I finally raised myself from the torpor of negativity, putting aside the mantras, “How can anything by M Night Shyamalan be any good?” and, “All the critics I routinely read and whose sensibilities are close to mine are unanimous in their condemnation of this film.” Why, you mutter darkly into your metaphorical beards, should you do something so obviously daft? Well, I’m a fan of the original Nickelodeon Avatar: The Last Airbender. And the film version has grossed about $225 million worldwide. So, could it be that the quality of the original story has saved Shyamalan from himself? Eventually, I decide I have to see for myself. I collect two experts — nine-year olds with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the original — and we enter the depths of the 3D realms with hearts beating apprehensively.
First, the good news. Confronted by the task of distilling the 20 episodes of Book 1: Water into a film of sensible length, Shyamalan has actually made some intelligent decisions. The narrative is clearly focussed so that it builds to the self-sacrifice of Princess Yue. This should produce a climax of great emotional power as a counterpoint to the Avatar’s destruction of the invading Fire Nation’s fleet. Even more importantly, the change of emphasis in Iroh’s role lays down more clear makers for future developments.
We all liked the “look” of the film and felt the realisation of the bending was well done except the general limitation on the fire benders seemed unnecessary. There’s no reason to force the majority of benders to use existing fire rather generate it internally. The elite fire benders like Iroh can make their own and so much of the rest of the series revolves around the power of the comet to enhance this internal power, that it looks a strange plotting choice. Ah well, if the other two films are made, we can make a better judgement. About halfway through, both boys took off their 3D glasses. Even though I felt the depth of field was poor, I kept mine on to the end. You can always hope for an intelligent use of technology. Shame really. . .
On the acting front, the standouts are Shaun Toub (an Iranian actor) as Iroh and Dev Patel (an Indian) as Prince Zuko. They actually feel real and have a genuine relationship that casts a giant shadow over the entirely wooden performances turned in by everyone else. I can only assume this was a directorial decision, simplifying Zuko’s coming-of-age journey by providing a more emotionally supportive Iroh from the outset. Only if you have the leisure of three seasons of half-hour episodes can you fully realise Zuko’s wrestling match with his conscience.
Well, that’s the end of the good news. First a thought about the casting. Noah Ringer as the Avatar, Nicola Peltz as Katara and Jackson Rathbone as Sokka are Americans rescuing the world from the threatening foreigners led by Aasif Mandvi as Commander Zhao and the Maori Cliff Curtis as Fire Lord Ozai. Hollywood has this tedious insistence on white supremacy over the foreign devils. I have noticed some defensiveness from Shyamalan on this issue. If the second in the series is to be made, he has a chance to recover the situation with the casting of the pivotal Toph. If we avoid the mandatory American, we may feel Shyamalan has slightly redeemed himself.
But there remain two major problems that wreck the entire experience. The first is the essentially declamatory acting style of the American trio. There’s absolutely no investment of emotion in their performances. They are sincere and honest, but all attempts at acting are avoided. I cannot understand this decision. Not to inhabit the characters, but merely to state their lines credibly, is extraordinary to watch. It immediately places an insurmountable barrier between the actors and the audience. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the complete lack of emotion in the relationship between Sokka and Princess Yue. Which brings me to the second problem.
There’s absolutely no set-up for the key events in the film. It starts and, before you can draw breath, Katara and Sokka have dug up the Avatar and lost him to Prince Zuko. It must rank as being one of the most perfunctory of opening five minutes in any major action film made during the last twenty years. But the worst of this comes when we finally get to the North Pole. I cannot recall seeing the opportunity for a magnificent ending so butchered by the script and acting performances. What should be a touching relationship between Sokka and Yue, complicated as a love triangle in the animated version, is completely thrown away. Worse, because we are not given any chance to see Yue as a rounded character, her decision to replace the Spirit of the Moon is merely sad instead of an example of heroic self-sacrifice to save her people. Finally, there’s the extraordinary decision to have the Fire Nation navy frightened away by the Avatar’s demonstration of water power. In the original, the Avatar kills everyone in the fleet. This emasculation of the Avatar is beyond redemption. The Avatar is the power to bring balance to the world and, in each incarnation, does whatever is expedient to arrive at a just outcome. This unfortunate end to the invasion of the North Pole is one of the psychological factors making the Avatar’s journey to find peace within himself so powerful. In this, the Avatar matches Prince Zuko as they both seek redemption for the “sins” of their earlier incarnations/fathers. This was not too dark for an essentially children’s and YA audience in the animated version. It should not be too dark in this film. No self-respecting Fire Nation fleet would simply have retreated in this cowardly way. Their fear of the Fire Lord would have kept them fighting to the bitter end. More importantly for the future plot, it’s because the fleet is destroyed that the Fire Nation invests in air power when rebuilding its military capabilities.
So, as a curiosity piece, demonstrating in no uncertain terms how not to make a motion picture of a fine animated series, this is unbeatable. As a final thought, my nine-year olds emerged full of ire, quoting chapter and verse of all the “good stuff” missing from this version. Even they could see this was but a pale imitation of a brilliant original.
And for those who missed the news, this epic has gone on to win five Razzies as the worst picture, worst director, worst screenplay, worst supporting actor and worst use of 3D. It seems we are unanimous.