After reading many, many dismal reviews of M. Night Shyamalan's The Last Airbender (most of which made the joke "Please let the title be accurate") my expectations were sufficiently low to go in with a blank slate. I even opted to see it in 2-D, rather than the tacked-on 3-D, so I could see the effects better and focus on the story and characters. And I saw everything that has been criticized -- the poor acting, the weak effects, the miscasting -- but I also saw a lot of things that made me want to see a sequel that would focus on the good, improve the bad and, ultimately, make this film look like a halfway-decent start to a great franchise.
The three main characters meet when Waterbender Katara (Nicola Peltz) and her non-powered brother Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) find Aang, the last Airbender (Noah Ringer), trapped under the ice near their village. It's pretty much an Inuit village, since they live in igloos, wear giant fur coats and, well, because everyone in the village except them and their grandmother looks Inuit. It's tough to defend casting white actors in arguably ethnic roles when they stick out like sore thumbs; it's like the tribe adopted three white people. Katara and Sokka spend the next hour and 45 minutes being very, very earnest and upset about protecting Aang. Their brows will never come unfurrowed after this movie. Aang has a few moments of obliviousness at the beginning, as well, but once he remembers that he's the also the spirit-world-communicating, all-elements-mastering Avatar, and that all of his friends in the Airbender tribe have been dead for 100 years, the furrowing starts in on him, as well.
Immediately, disgraced Firebender Prince Zuko (Dev Patel) is after them, and Patel goes through the movie looking shocked and traumatized, which is bound to happen when you've been burned an exiled by your father (Cliff Curtis). He wants to capture the Avatar to regain his father's favor, but someone should probably tell him that his father is basically rooting against him, having regular meetings with Zuko's rival, Admiral Zhao (Aasif Mandvi), although that may just be because he's a Daily Show fan. After the third or fourth face-to-face between them, you have to wonder how big this world is, if Zhao can keep sailing back to the palace every day and Fire Nation ships can show up at any location almost instantaneously.
We meet the Earth tribes as the heroes work their way north to the Northern Water Tribe, liberating villages from Fire Nation control along the way. They're all ethnically East Asian and African, and the Fire Nation is mostly Indian and Middle Eastern, and we don't really meet any other white people until we reach the Northern Water Tribe, which is so white it's like Santa's workshop meets the Emerald City. It seems like a throwaway line about Katara and Sokka being native Northerners would have been in order, but whatever. Sokka finds a love interest in the white-haired Princess Yue (Seychelle Gabriel), and she manages to unfurrow his brow through a contact high from whatever it is she's smoking, based on her extremely mellow performance and his lovestruck zombie state. I hate to call kids bad actors -- they're kids! -- but I'm not sure that anyone could have directed great performances out of any of these young 'uns, although Shyamalan's love of unexpressive monotone may have been at work here.
It's only when they stop talking and start fighting that the movie is entertaining. The combination of martial arts and elemental control was the focus of the trailers, and rightly so. Sure, some of the poses they strike are ridiculous -- when they're slow, it looks like tai chi, and when they all do it in unison, it looks like line dancing -- but when they come up with imaginative ways to incapacitate people or block attacks that don't involve extensive posing, it can be fun to watch. And there are actually a few good choreographed martial arts scenes with little-to-no bending at all that just look cool. Yeah, the fire doesn't seem to do much damage, and the water doesn't always look real, and the guys hit with speeding boulders get up and run away, but I wasn't expecting to see people get burned alive or have their chests caved in. And how do I know what magic water looks like? Besides, the adorable flying bison Appa makes up for all of that, anyway.
The film covers the first of the three chapters of the cartoon, and Shyamalan has already begun work on the script for the sequel, which may not be such a long shot if the film's big opening night holds up. Kids don't read reviews, and while fans of the cartoon are undoubtedly a bit older now, they're just as likely to go see it out of nostalgia, no matter how bad they hear it is. I, for one, hope there is a sequel, because the bending scenes are still fun to watch, if a little unimaginative at times, and overall I found the film more entertaining than the first Narnia, which somehow managed to get two sequels. The kids will hopefully all mature as actors by the next film, and the mellowing out of the character of Zuko will be a welcome change, while the introduction of the new antagonist at the end of this film could lead to some new, more spectacular firebending battles. (Fans of the cartoon know who it is, the rest of you either don't care or will find out soon enough.) And who knows, maybe Shyamalan will pay more attention to the effects and let the kids act like kids.
Oh, and more of the bison, please.
Do "children's movies" even really exist anymore? See one point of view.
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