The other day, my boyfriend and I went to see The Last Airbender, the long-anticipated, live-action version of the Avatar: The Last Airbender cartoon series. This was no ordinary event -- I have been waiting for this movie for two years now, along with some family and friends, and I was so hopeful about this film that I made my boyfriend sit down and watch the entire series before we saw the movie. By the time it was released, he was excited to see it, too.
Before I continue, I should back up a bit. It's worth stating that the controversy surrounding this film was alive and well far before the release date was even announced. In fact, over a year ago, during the film's casting, there was already a huge boycott being set up by some Airbender fans, because M. Night and crew decided to take a story based on Asian mythology and folklore and cast white actors in all of its leading roles. This had some people really upset ... but I was more than willing to at least try and trust that these people were professionals, and probably knew what they were doing.
I am going to come right out and say that those in charge of this film did not know what they were doing, in any way, shape, or form. What they did was take a story with so much promise and potential, and transform it into a confusing mess of incomprehensible, lazily slapped together scenes stitched together by poorly delivered expository speeches.
The script writer for this movie didn't know how to show anything. Everything was "told," and it was told quite sloppily. And it's not that they were pressed for time, either -- the entire film was only about an hour and a half long, so they had more than enough time to work with so that the movie wouldn't feel so rushed. Let me give you a few examples of some of the cringe-worthy, expository dialogue:
Gran-Gran: "I think he may be the Avatar -- frozen for a hundred years!" (Something we come to know about Aang over the course of a few episodes in the series.)
Katara (as voice-over): "We made it to the Northern Water Tribe ... my brother and the princess became friends straight away!" (The relationship between Sokka and Yue was complicated but endearing when seen over the course of time in the series.)
Commander Zhao: "I think the Blue Spirit may be Prince Zuko!" (Just ... just ... sigh.)
Commander Zhao: "Your son died during the raid on Ba Sing Se, didn't he?" (In the series, we don't come to know about Iroh's son until a few seasons in, and it becomes a very heart-wrenching episode.)
In short, everything that should have been shown through scene was basically told. The audience is left feeling that the writers had absolutely no faith that they could follow anything or put two and two together. This script was written for a dumb audience.
And while I'm on the subject of the movie being rushed, I'm also confused as to how M. Night decided which parts of the series to keep and which ones to toss. There were some parts that were kept and given considerable screen time -- saving Haru's Earth Kingdom town, for example, and the Blue Spirit scene -- while others were simply glossed over or left out all together. There were certain things, such as the gender bias in the Northern Water Tribe that leaves Katara so passionate about being trained to be a master, that were very important, but not touched upon at all. In fact, Master Paku was also left out entirely -- it seemed as though Aang and Katara were trained by Yue's father, though there really weren't any training sessions shown. Both of them pretty much go from being waterbending amateurs to masters with no explanation as to how or why.
Master Paku wasn't the only character left out, either. No Bumi, no Suki, no Jong-Jong. No cross-breed animals. In fact, they could have left Appa and Momo out, for all of the necessity and screen time they were given.
While we're on the subject of characters, let me go a bit further into the casting. Beyond the original controversy over casting white actors in Asian roles, I felt this movie was one giant mis-cast. (Well, I'll go back to the controversy for a moment and point out that, for some reason, Katara, Sokka, and Gran-Gran were all white, but the rest of their tribe was Inuit. Nice choice, M. Night.) And, before I go into the acting, I'll also point out that the characters who were in it were obviously not researched at all. Aang was pronounced "Ahh-ng," Sokka was "Soe-ka," and Iroh was "Ee-ro," just to give a few examples. I couldn't figure out if this was some strange creative decision on M. Night's part, or if they just really didn't know any better. (UPDATE: Down the line, I did discover that M. Night researched the names and discovered that the original, cultural pronunciation of them did not match the series, so he changed those pronunciations. I can see the drive behind wanting to do that in order to give the film more authenticity, but it really didn't work out -- especially when you take your "authentic" Asian characters and make them white.)
But, okay, the casting. As Aang, Noah Ringer was given a heavy load to carry as the leading character in his first (and probably last) film ever. This kid, I've read, is a Tai-Kwan-Do master (and I'll give him credit for this -- his martial arts were pretty damn good), but his acting skills were close to nonexistent. His range of emotion never expanded beyond the slightly anxious, "how will I ever save the world" seriousness that you see in all the trailers. You never really see anger (at the death of his people), you never really see a developing interest in Katara, you never see frustration, you never see happiness ... you never really see much of anything. All of the quirky humor, early immaturity, and light-heartedness that Aang possessed in the series is completely absent. In short, you know the whole time that you aren't watching Aang -- you're watching some kid trained in martial arts who is dressed like Aang.
Moving on, Sokka had a similar problem. Jackson Rathbone has had more acting experience, but Sokka's entire demeanor -- the funny, always-trying-to-be-macho comic relief that he is -- is just not there. Rathbone tries to deliver some of Sokka's well-known, amusing one-liners, but all of them, without exception, fall flat. You could tell he knew what his character was about, and he was trying to get the job done, but unfortunately just couldn't do it.
As Katara, Nicola Peltz was one of the worst casting choices, as she possessed all of the problems I just mentioned, and then some. She obviously didn't know the character, she couldn't act (which was a problem, seeing as how most of the expository speeches delivered came from her), and her range of emotion never seemed to vary much.
Commander Zhao and Firelord Ozai never seemed to have any motivation for what they were doing -- they were just evil bastards who hated the world -- and Iroh, while encompassing the wise-old-man motif, had none of the humor and nuance you come to expect from him. One reference to tea managed to get a few chuckles from the audience. And Dev Patel didn't even come close to reaching the depth of Zuko's character. His portrayal of Zuko was a back-and-forth game of angry shouting and Robert Pattinson-esque ("I'm so troubled") pouting.
I honestly can't think of one character who was portrayed really well.
Beyond the acting, though, the characters had no development. As most Airbender fans know, the character development was part of what made the series so good. But nobody matures in this film -- nobody seems to move beyond were they were right at the beginning, including Aang. And because of the rushed nature of the film, you don't feel like you know anyone at all by the end. By the time Yue became the moon spirit, I was in more of a "hurry up and die already" mindset than a mourning one, and it was mostly because her character wasn't developed (she was only given a few minutes of screen time, but still). I felt no grieving for Sokka, either, despite his attempts at crying for her loss -- again, had we been given any time to see their relationship progress (beyond one small conversation), I might have felt something other than boredom. But I didn't. And, believe me, I felt that way about the entire film and all of its characters.
I think that has to be enough for now, but only because I've got a paper to work on. I might feel the need to gripe some more later, but for now let me just say that I hope they don't continue making the rest of this movie franchise. It's not worth it. With the reviews it's getting (I haven't read one good review, not one), I doubt they'll even try to go for the second and third, but for everyone's sake I really hope they don't. If you were a fan of this series, do yourself a favor and consider skipping it. Then, at least, you won't have to worry about trying to erase it from your mind like I do.