During the recording of our first podcast episode (check it out if you haven't yet!), The Last Airbender came up in conversation. I had stayed away from it in theaters after the bad reviews came out, but I knew I would watch it eventually to judge for myself. I agree with some of the popular opinion, but not all of it.
It's kind of baffling to see a movie where the director is a supposed fan of the source material yet completely and utterly missed the point of the original series it was based on. Perhaps he's a very busy man and he didn't really watch the series as he claimed to - simply glanced at it long enough to make sure it was something appropriate for his children to watch and move on. That makes far more sense to me.
Shyamalan said he took out the "slapstick" and "fart joke" elements from the show because they were for "little kids." But the show's sense of humor is one of its greatest strengths. It's not as lowbrow as he makes it out to be, and it matures a bit over the course of the series. It's heavily influenced by anime and manga sensibilities that I think are part of what makes it so appealing. Watching the film it's pretty obvious that when you remove these elements, you are left with a really bland story.
It also means your main protagonist is nothing like his original form. In the series, Aang initially runs away when he finds out he's the avatar because he wants to have fun and be a kid rather than train and take on that responsibility. He's carefree and silly and is constantly trying to impress Katara, who he has a crush on. In the movie, he says he ran away because they told him the avatar couldn't have a family. What 12 year old boy do you know is worried about the fact that he won't be able to get married and have kids?
Sokka is also a shadow of his former self. Sokka is Xander with warrior training, frustrated that he is surrounded by people with powers but only has his boomerang to fight with. But he's also lighthearted and always hungry, like Shaggy if he had courage. Removing that in the film just leaves him as the generic kid with a chip on his shoulder that we've seen too many times before.
Nearly all the characters come off in this same lifeless fashion. The only time I felt anything was when Aang screamed as he found out the other air benders had been killed. There should have been plenty of other emotional moments to be found, but without providing us with anything to make us care about these characters, it just isn't there.
I also thought it a little strange to show Zuko and Iroh as good guys so early on. I think it would have worked better to keep Zuko as more of an enemy here, have him turn in movie two and then help in movie three. It would more closely follow the series and also provide us with character development. Instead they refuse to provide us with any character development at all.
Of course the biggest complaint and biggest source of controversy around the film was the casting of white actors in the roles. This was a stupid move on their part, but I do think it's worth mentioning that I didn't find it distracting while watching the film itself. The only thing I did notice is that the fire nation is made up almost entirely of actors of Indian descent, which seems a strange choice for an Indian born director to do for the villains of his picture.
The other main complaint I hear about the film is the overabundance of exposition in the narration. Perhaps it was because I have seen the show and knew what Katara was talking about, but this didn't bother me at all. I was more bothered by the occasional moments when a character's dialogue was clearly being used in the same fashion: "He's creating fire out of nothing! He must be a really advanced fire bender!"
To Shyamalan's credit, I do feel like he managed to find the important elements of the first season to put into the film, with the remaining elements that he left out being largely "monster of the week" (or in this case, spirit) type stories that people can discover when they watch the show for the first time. All of what was shown in the movie felt necessary to me, assuming the plan was to continue with a trilogy.
The direction itself is also well done, and it has a wonderfully epic feel. The battle in the northern water tribe area starts off looking way too much like the battle for Helm's Deep, but quickly moves into something more unique. The martial arts look great throughout the film, and watching on my television I didn't see anything wrong with the special effects.
I think if I didn't know what I was missing, I might be able to enjoy this film a little more. As it stands, it just kicked off an Avatar: The Last Airbender rewatch for me, because it's been long enough and I want to revisit this great series again. Perhaps sometime in the future this series will get a reboot film. If it means I eventually get to see Toph on the big screen, I'll be happy for it.