13 April 2011

Movies: The Last Airbender

The Last Airbender (2010) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0938283/

Fantasy film. Set in a world that is separated into four kingdoms representing the four elements, Earth, Air, Fire, Water.   Some of the folks in each kingdom are capable of "bending" their element - sort of a mix of martial art with magic - they can bend the element to do their will. There is one being capable of bending all four elements, called the Avatar. When that being dies they will reincarnate, so only one Avatar exists at any time.  The Avatar is capable of communicating with the Spirits that make elemental bending possible and maintained balance and peace between the nations.
In the story, 100 years ago the Avatar disappeared, nobody knows where. No new Avatar was born, so the Fire nation decided to dominate the world by eliminating all opposition, starting with the Air nation.  We join the story as the Avatar reappears in the southern Water nation, learns of what happened after he disappeared, and begins a journey to upset the violent dominance by the Fire nation and reestablish harmony in the world.  We find out that the Avatar had only learned his airbending skills and still needs to train to learn how to bend the other elements. The Fire nation is pursuing him to stop him as he makes his way to the northern Water nation kingdom to train.  Plus the banished son of the Fire nation king is trying to capture the Avatar to please his father and regain his position in the kingdom.

I've never watched the animated series this film is based on, Avatar: The Last Airbender, so I had no idea what to expect from the story. I'd seen all the negative reviews and hate directed at M. Night Shyamalan, the writer/director of the film. But I wanted to judge the film for myself.

My impression: I like the storyline and plot background. It seems like an interesting fantasy world with a defined mythology and a decent plot-mover: Fire nation wants to subjugate the world to their rule, the young Avatar has to overcome and give up his personal selfish desires to live up to the responsibilities of his station in order to restore harmony to the world.  Seems interesting enough and big enough for a lot of play in the realm.
Effects: pretty good. Easily could have been terrible, but ILM does good work.The fight choreography wasn't entirely terrible either.  Most times the choreography was for the benders to send their elements against others or up as shields. 
Story - seems hurried and stilted in places. It felt like there was a whole lot of story to be told, not enough time to tell it, and we were left wanting.  Especially when they encounter some Earth nation folks, but didn't bring any Earthbenders along? I don't understand why they wouldn't, unless it was some sort of faith to the original storyline?
Dialog - wavers between mediocre to bad.  Very inconsistent.
Acting - whoo boy. I know it's possible to be worse on the scale of good to bad acting, but dang sometimes the acting, along with the dialog, was painful.  The best scenes involved nobody talking.
Characters and Casting - I think most of the casting was based on a compromise between martial art skills and acting ability, except maybe the Fire nation king, the prince, and the king's brother.  The background folks were probably cast more as stunt personnel than anything.  The minor supporting characters were paper-thin, even the major characters had rather skimpy depth to them.
Plus I didn't quite understand the ethnicity of the casting.  It looked like the southern Water nation folks looked primarily Inuit or Mongolian, except for Katara, her brother, and her grandmother, and any other significant talking Water nation character. Those folks looked like white Western Europeans for some reason.  The Fire nation folks looked a little more ethnically homogenized and Southeast Asian. Couldn't tell by the Earth nation folks, didn't see near enough of them. The Air nation folks looked primarily Japanese-ish.  I would imagine each kingdom would be ethnically homogeneous within and distinct from the others. Which would be a more visual cue to see the separation of the kingdoms.

But, despite all that, I also recognize this is a film targeted at a younger audience than me, with a PG rating. Definitely for kids. And probably would go over well with kids. They aren't going to overthink things the way I tend to. They probably wouldn't notice the dialog problems or dizzying leaps in story progression. I have no clue how kids who've watched the animated series would take it. But I understand why it's possible for kids to like the film. Heck, as a kid I liked watching Land of the Lost every saturday, even though as an adult I would probably feel like gouging my eyes out. Which is why I won't ever rewatch that series - the memories formed as a child are probably best left undisturbed by the lens of oldfartness.

As I mentioned before, I did like the fantasy world and the mythological framework they presented.  I could look past the negatives and still enjoy the film, to some extent, as a whole vs. the sum of the parts. The parts themselves have their failings, but overall it wasn't that bad. Not as bad as some of the internet hate I've seen aimed at the film. 
If anything this film makes me curious to actually watch the animated series it is based on. I realize this has the potential of solidifying hate toward the film as I would have a context to compare the two, but if the animated world is as interesting as the live-action film makes it seem, it'd be worth it.

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