As big a fan as I am, and continue to be of M. Night Shyamalan, the one tragic fact of “The Last Airbender” is that there just isn’t a need for it. The original television series is about two or three years after its series finale, the series lasted about four or five seasons, it still plays in syndication, and there is a new story waiting in the wings. Fans of “Avatar” are in no short supply of their Airbender fix, so Shyamalan’s adaptation of the show isn’t all too necessary, nor was it wanted. So instantly the cards are stacked against him. Yours truly being a hardcore fan of the animated series (frankly, it’s one of the finest and most entertaining shows of the last decade), I was anxious to see what Shyamalan would do to “The Last Airbender,” and I wasn’t all too disappointed with what turned up on the screen.
While I continuously defend Shyamalan’s previous outings, he has to work with pre-established material here and works with it well enough to satisfy the respective Avatar fan while also appealing to the general audiences. The concept of controlling elements spiritually is a fantastic concept and he brings it to live with some incredible moments on-screen that demonstrate the process and sharp beauty of the idea behind the original series. Paying tribute to the series, Shyamalan stages some familiar moments from the series, and relies on the child performers to handle the weight of the story that involves Avatar Aang’s confrontation with the evil Firebenders, and his attempts to restore innocence back to the land. He must also face that time has passed, thus leaving him a pariah, and engages in some rather interesting reflections on his past, that make him a rather complex protagonist.
Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone are great as Katara and Sokka, providing charming and often humorous depictions of the characters while presenting a great chemistry on-screen. When Shyamalan finally delivers in the action realm, it’s striking to watch and he really does understand the art form behind the ability that the animated series tried to convey. You have to give Shyamalan credit for enlisting action scenes that aren’t filled with quick edits and are filmed on one continuous shot. “The Last Airbender” is a thrilling invoking of the series with some wonderful set pieces, and compelling moments of character drama, I think with a sequel, Shyamalan can improve and offer up something even better now that he’s set all the pieces in place and is on the verge of introducing the series most despicable villain.
Shyamalan commits one of the worst errors any film director can commit these days. He ends the film on an open ended scene that indicates this film is not just one installment, but merely a buffer for the introduction of the next film. These franchises (or attempted franchises) have a truly nasty habit of leaving the door open for a sequel when there is not a guarantee we’ll ever see one (“The Losers” I’m looking at you), and it’s flat out insulting for the director to give us a film and then insists that it’s still incomplete and we’ll have to venture out to theaters to see how it continues. Was there really a need for the final scene of “The Last Airbender” when it could have been placed before Aang’s donning of the Avatar title before the people of the village? And will anyone even know who the character that’s introduced in the final scene is? Will they even care? Why should they care?
When Shyamalan isn’t flat out leaving his viewing audience hanging on for a sequel that may or may not be coming any time soon, he introduces us to endless expository sequences and droning back stories, all the while offering up little movement and story progression in the process. Shyamalan has considerably little time to squeeze in many of the series interesting plot elements and twists and tries his hardest to factor in all of the plot twists as possible including Zuko’s unusual rescue of Aang, and Sokka’s romance with a princess that Shyamalan only hands two or three scenes of obligatory flirting to and then expects us to feel remorse when she dies later on in the film. The on the nose narration is also completely unnecessary and sloppy to boot considering not even the show had that much narration. It scored only an opening introduction and most of the episodes were told with fantastic writing, while Shyamalan just feels as if he has to do the work for us and have heroine Katara point out every single big event while handing us montages that do little to suck us in to the characterization.
Shyamalan should have spent much less time nodding to the series and just told the stories on his own speed including the most crucial developments and stowing the insignificant sub-plots to the wayside. With that change, “The Last Airbender” would have been a tighter and better written fantasy epic that isn’t so reliant on the memories of its collective fanbase. I do not see “The Last Airbender” becoming the next box office busting fantasy franchise any time soon, but for what it promises in the way of thrills and entertainment “The Last Airbender” is a respectable adaptation, with some surprises, a fine manifestation of the powers that the series initially revolved around, and a top notch cast. Is it flawed? Yes. Is it a masterpiece? Oh god no, but… I’m intrigued to see where the next film goes.