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“The Last Airbender” is Hollywood’s latest attempt to create a franchise based on what a studio hopes is instantly recognizable source material.
This is a film apparently lobbied into existence by writer-director M. Night Shyamalan, who said he fell in love with the animated Nickelodeon series through the enthusiasm of his daughters. Score points for family values and solidarity, but basing a film on a children’s TV cartoon not only plays to a very young demographic — no boxoffice crime in what passes for American cinema today — but poses a formidable challenge in re-imagining such a show to appeal to anyone who can vote. In this case, despite every effort by the filmmakers, voters are likely to cast “no” ballots.
Opening credits proclaim this is “Book One: Water” of a series dedicated to the elements Air, Water, Earth and Fire. The chances of the series ever reaching three movies will depend on worldwide acceptance of a children’s fantasy wherein kids save the (imagined) world while adults offer not much more than enthusiastic coaching or outright villainy.
There is another problem that needs addressing early on. The Nickelodeon series, created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, is wholly and inarguably centered on Asian (and Inuit) culture. But Shyamalan, a South Indian, for whatever reason — you supply the motive — chose to cast mostly white actors. Two fellow Indians, “Slumdog Millionaire’s” Dev Patel and veteran Indian-American Aasif Mandvi, play different kinds of villains, but otherwise this fantasy world is pretty white until you get to the extras.
No one can say whether “Airbender” would have been a better film with a different cast. But as it is, the film loses substantial credibility in regard to its source material.
A TV series’ transition to the big screen always makes for bumpy rides. The world of “Airbender” apparently once knew peace and balance among the nations of Fire, Air, Water and Earth because an avatar, who has mastered the ability to control or “bend” all four, once ruled. Then he “disappeared.”
One hundred years later, the Fire nation rules through threats or outright violence. It falls to two young people, inexperienced waterbender Katara (Nicola Peltz) and her brother, Sokka (Jackson Rathbone of “Twilight”), to chance upon a young boy named Aang (Noah Ringer). Guess what? He’s the missing avatar, who like the Dalai Lama is the reincarnation of all past avatars.
Guess what else? The reason the avatar was missing for a century is that he “ran away from home.” Adolescents everywhere can relate to that, but this might throw off adherents of “Lord of the Rings” or “Star Wars” as being the key story point to a movie series.
Anyway, Aang ran away before the very Buddhist-like monks could teach him to bend anything other than air, so for this and the next projected three movies, he is in a race to learn how to bend the other elements so he can bring harmony back to the world.
Which brings up a couple of curious points that work against suspense and action for any four-part series. As Aang and his two teen companions are pursued to the city of the Northern Water Tribe, the avatar never is in any real danger. Because as Mandvi’s Commander Zhao mentions more than once, there is little point in killing Aang because he simply will “reincarnate again and the search will continue.”
Another point is that Aang is raised in the Buddhist tradition, so he can harm no one. So for all the choreographed fights and CG action, this is the most bloodless PG movie one will ever see. If water crystals incapacitating warriors are your thing, then you’ll love these ice sculptures.
Shyamalan, who never has mounted an epic film before, gets only passing grades. Huge sets and unit work from Greenland to New Zealand all look strangely underlit. One wonders whether the projector blew a light bulb. The movie was foolishly converted to 3D after principal photography, but if anything, this conversion is worse than “Clash of the Titans.”
Also, if one is going up against Asian filmmakers with martial arts, it needs to be much better. The problem here might lie in having to mix various forms of fighting with all sorts of visual effects.
Even during the climax, the film still is struggling to introduce the world of the film and its strange rules. Here again lies the challenge of translating a series into a single movie that Paramount hopes will beget another.
The film is fortunate that its hero is so striking and charismatic. Ringer, a bald-headed youngster from Dallas who knows tae kwon do, simply is terrific. With his round head tattooed with, no doubt, meaningful symbols, his is an arresting figure in a movie filled with heroes, villains and otherworldly creatures who feel overly familiar. Perhaps if the film had concentrated more on him than the teenage characters, flaming fireballs and water follies, it would have grabbed the eyeballs more readily.
The below-the-line crew performs with consistent grace and professionalism.
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