M. Night Shyamalan dug a pretty big hole for himself with The Happening, one that many people thought he'd never find his way out of. As a result, his latest effort, The Last Airbender, the live-action adaptation of the Nickelodeon cartoon, had a steep hill to climb right out of the gate, and critics were none too kind to the film or its helmer. But despite seas of bad reviews and outraged fanboys, M. Night's Airbender manages to be a passable effects film and a better-than-decent movie when watched through the eyes of its target audience -- kids.
As a kids' movie, the story of siblings Katara and Sokka is a fun adventure as they help guide Aang, the last airbender, on his quest to start an uprising against the oppressive Fire Nation and their machines of destruction. While the journey is entertaining, nothing really seems as impactful or influential as it should; everything seems weightless, even the few deaths that occur along the way. However, there’s still a lot to be enjoyed about The Last Airbender.
Most of that enjoyment comes from the sheer spectacle of the special effects. The world is comprised of four elemental nations: water, fire, earth, and air, and for each element there are "benders" who can control these building blocks of the world. With that much power flying around, there are bound to be some big set pieces. The benders frequently do battle and default to using their powers rather than simply punching someone in the face. Seeing the elements wielded this way is shockingly entertaining. For the most part, the effects look great, but if there's one fault it's that they aren't quite big enough. The major stuff happens at the end, as expected, but the showiness leading up to the film's climax could have been bigger.
Much like most M. Night Shyamalan flicks, The Last Airbender's greatest fault is the script and direction. Many of the lines come across as heavily contrived, which is occasionally acceptable from the young cast, but the blame falls squarely on the scriptwriter who seemingly failed to pay attention to the table read and then decided against shooting an extra take or two per scene to get a read that didn't sound like exactly that...a read. There are fewer cringe-worthy moments here than in The Happening, but there are a few times you'll find yourself embarrassed for those on screen.
Having only seen the first episode of the animated series, it's hard to say whether or not the adaptation is accurate, but right off the bat it's easy to see that Sokka, played by Twilight's Jackson Rathbone, has lost all of the always apparent sarcasm and silliness of his animated counterpart. However, while some minor story elements were budged to make for flashier moments on the big screen, the setting and general feel seem to be pretty on point.
M. Night Shyamalan hasn't put together a perfect film, or even a great film. But if you're able, as I am, to watch a movie that's aimed at kids as if you were the age of the intended audience, there's no way you'll walk away from The Last Airbender hating it as hard as 98% of the critics have. I don't often say to just shut down and enjoy something pretty, but it's a flashy romp with big-time set pieces, explosive effects, and good-enough execution and story to get you through a Wednesday night. Don’t expect greatness, but it's at least a step up from his last and hopefully a sign of future improvement.
If you love behind-the-scenes documentaries, then you need to pick up this Blu-ray. The Last Airbender is packed to the brim with surprisingly relevant special features, including one of the most exhaustive documentaries I’ve ever seen on a disk.
"Discovering The Last Airbender" is a nine-part -- that’s right, NINE-part -- behind the scenes look at everything you could ever hope to know about this movie. From the origins of the show to the special effects, you’ll walk away from this knowing and appreciating more about this movie than you’ll ever need to. The most interesting part is seeing how grueling the conditions were, filming on large lakes of ice in Greenland, and it’s astounding to see that, despite freezing their collective asses off, everyone always seems to be having a great time. There’s something in this doc for everyone, even the make-up and hair people. When I say it’s exhaustive, I mean it.
The epic Northern Water Tribe battle sequence that closes out the movie is described is excruciating detail in "Siege of the North," a 10-minute look at how the sets, massive amounts of stunt men, and groundbreaking special effects all worked together to bring the sequence alive. Seeing the set, one of the biggest sets ever built on the east coast of the U.S., is awe inspiring.
Avatar: The Last Airbender series creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko sit down and give us an in-depth look at where their story came from in "Origins of the Avatar." Hardly as long as "Discovering," "Origins" takes a look at where the idea for the story came from and the many cultural influences that brought it to life both in the Nickelodeon cartoon and in Shyamalan’s film. Hearing the pair of creators talk about what went into making the show shines some light on why Shyamalan cast it as multi-culturally as he did, despite many fans' outrage.
The rest of the features are fairly standard Blu-ray stuff. There is, of course, a gag reel that is 90% Jackson Rathbone and Noah Ringer dancing (Ringer does quite an impressive robot). "Katara for a Day" follows the film’s lead actress as she bounces between tutoring and acting, but the feature itself is pretty boring. Finally, the four deleted scenes add nothing to the movie, but are mercifully short compared to other films that think they need to include every second that wound up on the cutting-room floor.
Finally, the disk is equipped with "Avatar Annotations," a picture-in-picture guide that introduces many of the interviews seen in the behind-the-scenes footage directly into the movie. It’s about the same as having commentary turned on, but it’s PiP instead.
With the amount of features included on this disk, it’s worth the price tag if you’re at all interested in the series, or just filmmaking in general. The documentaries give plenty of insight into the world of film, even though the film itself doesn’t strike all the right chords. The Last Airbender does its job, and even though it doesn’t do it quite well enough to impress film veterans, the 12-year-old target audience hardly has anything to be disappointed about. Pick this one up while there are Christmas deals floating around. It’s definitely worth your $15.