Reel Shorts | The Last Airbender

30 06 2010

This review first appeared in Jet Magazine.com. To read this review at its original source, click here.

Shyamalan‘s “Air-less” Storytelling!
The battle between good and evil takes center stage in the big screen adaptation of “The Last Airbender.” This joyless epic relies too much on special effects wizardry at the expense of coherent storytelling.

Based on the popular Nickelodeon series, “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” the film follows the exploits of Aang (Noah Ringer), who possesses the power to save the world but is not ready to assume the responsibility. The perfect balance of the elements Earth, Wind, Fire and Water are threatened when Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis) and his Fire Nation wage war against their elemental counterparts. Much like his biblical counterpart, King Herod, Lord Ozai searches relentlessly to destroy the Avatar who possesses the power to control and wield all four elements.

But Lord Ozai and his commander, the manipulative Admiral Zhao (Aasif Mandvi), are not the only ones in search of the chosen one. Ozai’s disgraced son, Prince Zuko (Dev Patel) has been banished by his father and realizes that only by securing the Avatar can he regain his honor as well as the Fire Lord’s respect. Reincarnated in the form of a young boy, Aang allies himself with a young Waterbender, Katara (Nicola Peltz) and her brother Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) who help shield him from adversaries as well as help him learn to master the missing elements so that he can fulfill his mission.

Full of spectacle, special effects and martial arts wizardry, director M. Night Shyamalan’s story may have captured the look of the animated series but is absent the fun. Young Aang is a restless kid who almost wants to do anything but be responsible for saving the planet. He is Frodo but instead of trying to destroy the ring in the fires of Mordor, he must harness his skills to defeat the villainous Fire Lord. Aang travels around a kingdom that looks awfully like the one in “Lord of the Rings,” trying to master his art like Neo in “The Matrix.”

Shyamalan, who shot to stardom with his brilliant debut film, “The Sixth Sense” is once again spinning his creative wheels and remaining stuck in neutral. He discovered the story when his daughter expressed interest in dressing up as one of the characters for Halloween. Ironically, it is the audience who has been tricked by his film without lots of treats.

His story looks the part but is emotionally hollow. He gives newcomer Ringer the impossible task of carrying the story and there simply isn’t enough there for you to make any kind of connection to his character. Even Patel in a change-of-pace-role from “Slumdog Millionaire,” comes across as cartoonish appearing more as a spoiled brat instead of adversary. Absent plausible story development, The Last Airbender presents an interesting conundrum for summer audiences: As it limps to an inevitable conclusion will anybody care about the “Lord of the Winds?”

For the second time this summer (the first being “The Prince of Persia”), Hollywood has “whitewashed” a character meant to be another race. Initially planned as a trilogy, “The Last Airbender” is like a cinematic mixtape sampling popular film beats in trying to get a hit. Shyamalan has demonstrated the ability to make provocative stories but this is not one of them. For his sake as well as ours, let’s all hope that this film lives up to is title and truly is the Last one!

Grade: D

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