Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of the greatest animated series ever made. Created by Michael Dimartino and Bryan Konietzko, ATLA follows the story of Aang and his friends as they go on a journey to end a 100-year war and bring peace to the world. The series takes a lot of inspiration from different eastern cultures as well as western media (Star Wars specifically). It was truly lightning in a bottle. The success of the series lead to a live-action adaptation, and that was, well… Let’s talk about M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender.
There are very few films that I hate. I try to see the best in everything, but this one made me cringe so hard that I felt physical pain. The film is an abridged version of Avatar season one. First off, the way the series is constructed, it’s broken down into chapters. Each chapter builds the story and adds to the narrative. By cutting it down, you cheapen the story and ruin the overall product. But, maybe they could put a different spin on it? Perhaps something a bit more cinematic? After all, it worked for Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and even the Chronicles of Narnia. Alas, the team here wasn’t smart enough for that.
After (lazily) recreating the opening from the show, we pick up with Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) out fishing. The two run across a boy frozen in ice. That boy is Aang (Noah Ringer), the Avatar, and the last Airbender. We’re later introduced to our villains, Commander Zhao (Aasif Mandvi), Prince Zuko (Dev Patel) and his Uncle Iroh (Shaun Toub), rounding out the main cast. Shyamalan and company at least have an idea on what the show is about. The foundation is here, but the heart is not. Avatar: The Last Airbender worked because you wanted to live in that world and spend time with the characters. Here, the characters are dull, emotionless, and lack any sense of urgency considering they’re fighting a war. The only ones that work are Patel’s and Toub’s Zuko and Iroh respectively. Ironically, they are the two best characters in the show and are played by the two best actors in the film.
Zuko and Iroh are the only characters that feel human. Much like the animated series, Zuko is trying to please his father by capturing the Avatar. Patel does a fantastic job with what he’s given here. The emotion, the pain, the anger is all there. He just doesn’t get enough screentime. That is the only positive thing I can say about this movie. Everything else is a massive disappointment. It’s not that the film isn’t like the cartoon. It’s that it’s a lazy, emotionless cash grab capitalizing on one of Nickelodeon’s most popular series. Avatar: The Last Airbender has rich mythology in the same vein as Lord of the Rings. It has characters that are right there with Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, and Han Solo. And this is what we got. A half-baked film that doesn’t have the soul the original show did.
Visually the film is a mess. The muted colors, the CGI animals, the actual bending, all of it was horrendous. The action scenes were also dull and uninspired. If you don’t nail the story, at least make decent action sequences. You have guys controlling fire for crying out loud!
The Last Airbender ruined my childhood, not because it was terrible, but because it doesn’t even try. It’s an embarrassment to the show’s creators and fans. It took something pure and full of wonder and destroyed it. No film has ever made me feel sick. I didn’t even think that was possible until now. Netflix, the bar is low, I know you can make this right.
For more on Avatar: The Last Airbender, stay tuned.