Let me preface this little article with a disclaimer. I have watched all of Avatar: The Last Airbender from beginning to end. And I liked the cartoon series very much. It was an enjoyable past time that contained a perfect blend of character growth, humor, action, and compelling story lines.
When I first heard they were making this beloved cartoon series into a live action series I was understandably skeptical. If history taught me anything, a 50/50 chance of being good was only possible if the director was a good one. So when I heard that the director was M. Knight Shyamalan I was just deeply confused. My first thought was, “The twist ending horror guy?” I’d seen most his movies. The Sixth Sense, Signs, The Village, Lady in the Water. He’s very hit or miss.
I then read the reviews. Which called it terrible. In fact Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal had this to say:
“M. Night Shyamalan’s big-screen live-action version of the popular Nickelodeon animated TV series constitutes a form of Chinese water torture in which tin-ear line-readings take the place of drips.”
Harsh words, but sadly not the harshest review I have seen. I had initially decided to not go see the movie. But fate conspired that I would get to see the movie after all, and in 3D.
My largest complaint is actually about the 3D. It was clearly and obviously added in at the last moment as a way to make extra money on tickets. Generally only the special effects themselves are rendered into 3D, leaving them feel like cheap tricks. Unfortunately time and time again 3D is being used as just that. A cheap trick to throw in that increases the cost of a ticket by five dollars for little effect. 3D can be done well, and when it is it is amazing to watch. This isn’t a case of that though.
But what of the movie itself?
The child actors were just that. Child actors who have lots of room to grow. Not always delivering lines as well as seasoned actors, but never making me wonder how they got the job.
The story was unfortunately not as good as the cartoon series. I don’t think this came from a lack of writing talent. I think this came from trying to shove an entire season of a show into one movie. Think of it this way. At twenty episodes at approximately twenty two minutes long, the first season ran about seven hours and thirty minutes. (Not counting commercial time) This movie attempted to cover the same story arc in one hour and forty minutes. See the problem? There were definitely things that could be cut out easily. Whole episodes did nothing to further the plot or reveal any new details. But some of the choices of what to cut out didn’t always make sense.
Why is Roku not being featured? Why is Aang talking with a dragon when dragons never talked in the cartoon? Why are the firebenders unable to bend without a separate source of fire when they could in the cartoon? Why are all the names being said differently? Why do the Earthbenders in jail (was that a jail? Someone watching with me didn’t even realize it was at first, and I barely did) just sit there and not use the earth all over to fight back and break out?
These left for confusing times both for people who have never seen the series and for those who have. They detracted from the movie, but didn’t ruin it. Some of the changes would only be visible to someone who has seen the series, such as the firebenders not being able to bend without fire already nearby.
The story still made it through though. The action scenes were mostly enjoyable. (Minor complaint, if Aang is going to take that many stances and moves to get up a gust of wind, then sooner or later an enemy is going to stop waiting and just kill him. See also: forming Voltron/Megazord)
Overall I have to say that The Last Airbender was not a great movie. It was decent to not very good. I wouldn’t put it on par with the worst movie I have ever seen (Vanilla Sky, I’m looking at you). I would actually put it on par with the first Harry Potter movie. A movie that had a lot of good story to live up to, a lot of story that had to be cut out often leading to decisions on why this was cut, this was added, and this was kept. And like Harry Potter, probably a movie that with time, sequels, and aging of actors, will probably have potential to grow to the level of good.
It’s a renter. Maybe a Red Box renter. But it’s not awful. And my theory is so many people say so solely because it’s just become the cool thing to hate right now.