All the elements are there for a hit franchise starter — a popular Nickelodeon anime property, big-budget effects from ILM and a brand-name director in M. Night Shyamalan — so why does “The Last Airbender” feel like the last Airbender movie auds will ever see? Part of it is miscasting, as uneven acting undermines Shyamalan’s ultra-serious approach, but the cardinal sin was entrusting someone so awkward with action, then subjecting the flat result to a last-minute 3D conversion. With its built-in following, pic should put helmer back in the “Village” ballpark, with sequel odds only slightly better than those of “The Golden Compass.”
For all the success Nick’s “Avatar: The Last Airbender” animated series has enjoyed around the world, its particulars are still relatively complex to be reduced to feature length, spelling confusion for non-fans and frustration for the faithful. Dropping “Avatar” from its title to avoid confusion with the James Cameron pic and opening under the header “Book One: Water,” Shyamalan’s adaptation encompasses the first season of the critically acclaimed toon (and represents the helmer’s first for-hire gig after a string of disappointing original pics, including “Lady in the Water” and “The Happening”).
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Created by Westerners Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko to capitalize on the success of “Naruto” and other serialized martial-arts manga, the series centers around a 12-year-old Airbender named Aang, the gifted once-in-a-generation figure who possesses the ability (but not the training) to master all four elements: Air, Water, Earth and Fire. Frozen in ice for 100 years, Aang awakens to find the balance between the different nations disrupted by the Fire people’s ruthless desire to dominate. Only he can bring the four cultures together, but first, Aang must learn the other three fighting styles.
With overtones of Tibetan Buddhism and various Eastern philosophies, “The Last Airbender” is a pacifist’s action movie. We go to see the spectacle of benders harnessing their native elements in battle (an Earthbender might build a wall to block a hurtling fireball, for instance), but instead the movie preaches a message of peace. Like his fellow Air nomads, Aang (newcomer Noah Ringer) was raised by monks to follow a code of nonviolence. However, in Aang’s long absence, Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis) exterminated his entire tribe. Now the young “chosen one” must choose between revenge and — well, it’s not entirely clear what the alternative is, but something to do with uniting the hearts of all the nations.
How do you package genocide for kids, exactly? No sooner does the movie open — with a budding Waterbender named Katara (Nicola Peltz) and her older brother (“The Twilight Saga’s” Jackson Rathbone) releasing Aang and his flying bison from a frozen sphere — than fiery Prince Zuko (Dev Patel, perhaps the best thing about the film) arrives to cart Aang and the elderly Water people off into slavery. Managing to escape, Aang returns to his Air home to find nothing but bones before being captured again and thrown into a sort of concentration camp — not the sort of situations you expect to find in a PG-rated kidpic.
The rest of “Airbender’s” world is fairly innocuous. The bending action is far from intense, with rivals singeing and splashing one another with fire or water tricks, while Aang does fancy tai chi moves to conjure up small whirlwinds. When more traditional fighting occurs, it’s mostly of the harmless boot-to-the-butt variety. This is all enormously disappointing, of course, since the best we could hope for from a live-action “Avatar” adaptation is the mind-blowing equivalent of our first encounters with wire-fu, rather than this cartoony nonsense.
Even without one of Shyamalan’s trademark twist endings, “Airbender” easily fits into the helmer’s portfolio of brooding genre inversions: Here, we expect an epic martial-arts movie and instead get a soul-searching adolescent’s decision to spare his enemies — a character-driven approach that’s ill served by the largely amateur cast.
Shyamalan has worked wonders with child actors before, but Ringer is no Haley Joel Osment, delivering some fancy footwork but zero charisma in the pic’s key role. Most dialogue scenes are framed in tight Sergio Leone-style closeup, emphasizing the actors’ wooden nature. At that proximity, we notice that Rathbone never blinks; nor can he be counted on to deliver any of the comic relief of his animated counterpart. Humor is in short supply here, and those elements that might leaven the atmosphere (such as Aang’s winged lemur, Momo) make brief but unmemorable appearances.
Perhaps the only thing that can be said in Shyamalan’s favor is that he introduces a fantasy world that feels real — a testament to his various heads of design. The four elemental nations represent centuries of culture, with unique garments, architecture and fighting styles to distinguish them (there also seems to be some sort of impenetrable logic about their ethnicities, with people of color filling nearly all the secondary roles).
Working with “The Lord of the Rings” d.p. Andrew Lesnie, Shyamalan effectively melds his own moody, overcast aesthetic with the epic look of that trilogy, compromised somewhat by a retrofit conversion to stereoscopic 3D (not quite the headache of “Clash of the Titans,” but certainly no improvement on 2D). A more bombastic John Williams-style score probably would have served the property better than music by longtime Shyamalan collaborator James Newton Howard, which goes mellow when the movie needs it to soar.