Early reviews in the theatre-full of little kids I saw “The Last Airbender” with were enthusiastic: whoops and wows scattered throughout and a chorus of cheers at the end. The movie is filled with heroic feats, high-kicking martial arts, and elaborate digital imagery, and this is the audience it’s aimed at (along with — the filmmakers hope — an elder demographic that will be drawn in, too).
Those unfamiliar with “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” the animated series that ran on Nickelodeon from 2005 to 2008, may find themselves straining to track the movie version’s live action. The fantasy world of the film is divided into four tribal nations, each devoted to one of the four elements: Earth, Air, Fire and Water. In each of these tribes there are specialized citizens called “benders,” who can manipulate the national element at will. And somewhere there’s an Avatar — a spiritual figure, reborn throughout time — who can control all four elements and generally keep the peace among the nations.
But the last Avatar disappeared a hundred years ago, allowing the Fire Nation, led by the glowering Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis), to embark on a campaign of world conquest. Ozai’s black-armored troops have already exterminated the benders of the Air Nation — all but one. Now the Fire Lord has dispatched his son, Prince Zuko (Dev Patel), to find that elusive individual: the last airbender. This turns out to be a 12-year-old boy in a purple cloak and a dusting of runic tattoos. His name is Aang (Noah Ringer), and he’s discovered on an ice floe one day by a waterbender named Katara (Nicola Peltz) and her brother Sokka (Jackson Rathbone). We soon learn that Aang is not only the last airbender, he’s also the long-sought Avatar. Where has he been for the last century? “I ran away from home,” he says.
Aang and his new protectors spend the rest of the movie dodging Prince Zuko and a scheming Fire Nation commander named Zhao (Aasif Mandvi) amid great fire lashings and water whips and much taekwondo posing. There are massed digital ships, rampaging battle rhinos, a wise cave dragon, a six-legged sky beastie and a friendly flying fruit bat who goes by the name Momo. All this and much, much more.
That’s a lot of story. And the movie is so packed (cast of 6000) and rushed and choppily edited that you soon give up trying to figure out what’s happening and just let it drag you along. The picture is crammed with big-budget CGI — it seems determined to command our interest through sheer technological will. But while some of the digital constructions are amazingly inventive, at the end we’re left feeling wrung-out, and wearily unamazed.
Possibly the most curious thing about this film is that it was written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, a man once capable of such twisty delights as “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable.” In the six years since the last of his movies with Disney, Shyamalan has become a wandering supplicant, touching down at Warner Bros. to make the very silly “Lady in the Water,” and then at Fox for the much-unloved “The Happening.” Now he has landed at Paramount, where he acknowledges that he’s taking a crack at launching a blockbuster franchise. “The Last Airbender” ends with the iron vow of a sequel. Will Shyamalan’s technoid determination be sufficient to keep that promise? Or will the search for a welcoming studio home have to continue?
(“The Last Airbender” is a Paramount Pictures release. Paramount and MTV are both subsidiaries of Viacom.)
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