Before I dive into this, let me give you a little bit of background on my general feelings about Avatar, a Nickelodeon cartoon that took a Japanese cartoon aesthetic and combined it with the power of American story telling: I love it. I have watched a lot of cartoons in my time – both American and Japanese (and Chinese and Korean and French) – Avatar is the real deal. There are episodes and images that will sear themselves into your memory; the combination of art, music, story, character and gravity leaves its indelible mark numerous times throughout. Interspersed with these moments are those of brevity, whimsy, morality, humor and a strange mixture of both North American and Asian culture. I have the entire series on DVR, and, when it gets released on Blu-ray, I will likely purchase the entire 3 season box set.
So you can imagine, given my feelings on the animated series, that my expectations for this movie initially were quite high. The story goes that M. Night Shyamalan watched this entire series with his children and felt so strongly about it that he decided to produce, write and direct a live version, replete with full on CG special effects. At the time, fans of the series were excited; not only was there someone who was a fan of the show in a position of real power, but there was a lot of money being thrown at this show. The potential for an amazing, mind-blowing movie was all there.
However, as more and more of the movie leaked out in trailers, I was more and more skeptical. First of all, what was the last M. Night movie I enjoyed? The 6th Sense? Since then, he’s just made kind of crappy, cookie-cutter pseudo horror flicks, all with a weird (and often kind of stupid) twist at the end. Would his one-note sense of movie-making and his experience in only one genre hurt the final product? And did he say he’s writing it?
Furthermore, when the casting choices were released, there was hue and outcry from the masses. I’ve pushed this line in the past, but it kind of pisses me off when you have a story that is rooted in Asian culture, Asian mythology, Asian aesthetics … and you cast all white people to play the parts. The water tribe, a group of people that only live on either pole, is supposed to suggest some sort of Inuit or FNP race. So why use white people? Its not like there were any well known actors or actresses that were brought into the movie. Your telling me that you couldn’t find anyone to play these parts who were of the correct skin color and background?
Perhaps stranger, is that the Fire Nation was cast with all Indian actors and actresses. EVERYTHING in the series suggests that the fire nation is actually the Chinese, from the names (Zhao? Zhong Zhong?) to the clothing, architecture and interior design (lots of red and gold, for example) to the imperial bent. It was certainly strange to hear Indians call each other Chinese names and follow Chinese customs. Again, you’re telling me you couldn’t find any Chinese actors to play these parts? It’s basically a martial arts film; Hollywood should have no problem casting Chinese people to play martial arts roles!
Even more than that, the color of the costumes seemed very muted or non-existant. In the animated series (and I understand some allowances must be made for the transfer of animation to real life), the vivid use of color in clothing helped everyone keep track of the 4 nations. In the movie, there was almost no use of color. It was like watching the Lord of the Rings, but without the different races (elves, dwarves, etc.) – just shades of brown and black. This was a layup, something that would have been very easy to work in if only a small amount of thought was put in to making this movie.
That the movie came in at 1 hour and 41 minutes long had me even MORE skeptical, as it is supposed to cover the entire first season. I understood there would be cuts – and there were cuts that I could live with – but with extensive and lazy use of voice over narration, inexplicable long shots of nothing in particular, some startling scene changes and a bare minimum of dialogue, the film is not so much a cohesive movie, but rather a collection of very – VERY – short skits.
Finally, every critic under the sun lambasted this movie for being awful. Rotten Tomatoes rated it at 8% (8% of all critics gave it a favorable review), which put it in some rarefied air. Consider that The Killers and Marmaduke both managed to win over a higher percentage of critics. Brendan Fraser’s incredible flop Furry Vengeance was rated at 8%, and might just be the worst movie of the year. Hell, Sex and the City 2 convinced 16% of critics that it was a good movie – DOUBLE the percentage that The Last Airbender could manage.
So you can imagine my surprise, given all the red flags that lowered my expectations, when the movie actually UNDERSHOT the bar I had set for it. This is a stunningly bad movie. I struggled to find any redeeming qualities when I walked out, and not for lack of trying. I’m not sure how, with the story and character development completely written and finished, you can screw it up, but M. Night figured out how. His “re-writing” – and I use that term very loosely, because I could swear there is maybe 300 words of dialog this entire movie – was basically a hack-job meant to satisfy nothing except what appears to be a time limit for the total length of the film. And yet, that I noticed things like the costume and sets meant that I was bored out of my skull, a real feat for a movie that is just over 100 minutes. This might have been the longest 100 minutes of my life.
The real strength of the series – the characters – were a complete miss in the movie. I think we all knew that Sokka was going to get censored quite a bit, but to have him completely replaced by the bland, serious, stupid oaf that he ended up being was just the cherry on top of a crap sundae. Aang had none of the whimsical, funny, child-like innocence of the original character; he was just a serious and tortured personality that seemed to clash with his natural element’s intrinsic qualities. Kitara was passable, but really, even in the series, Kitara was a pretty flat character up until the third season.
Of course, it didn’t help that the writing was so bad that the actors and actresses were pretty much unable to make anything out of their roles. Dev Patel was fantastic in Slumdog Millionaire, but he had nothing to work with in this film. He had the dubious distinction of having probably the most dialog in the entire film (save for Kitara, who also narrated the entire film), and yet there is little development, little insight into his character. Shyamalan writes at what can only amount to about a 4th grade level; his dialog sounds like it was written by his kids … except that the cartoon version of the show has far better, more sophisticated writing, so had his kids written it, it most assuredly would have been better.
While I’d like to say that I’m sorely disappointed, I knew that I would almost surely be disappointed, no matter what the output. For those who are on the fence about seeing this, obviously, I can’t recommend you do. However, if you are curious, check out the cartoon: it is a fantastic example of how with a little care and thought, one can address an epic, adult-sized story with an old children’s medium (2D, hand drawn animation) and still be relevant.