The Last Airbender

I feel sorry for M. Night Shyamalan.  The man who made Unbreakable and The Sixth Sense has, in recent years, seen his font of creativity shrivel to sub-par levels.  Movies like Lady in the Water and The Happening have transformed Shyamalan from golden child into whipping boy.  The Last Airbender sees Shyamalan wisely taking a break from directing his own material.  I’d love to know how Shyamalan landed the project; after his recent commercial failures, it’s hard to believe that the Hollywood powers-that-be would be eager to reward him with a new creative property (a wildly popular Nickelodeon cartoon) and a large budget.

Airbender sits on Rotten Tomatoes with an 8% rating.  Let’s put that in context.  Garfield garnered a 14%.  Garfield.  I’m going to reveal my cards; I thoroughly enjoyed Airbender, so let me hypothesize as to why other critics so enthusiastically savaged the movie:

A) Shyamalan’s task in adapting Airbender is a daunting one: to cover an entire season of tv over the span of a scant 100 minutes.  The first half of the movie, especially, feels disjointed as the script struggles to cover a variety of events that felt self-contained in the show, itself.  Shyamalan, probably operating under run-time constraints, has little time to develop each of these incidents.  He does a terrific job of punctuating their essentials but fails to seamlessly join them together.  I doubt many other writers could have done better.

B) Critics are susceptible to fads and fashions just like everybody else.  Right now, it’s fashionable to denigrate M. Night Shyamalan.  Many critics went in to Airbender *knowing* that it wouldn’t cut muster.  Similarly, many critics lose interest as soon as blockbuster special effects and fantasy worlds enter the mix.  In these senses, Airbender never had a chance from the moment it was greenlit.

C) The second half of Airbender provides a more even ride than the first.  I can only imagine that some critics walked out early and missed out on a very satisfying conclusion.

D) A couple of characters in the cartoon appear to be Asian.  The characters are represented in the movie by a couple of white teens.  This has caused all kinds of uproar- even though a variety of races are represented in the film.  The naysayers even have a website (  I think it’s all a bit much, but the issue clearly colored the opinions of some reviewers.

Despite a rocky beginning, Shyamalan’s script ultimately does a remarkable job of tying plot elements into a cohesive movie.  There are some under-developed  subplots, though I suspect some of that has to do with an involuntary cutting floor.  Regardless, the movie builds towards a finale that left me both satisfied and hungry for the sequel.  The original show features some compelling characters and relationships, and the most important ones are perfectly reflected here.  The purists will always find things to nit-pick (pronunciations of names, for one), but I found Airbender to be a respectful adaptation of the material.

I was wary when I heard that Shyamalan had been picked for Avatar.  Most of his films have been quiet, small-scale affairs.  Would he be able to convey the scale  and fluid fights of the show?  Surprisingly, Airbender is a beautiful film full of lush landscapes, hypnotic tai chi fight scenes, and jaw-dropping special effects.  I’m already salivating over the inevitable blu-ray release.

The roughest aspect of Airbender is the acting.  Shyamalan opted for a cast of unknowns, a double-edged sword if there ever was one.  The lack of any instantly recognizable faces automatically enables a heightened suspension of disbelief.  It’s easier to accept a world of magic and mayhem when there’s no Tom Cruise or Jack Nicholson on-screen to remind the viewer that they’re watching a performance.  Yet novice actors often give novice performances, and some measure of that tugs at Airbender.  Some of the performances are terrific: Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire fame brings the Prince Zuko character to life, though the real scene-stealer may be Shaun Toub playing the sagely Uncle Iroh.  On the whole, all of the performances improve over the course of the movie as the actors receive more compelling material to cut their teeth with.

Finally, Shyamalan’s stalwart right hand man, James Newton Howard delivers a stirring score.  Howard has long been my favorite film composer, and he gives good reason for my affection in Airbender.  Memorable themes and heart-breaking strings abound and ensure that the action has an appreciable impact.

Here’s the rare review where I’m hoping to persuade people to buy a theater ticket.  Poor reviews can decimate a movie’s potential box office take-in, and poor earnings can obliterate any chance of a sequel.  Some uneven acting and writing doesn’t stop me from wanting to see a sequel right now.   Visually arresting and full of heart, Airbender deserves your big-screen attention.

The Round-Up
The writing ranges from rough to inspiring. The story, however, is captivating throughout.
Some forced early scenes give way to believable characters as the story progresses.
Shyamalan allows his camera to linger on the beautiful sets and alluring choreography.
The ever-impressive James Newton Howard displays his ability to manipulate emotions with melodies.
Some spotty acting and writing early on stop me from awarding Airbender a truly stratospheric score.

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