Based on Nickelodeon’s hit animated series, “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” many thought the film adaptation would never happen. The story revolves around Aang, the last living member of an air-manipulating nomadic tribe, also on his quest to unite the other elemental tribes against the tyranny of the Fire nation.
In January 2007, “Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable” director M. Night Shyamalan was tapped to write, direct and produce the live-action version of the series. Shortly thereafter, MTV News caught up with Shyamalan to find out what inspired him to sign on to the project. He cited the animated series’ “cool fighting scenes” and its supernatural elements.
With all systems go and excitement building toward the film’s inevitable casting announcement, when the news finally arrived in late 2008, it created a stir of controversy alleging racist casting choices — mainly for the four main roles of Aang, played by newcomer and taekwondo black belt Noah Ringer; Nicola Peltz as Katara; “Twilight” actor Jackson Rathbone as Sokka; and pop singer Jesse McCartney as Prince Zuko. McCartney eventually had to drop out of filming due to scheduling conflicts and was soon replaced with “Slumdog Millionaire” star Dev Patel.
Shyamalan later responded to the criticism in a lengthy interview with Indie Movies Online: “I’m always surprised at the level of misunderstanding, the sensitivities that exist. As an Asian-American, it bothers me when people take all of their passion and rightful indignation about the subject and then misplace it.”
Controversy aside, filming was well under way in May 2009, when we got our first look at Dev Patel as the evil and angsty Prince Zuko and newbie Noah Ringer as Aang.
The following month, MTV News was invited to visit the Philadelphia set (the largest ever assembled on the East Coast) for an inside look at the production, where we wandered the fantastical lands of the Northern Water Tribe, stood on Commander Zhao’s battleship and chatted with Shyamalan and his castmembers. Patel told us he felt like he’d “been thrown into the deep end. … It’s a real stretch for me. At the start going into it, I was a bit naive, and I thought, ’This is just going to be a big laugh. I’m playing a cartoon character.’ Then I got on set with everyone and read the script, and M. Night’s in front of me, and there’s a lot of soul-searching to be done.”
The first teaser trailer arrived just after our set visit and nearly a year ahead of the film’s release. The footage offered fans a glimpse of Aang in action, practicing his airbending in a circular room surrounded by candlelight.
All was quiet on the “Airbender” front until January of this year, when Paramount released two teaser posters, one of Aang and the other of Prince Zuko. The following month, we got a sneak preview of the “Last Airbender” toy line, which was followed closely by a second trailer that aired during the Super Bowl.
When our MTV Movie Awards rolled around last month, the trailers started to reveal more detailed action, and we got our hands on and analyzed an exclusive clip that premiered during the live broadcast. And just last week, fans got their first glimpse of Momo, Aang’s flying lemur friend, in one of several TV spots that rolled out around World Cup coverage. Shortly thereafter, MTV added 30 images to our “Last Airbender” gallery. Fans commented that they would buy tickets just to see Appa the Sky Bison.
Finally, just days before the film’s release, we caught up with Shyamalan to find out what inspired the film’s impressive fight choreography (hint: Bruce Lee) and “Twilight” and “Airbender” star Jackson Rathbone answered the age-old “who would win in a fight” question: Jasper Hale or Sokka ?
Check out everything we’ve got on “The Last Airbender.”