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“We have to show the Fire Nation that we believe in our beliefs as much as they believe in theirs.”  Believe it folks; The Last Airbender doesn’t get any smarter than this.  As seen in a bold type flourish in the opening credits, the film, written, produced and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, the famously former cinema wunderkind has a lot to answer for with The Last Airbender, including why he is responsible for a movie without any discernable intelligence or reason to exist.

Based on the popular Nickelodeon cartoon series, Avatar, created by American writers Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, The Last Airbender follows the story of Aang, a young monk somehow trapped in ice (- Don’t you hate it when that happens?), who is freed after a hundred years of captivity by two Inuit Eskimos.  No mere pale-skinned, blue-eyed snow tribesmen these; they are folks with the ability to control and bend water to their will.  This is an illegal act in these days since the people of the four elements -- earth, fire, air and water -- became dominated by the aggressive Fire Nation.  With his shaved, tattooed head and hesitant ability to control more than one element, the boy in the ice is a very popular article as the Avatar of myth.  To either have him on your side or see him destroyed is to control the world.

Great stuff for an animated series or potentially for a movie, but not when it’s as flagrantly mishandled as it is here.  As aptly demonstrated by the quote above, The Last Airbender’s script is written in such simple-minded strokes that even the youngest child in the audience will sneer at it as just plain dumb.  Created so utterly without wit, style or the slightest sign of inspiration, that had the name "Alan Smithee" appeared onscreen in place of Shyamalan’s, I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised.  In fact, I would have advocated it.  Even the CGI effects hold no awe or thrills; every world the three heroes visit is meant to represent a different element, yet each looks as similarly flat and mundane as the other.  The big climactic set piece where Aang comes to understand his powers to the enemies’ regret is merely ho-hum.  It’s unfathomable that these glaringly unspectacular visuals were in any part commissioned from George Lucas’ world-renowned ILM special effects house.  Maybe they should have gone the “Alan Smithee” route.  Don’t get me started on that weird flying Where the Wild Things Are reject that Team Aang rides on.  Shyamalan‘s pacing of this film makes the mind wobble; there is never a sense of momentum or true excitement and the action eventually becomes so redundant that the smaller folks around me at the screening were openly yawning.  The best example of how awful the director’s sense of timing is is the fake out ending which would have been fine if left alone, but Shyamalan clumsily tags on an unsubtle and unexciting teaser to a sequel (which, if Hollywood smartens up, will be on DVD shelves everywhere), breaking up the one heroic moment of the entire film.  The acting is no great shakes either; if the film’s visuals were better I’d say Shyamalan had been stretched thin by his most ambitious effects production, but the look of the movie is so lacking that it can’t be the reason for the wildly uneven performances on display here, with only Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel seeming to have a grasp on his villainous character, Zuko and chewing scenery accordingly.

And while we’re talking about the acting … would it really have been so hard to have put just a few East Asian actors with actual substantial speaking roles in the film?  Wait, I stand corrected; there appear to be three in the entire movie, including veteran actor Randall Duk Kim, who is the highest billed East Asian in the film, yet has less than five minutes screen time and perhaps an equal amount of lines.  The other East Asians have considerably less than that, but if you look closely enough, you can see some in the background doing kung fu - of course - as part of the Earth Kingdom.  Even the role of Monk Gyatso, Aang’s venerable old trainer, is played by a young African-American actor and not an elderly East Asian as depicted in the cartoon.  Representing the tan folks of the Water Tribe, Sokka and Katara, along with their blonde-haired, blue-eyed grandmother are the palest Inuits in history.  Fear not, just as with the Earth Kingdom there are plenty of coloured faces way in the background.  On the plus side, the West Asian contingency is nicely represented by the presence of two top billed Indian actors, the aforementioned Dev Patel and Aasif Mandvi as the two big baddies of the Fire Nation, each chasing Aang for their own needs.  Would that Shyamalan had been as inclusive of other Asian races as he was to his own.  The folks of the Fire Nation, while bearing some Aztec and Indian influence in their general mien are pretty clearly dressed in Japanese samurai battle armour right up to their high topknots.  In saffron-coloured robes and shaven heads it is evident that the Air Nomads, the clan to which Aang belongs are meant to represent the monks of Tibet or the legendary Shaolin temple, yet our hero of the buglike, soulful eyes and woefully underdeveloped jawline couldn’t be less Eastern if he tried, and with regard to his affect, he doesn’t.  In fact, all three Caucasian leads speak with honking regional American accents that only call attention to the fact that whatever ethnicity the characters are meant to be, they most definitely are not.  Noah Ringer does do his bit to convincingly portray the Tai Chi artistry that constitutes Aang's martial arts and he does move beautifully, yet does this young man do anything that any Asian-American child actor couldn’t do?  The unfortunate performances negate any talk of colour-blind casting, because one cannot look at these lacking portrayals and say this was the best cast that could be had.  As far as name recognition goes, the biggest star here is Dev Patel, whose last film was his feature debut, 2008’s Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire, so that can’t be the motivation for the whiting out of this movie.  Perhaps on the heels of the loss of status Shyamalan has suffered with successive flops since his last bonafide hit (2002’s Signs), he felt the need to play it safe and hire what he thought might be the most acceptable cast.  If that is at all the case, he couldn’t have misjudged more strongly.  The Last Airbender should have been a celebration of the various cultures the authors of the original story took such pains to include.  This was the time to do the bigger thing casting-wise and not the safe thing.  It is mystifying and terribly disappointing that Shyamalan, as a minority and an Asian himself, known for a hubristic pride in his artistic vision, passed on this golden opportunity to do the right thing in a perfectly receptive circumstance.

Then again, if it were possible to put the politics and controversial casting aside, would The Last Airbender ever have been a good movie?  Not at all; it’s a mess.  A listless, incompetent and boring misfire that insults the comprehension of even the smallest child in the audience.  Maybe Shyamalan did that mythical ethnic cast a favour, after all.

 

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

July 2nd, 2010

 

 

 

 

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