I'll be the first to admit that sometimes I miss absolute gems at the cinema due to other commitments or - heaven forbid - snap judgements about how satisfying said films will be to watch. Exactly which of the above conditions resulted in me totally missing The Last Airbender is unclear to me, but what drew me back to it was the source material, a 2005 animated series that happens to be enthusiastically endorsed by the five-year-old I babysit. Given the dubious honour of being an the most complicated plot he can follow while being compelling enough to draw his parents, their friends and (eventually) me right in also, it is much loved. You can safely regard this a review as one designed for those who have subsequently encountered Avatar (no not that Avatar) and want to know if the live action film is any good.
The film condenses the first season of Avatar into a single movie, and therefore begins and ends in a very similar way to the series. The discovery by two children from the Water Nation of an Airbender, believed extinct, is followed by the revelation that he is the reincarnation of the Avatar, the only individual capable of mastering the four elements and therefore bringing peace to the nations now under threat by the militant Fire Nation. Much of the story centres on this Avatar, named Aang, coming to terms with the responsibility this entails despite being himself a child in body.
I was fully aware that the film had not been considered a success going in, but I think I had managed to persuade myself that people had been put off by the word "bender" in the title (a long-time playground insult in the UK) or some other such triviality associated with its genre. I also benefitted from being able to watch the special features of the blu ray copy I rented before I watched the film and got very excited about how seriously cast and crew and director had taken the source material.
And then I watched the movie.
If you went purely on the basis of the "making of" material you would assume that the filmmakers had just created something akin to Shakespeare. It is clear that all involved had a very high opinion of the work being undertaken, the cast seems to know their characters backwards and the director, M Night Shyamalan, is clearly a fan of the original. Yet the film never comes close to the quality of the original.
I feel a major part of the problem is to do with pacing and length. Reducing a story that was originally told over about 20 episodes into a two hour film was always going to be tricky, so why the decision was taken to keep this one to about 90 mins is a bit of a mystery. Far from streamlining the story, large sections of the plot are reduced to voiceover exposition and it's not as if said exposition really helps the audience understand what is meant to be going on. The point at which the decision was taken to reduce an entire romantic sub-plot to brief monologue should probably have clued those involved in to the fact that the film was going horribly wrong.
Special effects wise, music wise even camera shot wise this film never pulls its punches. It would be hard to find better examples of how to get a bunch of kids convincingly flinging around fireballs and water effects while dodging salamanders and evading some of the most pleasantly attired "goons" I've seen in a film in some time.
The trouble is that if you have half the IQ of a potato you won't care by the time the film is done. Reduced to fine powder, the plot is an amazing marriage of coming-of-age anxiety, fantasy fun, Eco-sensibilities and Kung-Fu. It should, by all rights, be even more emotionally gripping than it is visually gripping. Yet every time a moment of emotional peak is reached you're left feeling that the build up hasn't quite earned your attention. The cartoon, by contrast, has none of the visual flare this film possesses and yet manages to deliver it's emotional punch like a rock to the chest.
And perhaps it is unfair to judge a 90 minute film on no merits bar the 2d cartoon it is based on, but honestly what am I meant to do? Aside from costume design there is barely an idea in the whole film that isn't lifted directly from the series. I see no point in creating a live action version of the cartoon, especially one with a budget so huge, except to do the story bigger and better than it had been done before. Otherwise, why am I watching this?
If you are a fan of the original, stay clear. If you are not, here's an idea for you. How about, for a wease, you decide to buy the original rather than the film. Believe me, you won't regret taking my advice on this one. You will be missing nothing. Promise.