BY JOHN BILLINGER
In the previous review, I said that 2004’s Catwoman was the poster child for how not to do an adaptation. Well, I will admit. I was wrong. This is the film that’s the poster child for how not to do an adaptation.
I’m actually old enough to remember when the Avatar: The Last Airbender show first came out. It’s bright, colorful, funny, dramatic, and (while I’m not a big fan of anime) it’s very well-animated. All in all, it’s a good time. I would recommend it. If anything, the fact that it’s still popular today says that it has plenty of appeal for kids and adults.
I remember when I first heard about the film adaptation. It was the summer of 2009. I went on the Nickelodeon website to play some flash games, and right on their homepage was the teaser trailer for this movie which announced a release date for Summer 2010.
A year passed, and it was the summer of 2010, and the film was getting closer to getting released, and all sorts of trailers and commercials popped up advertising the film. When the film was finally released, I did not see it. Looking back, I guess I had no interest, but a friend of mine did go see it. When I asked him what he thought, his response was, “Uhh…the 3D was ok.”
Over the next several years, I heard nothing but bad things about this film, and now in the year 2023, I finally decided to watch the film. And what I saw…oh god. But first, before we go further, here is a brief synopsis of the film’s story.
The Last Airbender is set in a world where humans can bend the four elements of air, water, earth, and fire. And in this universe, there is a world-spanning war between the four nations. Only the Avatar, who has the ability to bend all four elements, can end the war, but he mysteriously disappeared. 100 years later, the war is still continuing. But the tides start to shift, when two water nation kids named Katara and Sokka discover a new Avatar named Aang frozen in an iceberg. Together, the trio set off to end the war.
Where to begin? First off, for a summer blockbuster film, it’s short. Most big blockbusters are at least two hours long while The Last Airbender clocks in at just one hour and 43 minutes. As a result of this runtime, it moves by at a quick pace, and partly because of this, I believe that this film will find no appeal to newcomers to the story.
Speaking honestly for a moment, the basic premise of Avatar sounds insane, but the original show did world-building very well, and it helped make the world believable and easy for newcomers to approach. It also helped that it was a serialized show, so they had a lot of room to expand the show’s world. In this movie, they’re limited to an hour and a half to sell newcomers the world of the show.
And unfortunately, rather than do what the original Star Wars did, and have the characters visit new weird places and see how those places worked and build the world from there, this film’s solution was to have each and every scene dump an ungodly amount of exposition and information and world-building on the audience.
In one scene, they’re explaining the four elements. In the next scene, a Fire Nation General is talking about some ancient library. In the next scene, they’re talking about the spirit world. And it goes on and on. It never takes a break. Nothing about any of the exposition feels natural to the storytelling. It feels like they’re trying to get three entire seasons of a show’s lore (the show had 61 episodes in total) in an hour-and-a-half movie. It doesn’t work, and I feel anyone watching the movie who hasn’t seen the show would feel a combination of being overwhelmed and confused.
They’d also feel bored because the film doesn’t make any of this information interesting because there are no interesting characters to get invested in. And this is something they failed in adapting the source material. After watching this movie, I went back and rewatched the first few episodes of the show, and let me tell you that in just the first few episodes of the show, the characters showcased way more personality than the film versions of the characters.
From the moment you first see many of the characters in the show, you can tell who they are and what they’re about through the story, animation, and voice acting. In this movie, I can’t tell you anything about their personalities and what they’re about. Except that they’re all as interesting as watching the grass grow. And I feel bad because I can tell that the actors are trying, but the script gives them nothing to work with.
The film also lacks many key elements of the original show. Several characters and plotlines that played an important role in the first season and beyond are either toned down or absent here. For example, in the show, Aang can make contact with the spirits of the previous avatars. It was a very spiritual part of the show, and help made for an interesting story. Here, the spirits are mostly absent. Instead, they’ve been replaced with an Avatar dragon spirit or something. Other missing elements from the show include the Kyoshi Warriors, Bumi, Jet, and more. I’m not sure if the plan was to include them in a potential sequel (which thankfully never happened), but these missing season one elements make the film feel somewhat hollow and unfaithful to the original show. So, in short, the film not only has no appeal to newcomers to the show, but it also has no appeal to the original show’s fans.
I think, overall, the biggest thing that plagued the film was the direction. As stated earlier, this film was directed by M. Night Shyamalan, who, at that point in his career, was at a weird spot. Prior to directing this, he hit big in 1999 with The Sixth Sense and followed that up with Unbreakable and Signs. But after those, he slowly went off the deep end with films like The Village, and Lady in the Water, and his last film before directing this was The Happening (a film about trees that kill people).
Those three films received a less than appreciative response (especially The Happening). Considering his past films were thrillers, I’d say he was an odd choice for a director of an adaptation of a Nickelodeon show, but Shyalaman stated that he himself was a fan of the show, saw potential in it as a movie, and wanted it done right.
Interesting that the film that he wanted to be done right because it lacks everything that made the show great. And in its place was a bare-bones summary of the first season with hamfisted lore, bland characters, and (I’m sorry to say) mediocre acting. Yep, Shyamalan was truly a big fan of the show. From the research I did, the creators of the original show didn’t want any film adaptation to be made, this project was greenlit without their consent, and they didn’t want Shyamalan to be the director.
They wanted to do it.
I think if they had directed it, it would’ve been infinitely better than what Shyamalan did. While he described himself as a fan of the show, I get the feeling that he was a fan because he thought that show looked cool, but I don’t think he really understood or got why it was cool in the first place. A better choice of director would’ve been one that understood the original source material better, such as the original creators.
There are a few other things to mention about this movie before I conclude this article. First things first, the controversy surrounding the casting. It’s basically that they pretty much race-swapped the main characters. I’m not going to go into a lot of detail surrounding this controversy (since there are already plenty of articles talking about it, and it’s sure to be a touchy subject), but I will say it goes to show that it’s another example of it’s unfaithfulness to the source material.
I’ve also read that composer James Newton Howard’s score for this film has been praised. It sure must be good because I can’t remember most of it. I will say, though, that the effects are ok. Not great. It’s mostly CGI, but I can tell there was a little bit more quality in the effects than everything else in the entire film, so I say that they’re decent overall. Perhaps it would’ve been better to see it in 3D when it was initially released? From what I read, probably not, but I’ll never know for sure.
In conclusion, this film was awful. There’s almost nothing to say about it that’s good. One could debatably pick apart and criticize every single frame in the movie. Nothing about it works, and I’m glad that the planned sequels never got made.
Don’t watch this movie.