Image Credit: Industrial Light & MagicLast Thursday, I wrote about my angst over seeing The Last Airbender, M. Night Shyamalan’s live action adaptation of the acclaimed Nickelodeon animated series known formally as Avatar: The Last Airbender. My kids and I were big fans of the anime-style cartoon, and we had been eagerly anticipating the flick. But after reading the reviews, which were almost unanimously negative to the extreme, I found myself in a parenting pickle: Should I discourage my two children from seeing the film, or should I take them anyway and let them make up their minds for themselves. I decided on the latter course of action, and it was the right call. We went on Saturday evening. The verdicts? I left the theater disappointed; my son, age 9, was enthralled by the experience. He can’t stopped talking about it, although his ongoing commentary includes a few quibbles, including the (narratively necessary) omission of some cherished characters. He can’t wait for the sequel. (The movie is designed to be the first in a trilogy.) I haven’t yet told him that the prospects for another installment could be iffy. (My daughter, 7, passed on the movie. She suddenly became convinced it would scare her. It wouldn’t have.)
Still, for all the disdain heaped on the movie, and for all of my own disappointment, I didn’t hate it. Put it this way: It’s not as bad as David Lynch’s Dune. And I liked David Lynch’s Dune.
Yes, the controversial casting of Caucasian actors in roles that should have been played by Asian actors was a profound blunder. And some of the storytelling was just lame. The story is a pretty dense affair, yet many scenes seemed clipped way too short. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to learn that Shyamalan made 15-30 minutes worth of painful edits from his original vision. If so, I’d love to see a longer director’s cut on DVD.
Still, there were several things about The Last Airbender I actually enjoyed — including a couple things that most critics have singled out as particularly bad. For example:
1. The Avatar kid worked for me.
Kudos to Noah Ringer, the newcomer who plays the titular hero, otherwise known as Aang. I imagine it must be pretty hard to play a little bald frozen-in-ice-for-100-years genocide survivor/quasi-Buddha messiah who has to do crazy martial arts dances to muster a mystical gust of wind and not come off as pretentious, ridiculous and just generally annoying. Ringer was none of those things. He was always watchable and he seemed totally capable of playing Aang’s complicated internal life. He was poorly served by a script that rushes to get him fighting and producing special effects instead of establishing why we should care about him. Yet by the end, I did care about him. And I thought the moment where a whole nation bows to him in reverence, as if he were some kind of god, and he accepts their show of respect, even though their worship clearly freaks him out, was really creepy. In a good way.
2. I thought the Slumdog Millionaire guy was the best part of the whole movie.
Some critics complained that Prince Zuko — the exiled son of the villainous Fire Lord, determined to win back his honor by capturing “the avatar,” aka Aang — was unrelentlessly surly as portrayed by Dev Patel, the romantic hero of Slumdog Millionaire. But Patel was always riveting, and he was especially poignant in a scene in which he quizzes a young boy about Zuko’s infamous fall from grace. My appreciation is — fairly or otherwise — informed by my familiarity with the source material, and knowing that this first film finds him at the beginning of a redemptive journey from rogue to hero. From this perspective, I thought Patel did exactly what he needed to do in terms of executing the task of guiding a character through a developing arc. I just wish Shyamalan had given Zuko more scenes that allowed Patel to actually express his character’s tumultuous emotional life in unique and dramatic ways other than just talking about it.
3. That crazy martial arts dance stuff? Kinda cool.
Our Star Wars upbringing has led us to believe that making magic requires nothing more than a Jedi flick of the wrist or twirl of the fingers. Power like that should require a little more labor, don’t you think? So I liked the Airbender idea that to acquire mastery over the natural elements of earth, fire, water, and air, one must cultivate a robust and disciplined spiritual life and then express that life through fluid, elegant movement — kung fu/Tai-chi as “Abracabra!” incantation. Now, I don’t really understand all of what I wrote in that last sentence, but I like whatever it is I’m trying to describe. Regardless, I appreciated Shyamalan’s ambition of trying to capture much of Aang’s intricately choreographed fight scenes in long, single-take shots, even if only some of them really worked.
How about you, Popwatchers/Avatar fans? Did any of you take a chance on The Last Airbender? Were you disappointed? Did you find anything to admire? And regardless: Would you like to see a sequel? Provided, of course, that it was, like, better?