Matt McHugh

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12 Things I Liked About the Crappy Airbender Movie


July 7, 2010

I love the Peabody Award winning Nickelodeon cartoon, Avatar: The Last Airbender, created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, with head writer Aaron Ehasz. I hate the movie adaptation, The Last Airbender, written, directed, and produced by M. Night Shyamalan. I could give ample reasons for both positions, but many fans and critics have done both ad nauseam.

Instead, I'm going to do something a little shocking -- perhaps even to myself: list 12 things I like from Shyamalan's massacre of my favorite show. Odd as it may sound, this is a form of therapy to help me reconcile the intensity of the love/hate warring within me. (What can I say? I'm a middle-aged geek fanboy. I must embrace it, lest it destroy me.)

Here goes (caution -- SPOILER ALERT... as if anything could spoil that wretched waste of celluloid):

  1. The opening scene is obviously filmed on a real glacier, not a CGI set. You can tell. Looks suitably impressive.
  2. The Air Temples, even in ruins, are nicely designed. They display an interesting mash-up of architectural influences -- Indian, Cambodian, Tibetan -- with dash of pure fantasy.
  3. The Training Circle in the Air Temple. A key fight scene takes place in what Aang calls a "training circle" surrounded by carved wooden panels that move, spin, and slam with airbending. It's kind of neat looking and a clever way to show that Aang is in his native element. Sadly, like every fight scene in the movie, it suffers from sub-par choreography and dramatic emptiness, but it's still fun to watch.
  4. The flashbacks of Aang in the Air Temple. They are brief and mostly silent, but they work to show that Aang's childhood was a happy one that ended too soon. It's also the one place where Shyamalan's supposed "colorblind" casting actually seems to be evident -- with Monk Gyatso as a Polynesian Islander and the airbending students a fair cross-section of global faces. I don't know if it really works, but it's an interesting choice.
  5. The pendant worn by Monk Gyatso, which identifies his remains in a critical scene, was given to him by Aang. He says so, and we see it in a moment of flashback. A simple touch that adds some honest pathos.
  6. Appa and Momo look good. They have very little screen time -- which, in many ways, is a good decision in itself -- but when you do see them, they're pretty cool to look at. The quick glimpses leave you wanting more, not bored by them. Again, good call. Oh, and the Dragon in the Spirit World. A little baffling for non-fans (he's certainly meant to represent Avatar Roku), and he says dumb things, like everyone in the film, but he does look very cool.
  7. The Fire Nation ships are fantastic. Big, steaming, black iron behemoths that resemble an evil cross-breeding of battleships and luxury yachts. The way they belch polluting smoke that looks exactly like the underwater footage of the Gulf oil gusher is downright eerie.
  8. While I hate the portrayal -- especially coming from Cliff Curtis, an otherwise fine actor -- the Fire Lord's costume resembles a Roman Centurion's chest piece rather than an East Asian emperor's robes. Even the palace sets and/or locations strike me as more Greco-Roman than Oriental. Comparing the Fire Nation to imperial Rome? Interesting. Not sure if it works, but OK... I'll go with it.
  9. Aang's waterbending combat with soldiers. It's so, so, very almost awesome. The odd miscues in the timing. The fast/slow motion switching that just doesn't click. The effects that miss syncing to the action by just a hair. Ahhggh! Infuriatingly close to a classic movie scene.
  10. Katara stands up to Zuko. Again, it just ain't good, but there are a few fleeting moments in their brief fire-water fight that really suggest what could have been. It's hard to hate Nicola Peltz. She's cute as a button and barely does anything in the whole movie except say the dumb lines Shyamalan wrote for her. There's a second where she stares down Zuko with such fear and determination mixed in her face that you realize the kid might actually be able to act if someone gave her half a chance.
  11. Zhao publically insults Zuko. Comedian Aasif Mandvi -- who's Daily Show work I like just fine -- is sadly laughable every second he's onscreen as the villainous Commander Zhao. At one point, he gives a toast that first flatters then eviscerates Prince Zuko. In Mandvi's hands, it is a lousy scene. But imagine it with a better actor. Imagine it with Jason Isaacs, the best movie villain working today (who, incidentally, does the voice of Zhao in the cartoon). That would rock.
  12. Last, but not least: Noah Ringer. Yeah, yeah... I know. He's wooden. He's a sourpuss. He says dumb things. He ain't Asian. Screw that. None of that's the kid's fault. He looks the part. Round head, big ears, saucer eyes. He looks anime, which (as Shyamalan correctly pointed out) is a racially ambiguous illustration style. He's got very respectable martial arts moves. When he's permitted to crack a smile he seems, well, likeable. Like Aang. Such a crime a director renowned for launching young stars decided to go AWOL on this newcomer. I feel for you, Mr. Ringer. M. Night may have disappointed the fans, but he really done you wrong. I hope you get a much better first experience next time.

I can think of one or two other tidbits that were interesting departures from the show (Aang is betrayed, quasi-Judas-style; Iroh's avatar-test; Aang's static tidal wave, like the parting of the Red Sea), but I don't want to dwell too much on the microscopic good in the film. Overall, it was a shameful, amateurish hack-job from a has-been auteur who has lost all ability to think like an audience. I hope The Last Airbender - Book Two: Earth gets made. I hope M. Night Shyamalan has absolutely nothing to do with the project.

Get I get a "Yip! Yip!" from y'all Team Avatar out there.

-- mm

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