100 years ago, the mysterious and powerful leader known as the Avatar disappeared. Now, he has reappeared as a small boy, the next incarnation of the once revered warrior. Can he and his new found young friends defeat the evil Fire Nation and restore balance to the world?
Striking a Nerve
Perhaps no film in M. Night Shyamalan’s oeuvre that hurts me quite like this one. I loved, loved, loved, the Avatar TV show on Nickelodeon. I started watching it while the third season was airing and had to wait on pins and needles for the final fourth season, but it was all worth it.
Few shows for kids have resonated as deeply with me so when I heard that they were making a movie about it, I was excited. When I heard the director would be M. Night, I was nervous. After all, at this point, in my mind he still had more successes than failures, but his last two had left a real bad taste in my mouth. What would an adaptation of an entire season crammed into a movie from Sir Twist-a-lot look like?
Shining a Light
Handing a property like Avatar to M. Night did something unexpected. It acted like a highlighter, pointing out all of his worst qualities. Things that he couldn’t shoot around, because they happened in the show, or write out all together, because they had to be set up for future movies, meant that he had to tackle things he was uncomfortable with and he had to do it in a big way, because the multi movie franchise stakes were big.
Unfortunately for M. Night, we all got to see his worst nightmare unfold. Heck, we were all a part of it. We got to see a director, critically acclaimed, in his 2 strikes, bases loaded, bottom of the ninth moment. We got see him swing hard, and whiff big.
Failing On Every Front
The first big strike in this film is the acting. I don’t know whether the acting is the fault of casting, the talent, or the director, but it is atrocious. Many of the characters have only one or two expressions they are using and considering that vast portions of this filmier conversations between the various characters explaining the world’s backstory, that is a problem.
Speaking of speaking about the world’s backstory, the Last Airbender world is complex and rich so you can go one of two routes with it. You can “Harry Potter” it, and do a ton of movies which try to grasp as much of the nuance as possible, or you can boil it all down to its base essentials and tell a story that simplifies the complexities of the source material. This film straddles the middle, never giving you enough of the world to make you feel like you actually saw much of it or understand it, but also giving you enough that you wonder why the movie feels so small and slow moving.
For a film that should feature characters controlling water like tentacular extensions of their bodies, stomping earthquaking shockwaves, spraying firebolts and flying like the wind, the powers all feel slow, and barely functioning. The first time Prince Zuko (Dev Patel, “Slumdog Miliionaire”) shoots a fireball it looked like snails would be able to dodge it.
I’d love to say this movie has some redeeming qualities but it doesn’t. I actually fell asleep during the film’s climax and needed to rewind it. It’s a film which should be lost to history and only has one virtue: That it might cause someone to seek out the TV show, which is what I advise you to do.
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