Throughout the course of M. Night Shyamalan's adaptation of the Nickelodeon cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender, I wondered who was more to blame for the film's state. The writer? the director? or the producer?
The question was answered in full during the first screen of the credits, when I found that Shyamalan occupied all three roles.
The story revolves around Aang, a boy monk and the last of his kind, who is to be the savior of the world. Not necessarily original, but the depth of the world created in the cartoon, consisting of four nations at war, each able to control a single element of Air, Earth, Water or Fire, finds charm in the fantastic hybrid creatures and characters, both human and spirit, that our hero encounters on his journey as the only soul who can master all four of the elements.
The adaptation is a demonstration in what not to do when condensing a ten-hour season of animation into a ninety minute movie. The storytelling is jerky, and unfulfilling, as Shyamalan manages to miss the essence of nearly the entire cast of characters with his script. The direction is equally poor, as the performances are substandard across the board. There is no emotion in the execution of the already stiff dialog. This could be attributed to the poor skill of the actors, being relative unknowns, we have no base line for comparison with the mostly youthful cast. But considering Dev Patel's (Prince Zuko) performance in Slumdog Millionaire, and Shyamalan's poor handling of Mark Whalberg and Zooey Deschenel in his last effort, The Happening, our judgment is certainly guided away from the acting talent in this case.
The high point of the film came as the credits began to role, and I was finally sure that we would not be subjected to Shayamalan's forcing himself into a pivotal role in the film. The Last Airbender should be the last in the line of Shayamalan films, but somehow, I fear that there will always be one more Hollywood executive willing to put him at the helm yet again. Shyamalan, whose career started so brilliantly with The Sixth Sense and to a lesser extent, Unbreakable, must be nearing its final curtain. We are left to hope that if the man is given one final gasp, studio executives finally find some semblance of sanity, and limit Shyamalan's influence to but one role in the production.
The film was heartbreaking only in the fact, that the soulful and entertaining cartoon was stripped of life and meaning, ending in a production filled with clunky lines and voice-overs, all situated in order to convey plot points that had been handled deftly in the hands of television animation writers. Anyone who wants to truly enjoy this charming story should do so by purchasing the animated collection, and fans who have viewed the series will be amply disappointed in the film.
Aang, you deserved better.
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