Posted by: Robin | July 1, 2010

Last Airbender

I went to see  “The Last Airbender” today. It was the first time I went to a movie by myself, and apart from being proud of this accomplishment after multiple decades of life (despite feeling like an illustration for a which-thing-doesn’t-belong question), I am grateful I was only spending money for one ticket. As a public service I tell you don’t go!

My adult daughter put me onto Nickelodeon’s series “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” Not a big fan of cartoons in general and the Japanese anime style in particular, I was skeptical, but I trust her taste. In four days I watched all three seasons through my instant-view Netflix. It was delightful! By turns funny, serious, silly, heart-rending and suspenseful, it rarely hits a false note in it’s storytelling with well-articulated, if archtypal, characters. It also had one of the most satisfying and well crafted finales I’ve seen or read anywhere–everything tied together and addressed with nothing leftover or wasted (the supreme test for my former playwriting guru Jules Tasca).

I am hestitant to detail the elements that jar the viewer familiar with the original series because as my daughter and I compared notes the specific irritations were different and many. And if you insist on checking it out for yourself, I don’t want to put ideas in your head. But what made me saddest was M. Night Shayamalan’ complete failure. As both writer and director he has clearly lost his ability for tightly crafted, sustained storytelling. It looks increasingly certain that we will never see the like of “The Sixth Sense” again. Very little captured me emotionally or drew me into the story, but the handful of times it happened it lasted ten minutes at best. Then clumsy transition after clumsy transition ejected me out again.

While the excuse of time and medium must always be considered in any adaptation, the choice to not make Aang a happy-go-lucky kid’s kid may have been the worst choice in a sadly mismanaged venture. If drawn animation can convey by a sheepish grin, a mischievious giggle or a hung head a world of emotion that the viewer can enter and identify with, it is surely not too much to ask of an actor however young if cast and directed well to do the same. I don’t even want to imagine how different this film would have been in the hands of  Steven Spielberg, or a dozen others who have recently proved themselves adept at fantasy for child and adult alike. “The Last Airbender” evoked maybe five giggles from an entire theater audience during the length of the film after the first five minutes when a young audience wanting to be as enthralled by Aang, Katara and Sokka in the movie as they had been by the series, tried to get in the spirit of the thing with Sokka’s first comic relief moment. From there it went downhill fast.

The best that can be said is that there are a few arresting visual and special effects, and the costume design was gorgeous. So skip the movie and join Netflix. It will be a much better investment of time and money and a lot more thrills, tears and giggles.

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