Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Last Airbender- He said

     Adaptations are one of the greatest balancing acts in all forms of art.  In music, you want to make a cover song recognizable but with something different. With TV and movies, you need to stay as true to the source material, make sure the material is recognizable but is shown properly for the TV/media format. Unfortunately in M. Night Shyamalan’s latest, The Last Airbender, (adapted from the Nickelodeon cartoon of the same name) manages to equally adapt and completely and utterly mess up a great cartoon. As you will see in the million and one instances of exposition, we learn that the world is full of people that control the four elements earth, water, fire, and air. They are called benders and from these elements stem 4 different tribes that lived in balance. Unfortunately, the Fire Nation started a war that has lasted for 100 years. The main character is named Aang, an Airbender, who was chosen to be the Avatar, who can control all of the elements and bring balance to the world. After running away from the responsibility 100 years ago, Aang is found by a brother and sister, Sokka and Katara, in an iceberg. After the Fire Nation and its banished Prince Zuko hunt him, they decide to travel North so Aang can learn waterbending from a master. For those that know the show, this is old news, but to those that are uninitiated, it might seem overwhelming. (To put it in context, I have seen the entire series, which has become one of my favorite animated shows this side of Transformers Animated and Beast Wars.) 

     Where do I begin to describe how cheated I felt? Anyone remember The Phantom Menace? Yea, it’s that kind of cheated; maybe not on the same scale but still. I came in expecting something fantastic. I know Shyamalan has messed up big time lately, but he has a very visual style which gave me great hope and coupled with the fact that the creator, Michael Dante DiMartino, is an Executive Producer, I figured it’d stay true to the show. The movie is supposed to represent the first season called the "Book of Water", and that’s one of the worst faults of the movie. It literally tries to recreate almost 12 hours of cartoon and character development into freaking 90 minutes. There is no excuse for the movie to be so short. This is a great world that can and should be explored. (Mind you it’s no LOTR but still!) And in trying to do all of this cramming, the movie suffers greatly from pacing. Once again, I understood that they had to set up things that lead on to others, but since it felt they didn’t know what to cut, it just felt as weird as Transformers: Revenge of The Fallen (oh yes I went there). The motivations and characteristics of the protagonists and antagonists are vaguely described in numerous expositions that get cumbersome after the first third of the movie. You can see glimpses of episodes here and there in the movie, but it’s like you’re watching a string of poorly acted summaries in succession.

     The casting was another issue altogether with Shyamalan’s decision to cast many of the clearly Asian protagonists into white roles while casting the whiter toned villains from the Fire Nation by darker skinned actors. Now, while I can see this being a problem, it feels wrong that I was fine with the casting when I see how well Dev Patel played Zuko and Shaun Toub plays Uncle Iroh. They both channel and play their respective characters so well, it makes me not care about the race issue. My issue is completely miscasting key roles. Fire Lord Ozia played by Clif Curtis and Commander Zhao played by Aasif Mandiv are so freaking wrong for their roles. In the cartoon, both of these men are towering and downright intimidating. Ozai is not even shown completely until the last season, and he is just as fearsome as he is rumored to be. But these actors that play them are just pudgy, slow, and I can’t picture them striking fear into the hearts of anyone but a small child. And ditto for a certain character revealed later in the movie, the girl playing her didn’t capture the essence of this character, which will be an issue especially if a sequel gets made. The charm of the series has a lot to do with the characters and their relationships, as well as the humor. This movie had none of that, unfortunately. I had high hopes of the charm of the movie being there due to the inclusion of the Air Nomad animals: Appa, the flying bison, and Momo, the flying lemur. They are essential to the greatness of the show, and it’s a shame they are never used to any extent, except to let us know someone did a cool CGI render.

      In the sake of fairness, I will give great credit to the visuals. The benders of all the nations looked great and moved exactly like they do in the show. Probably one of the greatest parts of the movie is the introduction where the benders show off their powers off, which is a fanwank. It feels like they could’ve inserted more of these sorts of things to make it at least more enjoyable for die-hard fans. Once again, the visuals look great with the world of the cartoon being recreated faithfully from costume work to the architecture and to the effects the benders.

     Overall, The Last Airbender is a disappointing movie more than anything. The show in a pathetic sort of way means a lot and I would’ve loved for the show to translate properly to film. Unfortunately this shows that Shyamalan has no sense of balance, since a movie adaptation is a balancing act that most can’t do. The Last Airbender doesn’t have enough great things for fans of the show, and it’s too confusing for newcomers to make sense. It basically fails in too many ways, and it bums me out to say this. I hope that the future of the franchise is handed off to someone else a la Harry Potter. If for some reason the movie makes its money back, it could be a possibility, and the potential is there, but it needs a great director to make it happen. And M. Night Shyamalan is not that person.

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