By Dirk Sonniksen | July 1, 2010
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Writer: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Noah Ringer, Dev Patel, Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone, Shaun Toub, Aasif Mandvi
The Last Airbender follows Aang (Noah Ringer), a kid that’s been trapped in a giant ice bubble for a century. Fortunately, Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) discover and release him. The three become quick friends, with Katara and Sokka soon realizing Aang is no ordinary boy, but is in fact, the last Airbender, the Avatar, whatever you want to call him—he’s really special. Aang soon realizes that while on his cryogenic vacation, the Fire Nation was busy conquering the world and generally making things unpleasant for everyone. Thus begins the quest for Aang and his young posse to defeat the evil Commander Zhao (Aasif Mandvi) and the rest of the bad guys. Balance must return to the world, but will Aang be able to fulfill his destiny?
Well, apparently we don’t really know, because we haven’t seen Book Two, or Three, or Four; it is this reviewer’s hope, however, that M. Night Shyamalan be given a different assignment should Book Two come to pass. It’s not that I don’t like the guy; on the contrary, I’m quite a fan of his films (well, most of them), but Shyamalan went well out of his element with The Last Airbender, creating a film that is truly disjointed, trying to be suspenseful and campy, but failing at both. With the anime series well in the campy…camp, it perhaps would have better served the film to be simply that, a fun-filled romp that paid homage to the series. What seems to have gotten in the way is Shyamalan’s signature style, which, while admirable, weighed down the film and had me flashing back to The Happening—and that’s not a good thing.
On the acting front, I was left as cold as young Aang in his bubble. While the cast is certainly up to the task, Shyamalan’s script is full of shallow dialogue that renders the actors helpless. Note to Shyamalan: if the scene feels like it’s over…end it! Rarely has there been a film with so many corny one-liners thrown on to the end of scenes, making the editor’s job much more difficult and causing frequent double-takes among movie goers. Instead of such trite dribble, why not give the actors a shot at that really intense look to convey the emotion without the silly talk. Just a thought.
Noah Ringer was definitely the most logical choice for the role of Aang, and with the bad script pushed aside, he does an excellent job of portraying the young Airbender. Nicola Peltz is quite appealing as Katara, but Jackson Rathbone seems completely ill-suited for the role of Sokka. Equally puzzling is Aasif Mandvi as Commander Zhao. While I am a huge fan of Mandvi, it was near impossible for me to picture him as an evil commander. So who wins the best actor award for The Last Airbender? Shaun Toub, hands down, as Uncle Iroh, a character that actually managed to stay in character and weather the bad dialogue in order to give a solid performance.
M. Night Shyamalan’s foray into big screen anime is both intriguing and baffling. Intriguing because it would seem that a director like Shymalan could bring a subtle kind of creep-factor to The Last Airbender, a dark slant that would still make the film viable for the kiddos, but not scare them out of their wits. What is baffling is that Shyamalan did indeed make that attempt, but with fairly disastrous results. More confusing is that Shyamalan had a plethora of material to work with from the series, and managed to create a rather uninspiring Book One, complete with a D-list script. The viewer is constantly at odds with what kind of film Airbender is trying to be: a scary M. Night Shyamalan film or a campy anime movie. Whatever the case, let us hope that the next installment (assuming there is a next installment) will see Shyamalan with a more lucid idea behind The Airbender series or…with another director entirely.