By Adam Donato
One of the most prolific and celebrated shows from Nickelodeon is Avatar: The Last Airbender. The first of what was supposed to be a trilogy of movies was made, spearheaded by M. Night Shyamalan. The blockbuster cost about $150 million, not including marketing, and was released on July 1, 2010. The film was barely a success at the box office and the negative response to the movie, from critics and general audiences alike, was overwhelmingly bad. Today, it is remembered as one of the worst movies of all time.
Obviously, The Last Airbender is a bad movie. There is no denying that. Acknowledging one of the biggest faults of the movie off the bat, in an effort to get it out of the way for the purpose of highlighting Shyamalan, is the source material for the movie. There’s a reason why the show is so beloved to this day and the reaction to the mistreatment of their story in the film was so bad. The show has fun and lighthearted comedy, but also features a story with mature themes and genuine characters. The pacing is fast, but dedicates most of the storyline fleshing out the characters and focusing on the story. The action looks very cool as it features martial arts, but also feels fresh as new bending techniques are shown throughout. The main trio, Aang, Katara, and Sokka, is up there with Harry, Ron, and Hermoine, as they play off each other well and have interesting dynamics. The villains are either complex and sympathetic like Zuko, or over the top and charismatic like Iroh and Zhao. The world building is immersive and the creatures they encounter are all imaginatively designed. The 2D animation helps the show stay light, keep the fights fast, and lends itself well to the colorful atmosphere of the world. The show is a work of art and the movie pales in comparison. For the tenth anniversary, let’s judge the movie on its own and focus on the filmmaking from Shyamalan.
When it comes to movies about famous filmmakers, Shyamalan would make a great one due to the rollercoaster nature of his career. Imagine getting your first shot to make a movie of your own after working on a few smaller pictures. You’re an overnight success as the movie is not only a hit, but goes down as one of the greatest movies of all time. Then you make three other movies that are box office successes and are generally favored critically, but not to the extent of the first. Magazines call you the next Spielberg, despite your movies dropping in quality every time. You have an idea for a fairytale movie for your children, but Disney won’t give you creative control. After betting on yourself, the movie is a colossal flop both critically and at the box office. In your next movie, you’re forced to do rewrites for the first time and it still ends up being a total failure, but this time it’s comically bad. Finally, your child introduces you to cartoon show that you decide to make into a huge, big-budget trilogy. Caught up? The Last Airbender is arguably one of the biggest tests of Shyamalan’s career as the $150 million budget of the blockbuster is over twice as much as his usual $50-$60 million range. It’s also his first feature that is based on another person’s work. This is the first time he’s making a movie intended for children and is heavy with special effects. So, how did he do?
Horribly. What did he get wrong about the source material? For some reason, he chose to change the pronunciation of all the names, which is the first thing anyone who is a fan of the show would say. Speaking of the characters, all the ethnicities are changed, even to the extent of whitewashing the main trio. The show deliberately made the different benders into races to explain why they are the way they are and to reflect their culture. Usually, changing the ethnicities from the source material would be done so that they could cast higher-profile American talent. The main trio that was whitewashed was mostly unknown at the time. The role of the title character is even played by someone who has never acted before, but was chosen due to his exceptional martial arts skills. Dev Patel, hot off of Slumdog Millionaire, is the most known member of the cast and he plays the movie’s villain, Prince Zuko. This is a good thing considering the fact that Jesse McCartney was originally cast as Zuko.
The show had plenty of time to flesh out the characters and their relationship, whereas the movie feels rushed and skips over many necessary beats. To make up for this, there is a great deal of expository narration. Shyamalan’s first draft of the script was initially seven hours long, but the studio made him cut it down, for obvious reasons. Still, condensing an entire season into just over a hundred minutes is gonna feel rushed. The relationship between the characters has time to develop and the training seems progressive in the show, but in the movie, it just feels forced.
The special effects get knocked a lot in this movie, but they’re not that terrible for 2010 standards. Appa looks very convincing, but it’s fair to say that Momo looks a little creepy. The bending scenes look cool, it’s just the timing that doesn’t make them land. Shyamalan chose to have Aang exclusively talk to one spirit and in the form of a giant, blue dragon. It’s hard to call the movie out on how bad it looks because one could say it’s a spirit so it’s not trying to look real. The lizard creatures that the fire nation ride look great and watching them crawl over walls is a joy. It’s fair to say the special effects would be complained about less if they were supported by a better story.
The editing is atrocious. The movie is rampant with jarring scene changes that have no inherent flow. Since the movie is trying to condense a whole season into one feature length film, it feels both rushed and slow at the same time. The story is breezed by as if the development, that was supposed to be going on, didn’t matter. Shyamalan has a way that he paces scenes so that you can really sit with the characters in the moment. Since the movie does not bother to properly build up these characters, these scenes just feel empty and boring.
One thing that is necessary to bring up when reviewing this movie is the cinematography. The weird part about it is that it’s clear that they are trying really hard to make the movie look good and pull off some impressive shots. Andrew Lesnie is the cinematographer of fantasy hits such as The Lord of the Rings trilogy, King Kong (2005), and I Am Legend. He has an Oscar. There are so many impressive one-take shots that are pulled off in The Last Airbender that make you have conflicting feelings about this movie if you’re a camera enthusiast. Or at least it would, but these one-take shots are usually the most laughable moments in the movie. How could that be?
The Last Airbender is one of the worst-acted movies of all time. The star of the movie, Noah Ringer, who got cast as Aang because of his martial arts background, has never acted before. Big shocker that he’s terrible, which Shyamalan has no excuse for in that he directed one of the greatest child performances of all time with Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense. Watching Ringer attempt to deliver dialogue, convey emotion, or even blink is absolutely painful. Nicola Peltz’s only other big movie besides The Last Airbender is a lead role in Transformers: Age of Extinction, which tells you all you need to know. Jackson Rathbone plays Sokka in the most disrespectful fashion as the performance is devoid of any kind of humor that the character is known for and has absolutely zero chemistry with his forced love interest in the movie, Yue. No wonder he won two Razzie Awards in the same year (the other was for Twilight Saga: Eclipse). Dev Patel tries his best, but ultimately ends up as a shadow of the character in the animated show. Maybe if the scar on his eye was more pronounced or if he had the ponytail. It’s just a shame considering he is the most talented actor in the film. Shaun Toub plays Uncle Iroh with no semblance of the humor the character had in the show. Aasif Mandvi is not intimidating in the slightest as Commander Zhao and he mentions that he stole scrolls from the library every single time he is on screen it seems. Cliff Curtis is in the movie as Fire Lord Ozai, which is weird since his character does not show up physically during the first season of the show. Nobody is good in the movie. The one-shots don’t work because they hold on the characters for so long and the actors are not good enough to pull it off. It’s impressively bad.
Shyamalan has always had a weird style, though. His humor has always felt off, which is why it’s weird he took on a project that has comedy as an essential feature. The film is just over a hundred minutes long, which is normal for Shyamalan, but the content requires something more akin to The Lord of the Rings. These characters and the story needs more time to breathe. He talks in interviews about how the pacing is part of his language, but it’s important for a filmmaker to adapt to the material. The Last Airbender just proves the critics who label Shyamalan as a one-trick pony. Dramatic thrillers with fantastical elements and the signature twist ending. That last part being left out of this movie.
It’s funny that the story behind the production is that Shyamalan found out about the show because his daughter wanted to be Katara for Halloween. He bought the entire first season and his family watched it all together. At the end, Shyamalan said it would make a great movie. The creators of the animated show, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, were initially given plenty of say, but were ignored during much of the production. It’s fair to say that ego is the downfall of Shyamalan in the making of this movie. Taking someone else’s property and changing many core features that made it so great in the first place. Making a blockbuster starring mostly unknown actors. Even having the gall to imply this movie would be the first third of a trilogy. He was out of his element with this property as it played to none of his strengths. This is why he had somewhat of a resurgence post-After Earth by returning to smaller-budget thriller fair with The Visit and Split.
There is value in watching The Last Airbender. It’s fair to say that the movie is so bad that it’s good as a lot of the acting is laughably bad. If someone was a fan of the show, they should not watch the movie as it is a degradation of a story that was handled with so much care. If someone was a giant Shyamalan fan, this movie is an essential watch. It’s by far his lowest low and shows off a lot of his limitations as a writer, director, and producer. Say what you want to say about The Last Airbender, it will be remembered in movie history. There is a legitimate argument to be made for why The Last Airbender is the worst movie of all time and as a film enthusiast, that makes it pretty special. Movies are made to give people an experience and leave them with something to talk about. The Last Airbender is atrociously enjoyable and is certainly an interesting case study of one of the most prolific filmmakers of all time.
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