to why he did.

Then we have the matter of runtime. This movie was tasked with adapting the first season of the show, cramming twenty half-hour episodes’ worth of story into a single film. The movie is 103 minutes long.

At the time of The Last Airbender‘s release, we had already seen six Harry Potter movies, each one in the ballpark of 150 minutes. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and its sequel were also roughly 150 minutes in length. The first three Twilight movies clocked in at roughly two hours apiece. And of course the three Lord of the Rings movies were famously three hours each. Avatar — the James Cameron movie that everyone was trying to imitate at the time — went on for roughly 160 minutes.

By the summer of 2010, it had been conclusively proven that the target demographic for this movie would not only tolerate an epic work of sweeping fantasy cinema that stretched on past two hours, but handsomely reward it. Yet the filmmakers apparently decided that it was not only possible but absolutely necessary to shoehorn six or seven hours’ worth of source material into just over an hour and a half. This right here was arguably the biggest and brightest red flag of them all.

But then we start the movie itself. It opens with a live-action re-enactment of the opening… but all of the visuals and choreography are either altered or omitted entirely. And the narration has changed. And the narration is now a text crawl. The filmmakers messed with perfection, and turned out an inferior product. This sets the tone for the rest of the film.

Things don’t get any better when we finally meet our leads. In the show, you see, Aang and Sokka were capable of immensely spirited comic relief. Granted, their exaggerated movements and heightened expressions are both much easier in animation than in live-action. Even so, these characters had a goofy and lovable charm that endeared them to the audience immediately. M. Night Shyamalan cannot do “goofy and lovable”. You could scan every last frame of his entire filmography — including and especially this movie — without ever scraping up a single frame of anything that made Aang and Sokka so funny in the cartoon.

When we first meet the live-action Katara and Sokka (here played by Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone), Katara accidentally drops a ton of freezing water directly on top of her brother’s head. If this had happened in the cartoon (and I’m sure it must have happened at some point), Sokka would have flown into a comical outburst. Here in the film, he just glares at his sister and gives her a half-hearted talking to. In the very next scene, Sokka fails to track an animal and I swear I could hear the character’s voice in my head, whining with heartbroken disappointment. But Rathbone’s line reading is deathly dull.

Doctor Shyamalan, the patient arrived with no heart and was pronounced dead on arrival. We’ll see you in court for malpractice.

It’d be one thing if this was just the younger and less experienced actors, but then we bring in Dev Patel as Zuko. On paper, this was a fantastic choice. Patel was in his prime, still hot off his huge breakthrough role in Slumdog Millionaire, and such a dynamic actor could’ve really sunk his teeth into such a prime role as Zuko. Likewise, Shaun Toub is a wonderful journeyman actor, not a bad choice at all to play the older and wiser Iroh. Alas, in practice, both of these legitimately talented actors are visibly straining against the godawful script.

Oh, and Aasif Mandvi is on hand to play Zhao. The conniving, power-hungry, ruthless military megalomaniac played by the Daily Show correspondent who fired Peter Parker at the start of Spider-Man 2. In what godforsaken universe could that possibly have made sense? They could’ve cast Jason Isaacs to reprise his role in live-action and the white man still would’ve been the better choice!

On the positive side, at least the filmmakers brought back Dee Bradley Baker to reprise the various animal noises for Appa and Momo. That was a nice touch.

The film shows us early and often why compressing so much story into so little runtime was a fatal mistake. The actors breathlessly go through so much exposition in so little time that none of their dialogue feels natural. Between the stilted dialogue and the incompetent direction, there’s no room for any soul, any humor, or any humanity at all. It really says something when the hand-drawn cartoon was less two-dimensional than this.

Oh, and the narration sucks. That should really go without saying for any movie so packed with so much bad exposition, but the narration is absolutely godawful from start to finish.

Then we have the visuals, which is clearly where the bulk of the money and effort went. And overall, it looks fine. The production design is good and the costumes are wonderful. Appa and Momo look great, Aang’s glider-staff is adapted nicely, and I genuinely love the intricate henna-like redesign on Aang’s tattoos. On the other hand, we’ve also got the infamous faux pas regarding Yue’s hair, and Zuko’s iconic facial burn looks pathetic. As for the camerawork, the film is loaded with way too many extreme close-up shots, which only call further attention to the terrible performances and the wretched dialogue. Even worse, the extreme close-ups render the fight scenes borderline unwatchable.

But then we have the CGI. While the effects themselves look (barely) passable, they are terribly, pitifully misused. In the cartoon, when a single earthbender stomps a foot, the ground literally shakes beneath them. In the movie, it takes six — count ’em, SIX — earthbenders stomping in perfect sync just to raise a fist-sized rock. In the cartoon, a team of that size could’ve brought down a fucking tank, but six earthbenders in the live-action film can only lift a small rock.

It’s like that through the entire film. The actors are all moving and reacting as if a bender is summoning a huge force of nature, but the CGI only produced some underwhelming display a tenth the size of what it clearly should be. It’s laughable and frankly insulting that this is where the filmmakers apparently decided to cut costs.

The Last Airbender was doomed from the outset. Yes, Shyamalan was completely and totally unfit to make this movie. Yes, the actors — with only one or two minor exceptions — were unfit to play their roles. Yes, it’s outrageous that the bending — the central defining spectacle of the entire franchise — was so terribly handled. But there were so many deeper problems here.

“Avatar: The Last Airbender” was a show that tackled huge issues of life in dark and politically turbulent times of war. Every single character, down to the last one-off bit part, was complex and multilayered, another facet in the show’s intricate and nuanced morality. Even the “filler” episodes were loaded with great messaging, character development, and world-building, with setups that often paid off in surprising ways later on. It was a show that directly addressed kids without ever once talking down to its audience. But this movie — with its aggressively truncated running time, its redundant exposition, and its tin-eared dialogue — was clearly made in a condescending manner by those who didn’t have nearly as much faith or respect in the audience.

While the show could get dark and heartfelt at times, the creators effectively balanced that with characters who could be funny and self-effacing to a heightened extent that simply isn’t possible with live-action actors. The show could dive into complex issues and develop complex relationships in a way that could only be done in a long-form medium. Mainstream blockbuster filmmaking is a medium overwhelmingly focused on CGI, and as my sister observed, no cartoon show ever got so much love from such a huge fanbase over such a long period of time because they cared about the goddamn visual effects.

Some movies were never meant to be made, and some properties were never meant to be adapted, but there are some lessons that have to be learned the hard way. The Last Airbender was indisputably a mistake, but it was a mistake that needed to be made. Now we all know better, and we can proceed with the knowledge that whatever Avatar Studios makes in the future, they’ll never be so stupid as to think that a live-action adaptation could possibly work. We tried that, it didn’t work, we’re moving on.

2 Comments

  1. Ping from Joshua:

    Thank you so much for this retrospective look at TLA. It turns out that part of the film’s failing were not just due to Shyamalan’s failings but the incompetence of Paramount’s executives as well, since the race-bending casting was solely due to nepotism (an executive wanted his daughter to play Katara, and they were forced to cast the Water tribe around her), and the 3D conversion was what caused a significant chunk of the film to get cut because of budgetary reasons.

    http://www.geekbinge.com/2014/08/14/m-night-shyamalan-really-blame-last-airbender/
    This really is an eye opener to how much Paramount screwed the pooch on this one.

  2. Ping from Curiosity Inc.:

    Given Paramount’s steady and well-documented decline ever since they failed to purchase Marvel, I’m not the least bit surprised.

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