Monday, July 05, 2010

FILM REVIEW: The Last Airbender - Pros & Cons

Before you—and I—write-off The Last Airbender as the worst movie of the year, I'd like to remind everyone that so far we've seen The Rock strut around in a fairy tutu (Tooth Fairy), Jackie Chan partner up with Hannah Montana's dad (The Spy Next Door), the once-promising Brandon T. Jackson play a giggling satyr (Percy Jackson), Bruce Willis set up Tracy Morgan's juvenile jokes (Cop Out), Carlos Mencia sell-out to play George Lopez's stand-in (Our Family Wedding), Jude Law attempt to detract from his hair loss by playing a buffed-up bounty hunter (Repo Men), Rob Corddry get forced to give head to a guy in order to feed off the Hangover's success (Hot Tub Time Machine), J.Lo fall into a baby pool of placenta (The Back-Up Plan), Russell Crowe ruin a classic hero's tale (Robin Hood), Sarah Jessica Parker and her hags insensitively shove her riches in this nation's poverty-stricken face (Sex and the City 2), Megan Fox butcher a Southern accent (Jonah Hex), and whatever happened in MacGruber. We'd have to have short-term memory in order to definitively say The Last Airbender was the worst movie of the year.

Allow me to break down the pros and the cons of the film before you make up your mind:
*I should preface this by saying I've never seen the cartoon series.

+ The Message
First off, it's important to acknowledge that any action film geared towards children that advocates peace and unity should be given extra credit automatically. Secondly, the trailer made it seem as though Aang, the chosen one a.k.a The Avatar, was a loner who had accepted his destiny and was on a journey to save the other elemental communities from the Fire Nation. I was glad to discover, however, that like a normal child, and much like many other heroes, Aang was reluctant to take on such a huge responsibility, and even still seemed understandably frightened of his destiny in the very last scene. It was a far more realistic portrayal of the Bringer of Balance than you would've expected from this genre.

+ Fight Scenes: Escape from the Fire Nation & The Water Nation Battle
These were the best fight scenes. The set-up, the camera angles, the combat techniques, and the elemental graphics were all top-notch. I especially liked it when Aang ran on the wooden pegs to escape, changing his wooden staff into a glider. It reminded me of The Golden Child, especially since he looks like the Golden Child. lol

+ Dev Patel
Of all of the actors in the film, Dev was the most surprising. I'm not saying this because I love "Skins" and Slumdog Millionaire. In fact, since I loved him as those two characters, I should find it that much more difficult to stomach his villainous portrayal of Prince Zuko. However, it turns out he plays tortured, rebuked, and humiliated pretty well. Even before I realized his character had redeeming qualities, I started thinking he just might have more range than his "Skins" co-star Nicholas Hoult, who has been critically-lauded as an up-and-comer for the last 2 years with not much to show for it.
+ Appa, his flying pet
Maybe it's just because it reminds me of the flying dog in The Neverending Story, but I was really happy that it didn't turn out looking mechanical or superimposed into their world.

+ The Dialogue
I realize that this film was originally a cartoon, and that cartoons are for children. But since this generation is capable of video-chatting their grandparents on their 5th generation iPhones, recording the indie rock series "Yo Gabba Gabba" on their TiVos, and reading 600-page Harry Potter novels on their Kindles, I don't think they need to be talked to at a picture-book reading level—especially since they read their picture books on iPads. I felt like my brain was on cruise-control. Fearing that non-"Avatar" viewers would be baffled by the legend behind the series, director M. Night Shyamalan felt the need to use that oh-so-annoying explanation technique often abused in children's films. Paraphrased:
Katara: "We have to save the Northern Water Nation from the Fire Nation. You're the only one who can save them Aang!"
Aang: "I need to go to the spirit world to speak to the Dragon Spirit."
Sokka: "You mean, if we find a sacred land for you to meditate, you can cross over and find the answer we need to save the Water Nation?"
Aang: "Yes, with that knowledge, I can save the Water Nation."
Dora is less condescending than this.
+ Special Effects Timing
There were times when the elemental benders would start doing their nifty little hand motions to summon their respective element and it would take a while for the element to appear or it wouldn't appear at all. I think Shyamalan could've done a better job of denoting when elements will appear. For example, whenever Aang became super powerful, his eyes and head tattoo would glow blue. Perfect! That's the kind of viewer hand-holding that's allowed. Otherwise, we're left wondering where the hell the special effect went.
+ Green Screen
I haven't seen a lot of Shyamalan's films, but I imagine that movies like The Sixth Sense, Signs, and The Village did not require a lot of green screen. So we could say the very obviously fake scenes were due to his beginner's status. Or…we could point out that if he had spent some of that $150 million on Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings development team, it wouldn't have looked so…cheap. I mean, there was one scene where they had an uber close-up of Aang's forehead and you could see where the clear, plastic-like part of the tattoo bordered his skin. It looked like something he got with bumble gum. If he can't even get a believable tattoo, how can you trust him with green screen?

+ The Hero
I think 12-year-old Noah Ringer is adorable. And if he went up against 12-year-old Jaden Smith, he'd probably kick his ass. But there are a few categories that Jaden would have him beat in: commanding on-screen presence, speech-giving abilities, and comic timing. Ringer couldn't find the right rhythm or tone for his thought-provoking, awe-inspiring speeches, and as a result the audience could barely connect with him. He's the title character. We should've felt a stronger bond with him than any other character, and yet I left the theater sympathizing more with Prince Zuko and his inner turmoil. The only scene in which Ringer really impressed was the last one when he was asked to make up for his past mistake and given a second chance to bow before his people. He looked sincerely terrified and you knew that this was just the beginning. He may have won this war, but even though he wasn't sure he could win the rest, he accepted his destiny. Shyamalan shouldn't have thought the actor's combat skills would be impressive enough. He should've had an acting and/or speech coach on set the way Jaden had his father. He needed someone to help him stop playing a cartoon and start playing a person.

+ The Villain
As much as I'd like to give the very funny Aasif Mandvi (The Proposal) the opportunity to branch out of his comfort zone, I just couldn't stop thinking about how goofy he's been in other films while he threatened Aang and tried to murder Prince Zuko. Mandvi and Cliff Curtis, who played the Fire Lord Ozai, should've switched roles. I'm far more afraid of Curtis—even though the last character he played was named Rabbit ("Trauma"). But I guess it's good that Curtis played the Fire Lord, because he'll be a good addition to the imminent war in the next film.
+ Actors' synchronicity
In every film, there are an assortment of characters, all allowed to behave, feel, and be different. But in this film, it was as if each main character was in their own movie. Rarely did they seem to be in the same moment. Nicola Petz was so intense in several scenes as Katara—on the brink of tears or weighed down by a foreboding tone—that her brother Sokka's light-hearted whimsy kind of made it seem like she was being a drama queen. Speaking of which, trying to feed off the Twilight mania by casting Jackson Rathbone as Sokka was foolish. Sokka was supposed to be her protector and the comic relief. While I was certainly laughing at Rathbone's performance, it was not because of anything he was doing intentionally—actually, most of the time I was just rolling my eyes. His best moments were with Seychelle Gabriel, who played Princess Yue. Looks like Rathbone is better suited to play a romantic lead than he is…anything else.

+ Ethnicity
It was painstakingly obvious, even to a non-series-watcher like myself, that Shyamalan didn't exactly match up the tale's ethnic characters with the proper ethnic actors....especially when the obviously white Sokka and Katara returned to their completely Eskimo village. What? Were they adopted?

Final Verdict: Despite everything I've listed under Cons, I would recommend showing this to your kids or renting/bootlegging it with a few friends, especially if you like supernatural/spiritual action films. But don't expect Oscar-worthy dialogue or acting. Just have a little fun.

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