The Last Airbender

What It Is

Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) are like a lot of other siblings: they look after each other, like to explore, and yes, they argue sometimes. But they’re also very different from most human kids. For one thing, they’re members of the Southern Water Tribe, residing at the South Pole, and for another thing, Katara is a Waterbender.

In The Last Airbender, this means that she’s one of a precious few able to control the world’s elements (14-year-old Katara is actually learning to control hers, a process that sometimes leaves her most frequent test subject, Sokka, frozen in ice like a popsicle or drenched). After their parents’ deaths some time before the film begins, Katara and Sokka, along with their grandma (Katharine Houghton, Sidney Poitier’s fiancée in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?), are looking after their tribe, which is regularly harassed by the big bully Fire Nation, who conscripts their labor and steals their resources.

This makes the Water Tribe, as well as the similarly beleaguered Earth Kingdom, very happy to see the return of Aang (Noah Ringer), the Last Airbender, also known as the Avatar. Though all of his fellow Air Nomads have been killed by the Fire Nation, and he’s been missing for 100 years, 12-year-old Aang is theoretically able to control all four elements, which makes him very powerful indeed (he’s good at air, but still needs training in the other three). Modeled after the Buddha (who is reincarnated every time he dies), Aang’s long-anticipated return means that the planet’s four elements might be put back in balance.

To that end, Aang, Katara, and Sokka encourage the fearful Earthbenders to rise up against their oppressors, even as Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis) sends his eager-beaver minion Commander Zhao (Aasif Mandvi) to thwart them. At the same time, Ozai’s disgraced and exiled son, the Firebender Prince Zuko (Dev Patel, in his first movie since Slumdog Millionaire), wants to capture Aang to regain his place as heir to the crown. Still, Zuko is confused. Aided by his morally sound Uncle Iroh (Shaun Toub), Zuko isn’t as ruthless as the other Fire Lords (or his own sister, the conniving Azula [Summer Bishil]): he spends most of this movie trying to figure out whose side he’s actually on.

The various youngsters do a lot of traveling and learn more than a few lessons, both separately and together. (Aang first appears with Appa, the last surviving Sky Bison, a gentle creature modeled after the Catbus in Hayao Miyazaki’s wonderful movie My Neighbor Totoro, providing a convenient and pretty charming way for the kids to get around the world.)

While Aang seeks wisdom in a couple of visits to the Spirit World (where he chats with the Dragon Spirit/Fang), as well as in flashbacks to his tutelage under Master Pakku (Francis Guinan), Katara watches over him, becoming his protector, much as her brother has been for her. At the same time, Sokka finds a girl he likes, the Northern Water Tribes Princess Yue (Seychelle Gabriel) and Zuko’s several run-ins with Aang lead him to wonder if, just maybe, as Aang puts it, “We could be friends.”

Why It’s Fun

The characters are sympathetic and their martial arts moves are often lovely (Aang and Katara’s Waterbending is based on a form called tai chi chuan). Just as each of the four elemental populations is associated with style of martial arts, each is also connected to a season (water/winter, air/autumn, fire/summer, and earth/spring), though this is less clear in the movie.

In fact, while the movie version of The Last Airbender has been eagerly awaited, it’s more muddled than thrilling.

First, the visuals are dull: shot in 2D, it’s been retrofitted for 3D, using the same disappointing process as Clash of the Titans.

Second, while the original storyline is both complicated and energetic, here, it’s watered down and slow-moving. The characters spend too much time explaining who they are, what they’re doing, and then explaining it again.

And third, the scenes that should be most exciting — Aang’s excursions to the Spirit World, his fights with Zuko, and his eventual command of the ocean — are not. Instead, they seem to be setting up for some future event that never happens, at least not in this movie.

Who’s Going To Love It

The Last Airbender’s plot lapses may be the result of it being the planned first of three. This one is based on Book 1: Water, from Nickelodeon’s cartoon series, Avatar: The Last Airbender. This means that much of the plot is introductory, which makes it familiar to fans of the series. The first kids’ movie directed by M. Night Shyamalan, it doesn’t seem to trust young viewers to keep up. But really, the most likely viewers will be fans of the show, and they’ll come into the theater a few steps ahead.

What To Be Aware Of

Any kids’ movie that begins with three screens of explanatory text is in some kind of trouble. The Last Airbender seems caught between impulses to show-and-tell everything, and to skip around from place to place: sequences tend to be chopped up to indicate simultaneous events, but the result is that no scene feels quite complete.

The violence is ever threatening: the Fire Nation ships are huge, dark, and smoke-belchng, carrying Firebenders who can toss scary fireballs at villages and individuals. But the actual scenes of violence are mostly just disorienting — lots of bodies flailing about on undefined ground, fireballs soaring through murky air, and water, sometimes, rising up and then falling.

One character sacrifices herself to restore an elemental balance: the scene is supposed to be sad, but it happens so quickly, and is so poorly organized on screen, that it probably won’t bother too many viewers.

Be aware the early first scenes lay out the kids’ traumatic family situations. Katara and Sokka explain how they became orphans, Aang visits the Air Nomads’ former homeland, now strewn with skulls and skeletons (he’s understandably sad and upset), and Zuko reveals how his father burned and scarred his face.

Zuko has many issues with his family, especially feeling that his father, Fire Lord Ozai, thinks he’s a failure. When at last he frets that Ozai thinks, “I’m like my mother,” it’s such a cliché that it got the preview audience laughing — and not in a good way.

Also, some critics have complained that The Last Airbender, like Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time has cast Caucasian actors in roles understood in their original versions (TV series and video games) to be Asian. It’s an ongoing issue that will need to be addressed more seriously by filmmakers seeking to offer diverse characters to diverse audiences.

See-It-Again Points

2 out of 10

Film Information

The Last Airbender
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Cast: Noah Ringer, Dev Patel, Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone, Aasif Mandvi, Cliff Curtis, Shaun Toub
Studio: Paramount
Year: 2010
Rated: PG
US Premiere: July 1, 2010
UK Premiere: August 13, 2010
Official Website
Official Trailer
Movie Pictures

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