01 July 2010

Avatar: The Last Airbender

Avatar: The Last Airbender
Starring Noah Ringer, Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone, Dev Patel, Shaun Toub, Aasif Mandvi
Written & Directed [and Produced] by M. Night Shyamalan
Release: 1 July 2010
Nickelodean Movies, 103 mins., Rated PG

Plot: The Fire Nation is basically trying to rule the world with a hot iron fist, and the young avatar Aang is the only thing standing in their way, seeing as how he can control all the elements, thus the race is on to find Aang and cage him.

There are good and bad things about THE LAST AIRBENDER, and there are also some truly beautiful things about the movie that nearly forgives the bad aspects. But before we go further, yes, I realize the official title doesn't include the AVATAR part, but damnit, it's what it is, so I'm including it. And no, I have not watched the original animated series, but after seeing this, it's a sure bet that it's at the top of my Must-Watch list. Well, y'know, after I watch all the other stuff I currently got stacked up. Or I could just forget about those and put this in instead...

The 2010 summer season has thus far been pretty unspectacular. To this point, THE KARATE KID and IRON MAN 2 are the best flicks out their, and considering the a way too-much budget for LAST AIRBENDER, folks are kinda expecting this to be the third. The answer to that is basically one of those wavy hand things - y'know, if a kid's trying to mimic a boat stuck in some really intense waves that are about to tip it over, but not yet. That's LAST AIRBENDER.

And for those interested if it's epic enough, complete with caps lock ["but is it EPIC?!?"], the answer is definitely yes. War, bad guys, bunch of killing, fire and water going berserk, and a epic soundtrack - yeah, fills the 'epic' quota most def.

First, let's talk about writer, producer, and director Shyamalan. As his first big-budgeted major release that has nothing to do with a 'original' story of his, I'd say M. Night did a pretty damn good job. His trademark style is all over this picture - whether that be good or bad. How he uses the camera, his love for extended shots and 360s, and of course the presence of James Newton Howard as composer [giving us his second best M. Night score yet]. Taking into account his failures with LADY IN THE WATER and THE HAPPENING, this picture has kind of been looked on as a 'redemptive' piece for Night. Overall, I'd say yes-ish.

Good or bad, THE LAST AIRBENDER definitely works as a ad for the TV series, giving us a hint of the complexities and philosophical awesomeness of the program. There are a bunch of ideas here that are really, really interesting that I hope are explored in the animated series: it was cool to understand that the avatar is one continuous being simply reincarnated from generation to generation; that the destruction of a part of the yin/yang cycle will case a disruption to the world (and a sacrifice of a person rebirthed by the spirits is the only way to renew that balance); that the legendary avatar actually doesn't want to assume the responsibility of his job, and just have fun and be normal-ish. There's plenty of great ideas in the movie, and I quite possibly fell in love with that aspect more than anything else.

Back at the beginning, I mentioned there was good, bad, and beautiful. Oh yes, there is such a thing as beauty in LAST AIRBENDER. The best and first example of beauty in this movie is the score by James Newton Howard (THE DARK KNIGHT). Even in his less than stellar compositions, Howard always delivers something cool, something semi-worth it. His 2008 DARK KNIGHT score is what I consider to be the encapsulation of perfection. Not a single wrong note in the whole damn thing. Now, having not yet had the opportunity to listen to this score as a stand alone experience and thus probably not having the right to make this claim, I would go so far as to say Howard's AIRBENDER score is nearly just as perfect. The final 20 minutes during the siege at that Ice Watery place and Aang finally calms his mind and is able to do extraordinary things - not only is that sequence is a thing of beauty, but Howard's score is just so marvelous, so bloody fantastic, so damn awe-inspiring, but it's also lovable. Yeah, falling in love with the damn score. Howard has crafted something magical here, and I will say right here in this review that LAST AIRBENDER makes every ounce of cash worth it in those final 20 minutes where the visuals, performances, and music come together to create something absolutely wonderful.

The movie also boasts some rather beautiful imagery. For the next few months, there will definitely be one image imprinted into my head: that of Aang composited to the left, and the giant wall of water to the top right, with splashing effects going all berserk and the gorgeous blue color scheme being all gorgeous-like.

Alright, I got all the AIRBENDER boasting out of the way, now let's talk about some pitfalls the film suffers from. As we all know, Shyamalan loves to do long takes - as in, no cuts; one continuous shots. When he does it with Bruce Willis and Sam Jackson, or Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix, it works splendid, but lately, his technique has really just shown the worst side of actors. Perhaps the downfall are the actors themselves and their inability to be, well, good, or it could by Shyamalan not knowing when a good edit would be beneficial, but his last few outings have made seasoned actors come across as newbies. And this batch of un-heard-ofs, well, they're alright, but the majority of time, they just make a scene awkward...

Well, let's delve into the whole actors thing. As our main lead, aka Avatar Aang, Noah Ringer looks extremely badass - but when he opens his mouth, his badass persona just completely goes bye-bye. He can do all the acrobatics with absolute ease, but he can't convincingly give a uplifting speech to a Earth Tribe to inspire them to fight against the Fire Nation - it just comes off as laughable. Basically, he comes off as a stilted script reader more than a actor inhabiting his character. The rest of the cast works just fine, with their own little high and low points. Nicola Peltz comes off as a little annoying at times because she exclaims sentences with such a "This is SOO important!" attitude when in reality, it's not really. That make sense at all? The only other actor in the cast who I found particularly noteworthy was Dev Patel of SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE fame, who is actually pretty good in his role as Prince Zuko. Patel can definitely pull off the Angry Man stare splendidly.

Armed with a passable but still fallible cast, Shyamalan introduces a screenplay that's good and bad. Good because he has written a story that, as far as I'm concerned, nicely introduces audience who know nothing about the original series (like me) to all these fantastical elements with relative ease. I'm happy to say I, for the most part, understand the universe the film inhabits, and wasn't much with the confused [as can happen with fantasy films]. The entire picture features the narrative of Aang coming to accept his role as avatar, so I give kudos to Shyalaman sticking to a good plot structure. It's a little disappointing the movie doesn't delve further into Aang's story, but obviously that'll be held for [potential] future sequels. What Shyamalan has never been able to truly do well is write good dialogue. Sure, he's not on the bad-level of, say, George Lucas, but what his characters typically say feel forced and rather state-the-obvious. Although this screenplay is a improvement of his more recent efforts (note: I did like the LADY IN THE WATER script, however), there are still a good number of flaws.

By the time the credits rolled on LAST AIRBENDER, my feelings were basically this: that felt long, AWESOME music, pretty visuals, LOLacting, and Aang's creature thingy looked like some Miyazaki creation. So in a nutshell, yeah, I'd recommend LAST AIRBENDER. It's fun for the most part, and it's errors can be overlooked because of majority of things that do work. A better cast and refreshed screenplay would make the film a good percentage better, but it's not like it was unexpected. Recommended.

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