Netflix has all three seasons of Nickelodeon’s ground-breaking cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender available for streaming. Steve (yeah, I’ve given up on the Candy Pants joke for now) and I finally got a chance to watched all of it over the past few months, and based on that TV show — we were excited about the new movie coming out. Or at least I was. Steve was more of the opinion that M. Night Shyamalan would shit all over it.
Well, based on all the reviews, he was right. Now, instead of looking forward to seeing the movie, I’m collecting all the reviews because they’re a lot more entertaining than the movie will probably be, and maybe because I’m also occasionally a masochist. I’m not saying I won’t ever see it — but it’s beginning to look like it will either be because someone else pays for the tickets, I have a momentary burst of optimism, or because enough time has passed and Netflix is finally streaming the movie.
Howard Tayler, the author of Schlock Mercenary has this to say:
In its defense, the film is trying to tell a beautiful story, and succeeds in a few places. The Last Airbender is an epic tale full of fantastic “hero’s journey” and “coming of age” elements, with romance, action, betrayal, tragedy, self-discovery, and sacrifice, but if this sentence gets quoted partially on a DVD box somewhere I will SCREAM because finding these elements is like digging for salad in a sink full of potato peels and I don’t want anybody seeing this film without knowing that. Great story, crummy storytelling. That’s hard to do, but Shyamalan did it.
Roger Ebert gave it only half of a star in his review:
“The Last Airbender” is an agonizing experience in every category I can think of and others still waiting to be invented. The laws of chance suggest that something should have gone right. Not here. It puts a nail in the coffin of low-rent 3D, but it will need a lot more coffins than that.
Ty Burr of the Boston Globe was nicer and gave it an entire star:
…it’s a tossup as to which is worse: the script, which regularly grinds to a halt to Explain Everything until the movie curls up and dies; the shockingly dingy camerawork; or the execrable 3-D. The latter comes in two modes: barely noticeable, as if the technicians set the knob at 1.3 and went out for lunch, or actively irritating. Really, I’ve got winking-Jesus postcards that look better.
Josh Tyler from Cinema Blend actually liked it in spite of what he called the “the worst script of the year”:
This isn’t an easy movie to praise. The Last Airbender seems as though it’s daring people to hate it. It’s hard to believe anything could be this badly written by accident. In order to get to what’s good in it; you’ll have to endure a lot of M. Night Shyamalan missteps. In the hands of a better writer, this could have been the next Lord of the Rings.
Charlie Jane Anders from io9.com thought it was a comedy, but not the funny kind (I was going to use the bukkake comparison from this review, but I’d like to keep it family-friendly):
In the traditional hero’s journey, the hero resists the call to adventure, before finally passing over the threshold into the dangerous but juicy fantasy world where he comes into his power. And this is what happens to you, the audience, as you watch The Last Airbender, only in reverse. You resist following this movie into the dark, scary place where heroes are pieces of furniture and heroism is a Monty Python routine performed by someone who’s never seen the original episodes. But then it’s too late – you’ve passed over the threshold, you are committed, you are on the journey and the story won’t let you go. You have been drawn into a place where you will lose, not only your power as an audience member, but quite possibly your mental faculties altoghether.
Ok, I give up. There’s no way this review from Pajiba is family-friendly, but I’m including it because it has the best breakdown of what went wrong. (This probably wasn’t the best paragraph to go with, but it was the only non-profanity filled one I could find):
Replicated from the cartoon’s introductory sequence, we see four shadowy figures each summon the prospective elements: earth, water, fire, and air. This should be exciting — seeing what up to now has only been pen and ink brought to life in stunning 3D. And yet, there is no life. It feels half-speed like a dry run of the production. In fact, Shyamalan went out of his way to suck any and all life out of the original material, like a Twihard horking feathers as she chews through her Cullenpillow. The entire movie is played out like a test-audience screening, hastily assembled scenes of actors explaining every element of the story as if it was a placeholder for an amazing action sequence that hasn’t been shot yet.
If you haven’t seen the original Avatar: The Last Airbender on Nickelodeon, now is the time to either purchase the box set, watch it online, or get Netflix.
The story is simple. There are four nations based on each of the four elements: air, water, earth, and fire. Each nation has individuals who are able to manipulate or “bend” their element. The one person who has the ability to bend all four elements is called the Avatar, and he or she is supposed to be able to bring or maintain balance in the world. Once an Avatar dies, he/she is reincarnated into the next element in the cycle, or at least that’s how it was supposed to work. The last Avatar disappeared over 100 years ago and hasn’t been seen since. In that time, the Fire Nation completely wiped out the Air Nation (the next element in the cycle of the Avatar) and killed off most of the water benders of the Water Nation in the process of expanding the Fire Nation empire. That’s where the series begins.
The detail that Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko went into when creating their world is another reason I love this show so much. Each nation has a very distinct culture based on their element, and it’s reflected in their style of clothing, architecture, and bending techniques. For the benders of the four nations, their movements are based on four very different real-life martial art forms that matches each element; such as using the smooth motions in Tai Chi to represent the ebb and flow in water-bending and the rooted stances and powerful strikes of Hung Gar for earth-bending.
For the amount of fighting in almost every episode, death is rare. While it exists, it either takes place off-screen, in the past, or it’s more of a transformation then it is an ending of life. In fact, the internal conflict a young monk, who has been taught that all life is sacred, faces when he realizes that it’s his duty to kill the Fire Lord is handled beautifully, as was the choice he made in the end.
As with the monk, most of the characters are 11 to 16 year-old kids who have been placed in difficult situations with life-changing decisions, and amazingly enough, they still mostly act their age (one of the big complaints about the movie is that they don’t behave like real children). Sure, that means there’s a lot of overacting and goofy jokes, but this is, after all, a kid’s show. Along with the silliness are bittersweet moments, lessons about forgiveness and honor, the redemption of one character and the slow descent into madness for another. This balance is part of what makes it entertaining for both children and adults.
The clips I’ve seen of the movie show that Shyamalan’s version of The Last Airbender is gorgeous beyond belief, but the reviews make is sound like the story was stripped of any of the joy and hope that permeated the cartoon. And for me, that was what I loved about it the most.