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One hundred years ago all four nations – Fire, Wind, Earth, and Water – lived in peace. Balance was kept by the Avatar, a master of all four forms of elemental manipulation, but the newest Avatar disappeared, just in time for the Fire Nation to attack and enslave the other nations. A century into the conflict, two Water tribe teenagers, Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) discover the Avatar frozen in the South Pole ice. Somehow, the Air Nomad, Aang (Noah Ringer), is still a child. Meanwhile, exiled Fire Nation Prince Zuko (Dev Patel), searches for Aang in hopes of regaining his honour.

Last Airbender, The
Nerd Alert. Nerd Alert. Regular readers here should know my personal experience with the Avatar: The Last Airbender – I love it so much I ended up getting some of my slushiest quotes on the official Wikipedia page. These gushing reviews have been some of the most regularly popular on the sight as well. When I heard about M. Night Shyamalan’s goal to adapt the series to live action I was pretty much appalled, especially since I’d just seen The Happening. I’d actually be unhappy no matter who was announced as director, except maybe the creators themselves – the show just ended, there’s no reason to adapt to live action so soon. With every bit of leaked information of the production the narrative developed into a practical horror story laced with every thing a fan would not want to happen to their favourite series.

The most prominent failure is Shyamalan’s insistence on a serious, almost dour tone. The first season of the show, which this film is based on, is pretty darn whimsical, and even the darker third season is full of jokes, gags and levity. Comedy is a big part of the series’ appeal, and without the balance Last Airbender becomes another too serious for its own good Shyamalan film (who managed a good blend of drama and comedy for Signs). And we knew this before the film was ever released thanks to early interviews. At one point he admitted he didn’t get the point of Momo (who does make about a 20 second appearance), and that his kids had to beg him to use the creature. The other controversial choice announced before release was the casting of Anglo actors in Asian roles. One could argue that the drawing style doesn’t necessarily dictate race, but the roles of various Asian cultures is huge in the series. Shyamalan, an Indian (well, and American of Indian decent) missed the chance to embrace this heritage, except the Fire Nation, who is filled in mostly by Indians. So for the purposes of this story, the only brown skinned people are villains. As if to add insult to injury Shyamalan insists on pronouncing all the character names in proper Chinese, which makes no sense since they’re no longer Asian in appearance.

But here’s the kicker: Sokka, Katara, and their grandmother are white –  everyone else in the Southern Water Tribe looks pretty Eskimo-ish.

Last Airbender, The
Even if we ignore how little the series and movie have in common, we have to acknowledge that Shyamalan totally missed half the magic, and embraced a deadly serious post- Lord of the Rings tone, and doesn’t let up. There’s no real break from the trudge. This is a serious problem when it comes to adaptation, way beyond hiring a bunch of whities in the lead. And worse than painfully dire, it grows painfully boring, and feels like an uphill battle at about the 20 minute mark. The plot is even more episodic than the series, skipping stones and generating an amorphous blob of a story. Look, here’s some possibly interesting inner mythology moment, or believable character development, now watch it float away as we keeping running to that big battle climax!

I’ve often wondered about the wisdom in hiring director who’s made a point out of avoiding showing any real action to make a film where people throw elements of the earth at each other. The action is, indeed, a huge misstep for the most part. Shyamalan uses way too much slow-motion. The fights do get better, and some of the choreography is pretty impressive, but Shyamalan mostly drops the ball. He’s definitely got an eye for some epic shots, but when characters start swinging fire and water at each other it starts to look a little cheap, like the CG guys really picked up the pace, and all the outdoor set pieces were stolen from old Star Trek sets. Shyamalan does to pretty well with the special effects, considering his career of basically ignoring them, but even the big blow-em-up lacks polish. And not enough monsters action, Knight, if you’re going to take pages from Peter Jackson’s play book (I mean, you got his cinematographer) make sure it has a lot of monsters on it.

Last Airbender, The

Video


Occasionally it looked a little cheap to me, but Shyamalan is incapable of making ugly features, so this 1080p transfer is pretty close to perfect. Details are super sharp even in busy, colour washed shots. Blacks are sharp, and the contrasting colours are realistically rendered. The darkest night shots lack the pin point contrast of colour, and there’s a little bit of chunky grain to mess it up too. Digital noise is not a problem, though the spirit world is a little more peppered than the rest of the film. Colour plays a pretty important role, as should be expected from something inspired by both a cartoon and modern Chinese cinema. Hues are bold, and set up well against de-saturated blacks and grays.

Last Airbender, The

Audio


The DTS-HD soundtrack gets off to an incredible start with the pre-credits, and their fire, earth, water, and air. The track’s big theme is the swish effect when someone whips some element across the screen in slow motion. I’m a little disappointed at the volume levels of some of the effects during the speed ramping. When things slow down the LFE seems to be suctioned down. Otherwise the crumble and rumble of the LFE is pretty spectacular. All in all a slightly overproduced track, with plenty of surprises. The only thing that surprises me is how low James Newton Howard’s score is mixed, though the score's mediocrity is pretty shocking as well. Usually a Howard score is the one thing a Shyamalan movie will get right. Even The Happening

Last Airbender, The

Extras


Extras Begin with ‘Discovering The Last Airbender’ (HD, 50:00), a 9 part making of featurette. This includes discussion of the characters (which would’ve been nice during the movie) set to raw behind the scenes footage, as well as cast and crew. Creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko disappoint in their reactions. The word ‘spirituality’ is thrown around consistently by everyone, as is a bunch of pretension. There are also featurettes on locations and costumes. There is a slight explanation as to actor race, that doesn’t really satisfy either.

Next up is ‘Siege of the North’ (HD, 18:30) a more focused, fly on the wall look at the climatic fight, choreography and production design. ‘Origins of the Avatar’ (HD, 7:20) is a pleasant discussion with creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, and their journey. ‘Katara for a Day’ (HD, 4:30) sort of speaks for itself, and is a behind the scenes day with actress Nicola Peltz. There are four deleted scenes (HD, 11:20) most of them glimpsed during the film itself during montages. The cuts were good choices, though we get an Easter egg look at the Kyoshi warriors. Things end with a gag real (HD, 4:30), and ‘Avatar Annotations’ – PiP footage, most of which can be found elsewhere in the extras.

Last Airbender, The

Overall


In the end I’m not sure who this film was made for. If you liked Avatar the Last Airbender the series, I can all but guarantee that you’ll hate the movie’s total change of tone. If you’ve never seen Avatar the Last Airbender series you’ll probably be disappointed by the iffy action, and speed-of-light plotting that holds no dramatic tension or pull, and thinly drawn characters. It’s an occasionally good looking movie, and that alone will hopefully it will drum up more interest for the series, which is still great.

*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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