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Goats, gripes, and grasping for greatness
Movies: Avatar - The Last Airbender 
19th-Jul-2010 09:13 am
Summer
My review of Avatar: The Last Airbender was published in Geek Speak Magazine. Please note that this is the result of my lengthy prose going through a strong editorial process. So while it still reflects my attitude, the phrasing is much tighter. Shout outs to Arashinomoui and Amazonmink for the editing help, and Melebeth for her professional opinions/surgical strike.

Geek Speak Magazine - The Last Airbender movie review

The Last Airbender

Created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko
Written by M. Night Shyamalan
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Starring Noah Ringer, Nicola Peltz, Dev Patel, Jackson Rathbone, Shaun Toub
US Release Date: July 1, 2010

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In Short: Fun? Yes. Good? No.
Recommended: Kind of.

SOKKA: We've started a rebellion.

Having no previous knowledge of the Nickelodeon cartoon, and only a passing acquaintance with the movie trailers, I skipped merrily into the theater to see Avatar: The Last Airbender’s live-action movie (and I think we all know why they dropped the first part of the title) unencumbered by expectations. All I really knew before I went in was that Jackson Rathbone, one of those freaky Twilight vampires, had wormed his way into a fantasy flick. Surely that would be the worst of it? But no. Surprise! The theater was showing it only in 3-D. Well, ok, then. So I took my snazzy plastic glasses and settled into my seat to watch the slew of previews for other demographically-appropriate movies. Since this was a 4:45 p.m. showing, the previews were for upcoming animated features (Despicable Me, MegaMind), and established a mostly humorous and irreverent tone in the half-full audience.

Let me mention the audience for a moment. I was surrounded by a mixture of teens and families, with a mild statistical preponderance of adolescent boys. I could hear both a teenage sarcasm section behind me and a spontaneous junior applause section to my lower right. The theater had turned the volume up to eleven, so once the movie got started, the sarcasm section got drowned out more often than not, and the applause section was a tad mistimed, but was mostly covered by the fabulous, if sadly forgettable, James Howard score blaring from the walls.

Right from the sweeping opening scenes on the ice of the Southern Water Tribe homeland, I knew that I should not have left my Spielberg Stereotype Checklist at home. The scene begins with a brother and sister struggling through the cold, with the earnest voiceover explaining that times are HARD, because the parents are GONE, and the EVIL CONQUERORS are oppressing the land. I started looking around for the dog; I’m not kidding. The intrepid, but inept, little sister Katara (Nicola Peltz) follows her protective big brother Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) through the snow while he fails at hunting seals with a spear and a boomerang. While far from home and out of sight, they (not) surprisingly find a weird glowing thing under the ice. ET phone home, please.

A glowing bubble rises out of the ice, and Aang (Noah Ringer), the main character of the movie, explodes out of the sea along with a big Luck Dragon-looking beast wearing a saddle, and declares himself an Airbender. As a “Bender,” Aang can use his oddly performed Tai Chi (kung fu?) to move the air at his command.

Aang’s Airbending skills are remarkably better than Katara’s poorly aimed Waterbending. But wait! As we are told, repeatedly, Bending is forbidden by order of the evil/conquering Fire Tribe; all known Benders are removed and imprisoned at once. So naturally Katara doesn’t know what she’s doing. And all of the members of the Air Tribe were wiped out one hundred years ago, when the Avatar disappeared. And yet here Aang is… but where has he been all this time, while the world has been overrun by these Fire guys? As he explains it, he got mad, ran away, created an air bubble, passed out, and disappeared under the sea… Sure. It’s magic. I’ll roll with that.

The Fire Tribe just happens to have been patrolling the waters where Aang’s magical bubble surfaced, and having seen the ET alien light in the sky, they steam into the village in hot pursuit. The Fire leader, Prince Zuko (Dev Patel), snatches Aang off to his ship, where he sullenly joins his uncle -- General Iroh (Shaun Toub) -- in questioning the kid. Physical demonstrations of elemental sympathy then prove that this Air kid is actually able to work magic with all four elements (Air! Water! Earth! Fire!) and is therefore the ONLY PERSON who can talk to the spirit world and maintain their fragile balance as the Avatar. But the Fire Tribe can’t have balance, or else they might not get to keep ruling the world. Oh, dear. Whatever will happen next?

Back at the Southern Water Tribe camp, wise old grandma tells Katara and Sokka that they have to help Aang escape to the north, master all of the elements, and bring balance to the world. The teens show up on the cliffs above the Fire Tribe ship just after Aang throws around some combat Airbending and hang-glides off on his Inspector Gadget walking stick airwing. Frustrated Fire lords to the rear, the two Water teens and this Air kid are off on their flying…um… bison? (Wait! That thing has claws and a huge flat furry beaver tail! It can swim as well as fly! Okay, who changed the definition of bison and didn’t tell me? And where can I get one?!) Anyway, so they take off on Aang’s flying bison to the Northern Water Tribe’s capital city in order for Aang to learn enough about water magic to help hold off the Fire Tribe from conquering that last major holdout city.

That’s it. That’s the plot.

The kid and the two teens spend the majority of the movie inciting rebellion against the Fire Tribe at various Earth Tribe camps, being captured and escaping, and eventually making it to the Northern Water Tribe’s capitol. That is where they make their Heroic! Last! Stand! Why? ‘Cause nothing is so much fun as a run-and-fight-and-run again movie that explodes at the end in a massive battle with tons of 3D special effects. The hailing icicle spears and fire bombs exploding across the pristine white courtyards are spectacular. Everyone is required to wear dark clothing (preferably black) to add that heavy dramatic effect against the white ice of the landscape. And, of course, there are thrilling moments of Deep! Emotional! Angst! during the fighting, too.

Oddly, the Earthbenders use only boulders and walls of dirt to fight (maybe minor earthquakes and strike-shift faults underneath Firebenders might have been too much work, and been too effective, too early in the script). Fortunately, the cave/room of stolen Bending knowledge and its convenient Waterbender primer scroll steps the plot along briskly past any question of the kids stopping to read the manuals or asking any of the Earthbenders for help.

The kids’ disguises consist of them putting up their cloaks’ hoods, which is smart, since they can’t exactly blend into the crowd. Each tribe is defined by location, clothing, and racial stereotype. The Earth Tribe was recruited from the western side of China. The Fire Tribe comes straight out of India. The southern Water Tribe could have sailed in from Alaska if it weren’t for the lovely blue-eyed, blonde grandma. All we needed there was one line: ‘Grandma came from the Northern Tribe,’ to cover both it and why those two teenagers are basically Caucasians with slightly slanted eyes, since the people in the Northern Water Tribe are a mix of northern European folks of no distinct archetype, with the two major representatives Princess Yue (Seychelle Gabriel) and Master Pakku (Francis Guinan) looking like they were pulled straight off the latest Robin Hood set.

[This is actually a very big deal to a lot of people. In the animated show, there are no white people! The main characters are all pretty clearly Asian. Now, the protagonists are white and the bad guys are Asian! See www.racebending.com/v3/ for a discussion. - Ed.]

Princess Yue is necessary, of course, because soon, in addition to some lovely scenery and some painfully asynchronous synchronized Tai Chi-esque moves, we are also treated to some of the worst romantic interludes since Star Wars: Episode II, which made me wonder what had to be cut to fit those two scenes into the final 1:43 run time. Although I do admit that any posters made from either scene will be teenage-dreamsicle pretty.

Meanwhile, Aang is angsting (Aang-sting?) over the implications of just how powerful he could be if he could only let go, and of course our hero can’t begin to conceive of how to exorcise this internal demon until the big fight has already started. All that pent up hurt about being just that special, and over the slaughter of the Air Tribe, and so on, is delayed until the final battle scene is cued up. Because otherwise, the painful self-sacrifice on the part of the Princess Yue would be unnecessary, and we wouldn’t get to see General Iroh explode in anger. Literally.

But Aang isn’t the only one with inner demons. Prior to the opening credits, the Fire Tribe leader’s son, Prince Zuko, is exiled by his own father, which is why the Prince is able to find Aang in the beginning and expose him as the Avatar. Tormented soul that he is, Zuko -- also a kick-ass Firebender in his own right -- spends the film pursuing the Avatar to buy redemption from his father. Zuko’s sulky single-mindedness repeatedly bangs against the self-acceptance preached by General Iroh.

Now Uncle/General Iroh, I like. Shaun Toub stands tall in a swamp of mediocrity, imbuing his delightfully layered character with surprising dignity, and managing to inject balance between the fantastical effects and the ho-hum dialog. General Iroh bears the prodding and pricking of both his bothersome nephew and the Fire Lord’s evil henchman Commander Zhao (The Daily Show's Aasif Mandvi) in nuanced silence that is better crafted than the others’ emotive outbursts. I hope that Taub’s role continues in the all-but-guaranteed sequels, both for his screen presence and for the special effects that he drives as being a Master Firebender. When General Iroh finally loses his temper, there are the masterful close-in special effects as fire erupts without fuel in the heart of the water spirit domain.

The special effects are definitely special. The 3D format lends itself well to the elemental clashes. The depth of vision field makes the swooping water spheres and slashing fire bombs much more solid than they might otherwise have been. The effect of the Elemental Bending is dramatic and -- at times -- painfully specific. Computerized effects have certainly come a long way in bringing weight and reality to imaginary, flat objects. Too bad the same couldn’t be said about the script and the actors. On the whole, the writing is erratic and puts too much faith in narration rather than in the action, and the acting is squashed flat.

I did not go into this movie expecting to see the next Crouching Tiger epic. I went to see some magic, some martial arts, and some major special effects. And that’s what I got, in full 3D. I certainly got my time’s worth of entertainment, and I got a lot of fun discussions about it afterwards. While I can’t give it a high rating for quality, I give The Last Airbender a definite recommendation for quantity of entertainment, and I do plan to see the next installment when (or maybe if) it comes out.
Comments 
19th-Jul-2010 06:17 pm (UTC)
Hum...I wonder if the kids would like it, since they are such massive fans of the original animated show. They have seen every episode at least 3 times and can quote from it extensively. Anyone you know who can make recommendations to that demographic?
19th-Jul-2010 07:04 pm (UTC)
From the few parents who've mentioned it - the kids who have seen the TV show really disliked the live action.

Edited at 2010-07-19 07:11 pm (UTC)
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