I-I don’t know where to start. I’m not sure what to say. This movie was awful on every single level. I enjoyed Scooby Doo more and I love love love Scooby Doo and hate that live-action atrocity (although the sequel was better; not that was a difficult feat to accomplish). I had read reviews of The Last Airbender and I knew it was bad. The director is universally panned as awful. The fact he wrote the damn thing doesn’t help a bit. I just… I don’t… ARGH!!!! Nearly every single decision that went into this movie was wrong. The direction was wrong. The script was wrong. The editing was wrong. The casting was poor. The special effects were shockingly bad. The adaptation was wrong. I mean, wow, this is a special kind of hurt indeed. So rarely does incompetence, poor execution, a lack of imagination, and a lack of any decent adaptation of wonderful source material come together in such a soul-crushingly awful package. Scooby Doo was bad I think because zero [expletive]s were given for something that was supposed to be disposable. But this was supposed to be the first of a trilogy and everything is so wrong I can’t help but wonder if there was deliberate, malicious intent to screw this up so very badly. This is “One More Day” level of wrong-headed decisions.
I have watched the entire series of “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” I think it is one of the best television shows (animated or otherwise) I have ever seen. It was well-written, well-thought out, beautifully animated, wonderfully acted, and the arcs were nearly perfectly timed and executed. All the characters were relatable and genuine. Their growth was believable. My favorite character was probably Sokka, who was the resident bad-ass normal and deadpan snarker (which I’m sure surprises no one). I was also quite fond of Toph. This series was far too tempting for Hollywood to pass up a live-action, big screen adaptation. This should have also been easy to adapt to a trilogy (as Hollywood loves those so much) since there were three seasons of the show. Sure, adapting 20 episodes (10 hours) of story per season into a two hour movie isn’t necessarily easy, but it’s certainly not impossible. A half-way competent crew could have made something highly enjoyable if not close to amazing. A talented crew could have made something spectacular. But that is not what happened. Oh, no, not even close. This is a Bat-credit card. It is that insulting.
I’m not even sure where to start with the hurt. Trying to organize my thoughts causes such pain I lose focus and stare at the screen… Right, there I go again. I have a hard time looking at this movie as something separate from the television show it was purportedly adapted from. If I were not a fan of the show, I don’t think this movie would have caused me so much pain. Heck, perhaps I could have even put it in the “so bad it’s good” category. So pardon me if I do make references to the show, because in my mind, I can’t separate the source from the hideous cinematic spawn.
I’m going to start with something that seems small, but I think encapsulates so perfectly what went so horribly wrong. Every character’s name, with the exception of a few, was pronounced incorrectly. Even the word “avatar” was not pronounced correctly. Generally, “avatar” is said with a “short a” sound like “act.” In the movie, it seemed all the actors were told to try to affect a British accent, and so the “short a” sounded more like “aw,” as in “August.” The name of the lead character, Aang, is pronounced with a “long a” sound like “acorn.” The actors in the movie, still getting their British on, pronounced the name with that “aw” sound again so it was more like “Awn-g.” Sokka with a “short o” was changed to “Soak-a” with a “long o.” Iroh with a “long i” was changed to “Er-roh.” I mean, what the hell? This absolutely had to be deliberate, as though the director was making the statement that this movie was not the television show. Believe me, no one was fooled into thinking this piece of garbage had much to do with the television show.
After what I can only assume was a deliberate choice to pronounce the names incorrectly, how could I have expected the rest of the movie to be better? The special effects were awful. I haven’t seen such a badly animated CG animal since, well, Scooby Doo. The sky bison looked best in the scene in which it was lying motionless in the snow. Oh, and the bending. The characters use martial arts style moves to control the four elements (fire, earth, water, air). Comic books might use the term pyrokinesis or geoforce or something, but the idea is the same – awesome powers! This movie had a huge budget and yet the bending falls flat. Fire looks cheaply animated and water doesn’t look like water. Ugh. Also, just one more little quibble about the special effects, just a tiny thing that really surprised me in a big-budget movie, but I could see the actors were standing in front of a GREEN SCREEN! I mean, wow, it has been a long, long time since I saw a movie with such a high budget that couldn’t even pull off a simple green screen effect.
Special effects aside, the direction was just terrible. I know child actors have a reputation for not being very good, and these weren’t, but I’m inclined to be a bit generous because the direction was so terrible in pretty much every other aspect I am certain these kids are not as bad as they came across in this movie (but they are bad). Aang was pouting in every scene, Katara sounded like she’d just run a few laps and thus all her dialogue was delivered with her sounding out of breath (or possibly this was supposed to be anxious), and Sokka was channeling Hayden Christensen as Anakin Skywalker. Because when you think funny guy with witty one-liners, you think Anakin Skywalker… (then again, the actor was last seen by me playing a sparkly vampire with a disappearing/reappearing southern accent, so what could I expect?). The only decent actors were Zuko, Iroh, and the Daily Show guy, or Commander Zhao (or the Pizza Guy in Spider-man 2). Zuko, by the way, was not nearly hard-ass enough. Dante Basco provided the voice in the series and wanted to play the character in the movie, and I know he would have done a great job because he’s already played a teenaged bad-ass. Perhaps its best he wasn’t in this movie as I think the direction was to downplay Zuko’s tough exterior for reasons I clearly don’t begin to understand. Then again, there’s a LOT about the direction of this movie I clearly don’t begin to understand.
Editing was poor, at best, as many scenes were too dark or oddly lit, and the fight scenes looked clumsy and the pacing was slow. So many subplots were cut out and odd bits left in. Honestly, though, the worst part of this whole thing and what made me just want to weep is that there was so little imagination and emotion. There was little true dialogue; most of the spoken words were just exposition. Without dialogue, no one cares about exposition. Without emotion, no one cares about the story. And while the bending looked terrible it was also boring. It took six earthbenders about seventeen moves to throw one tiny rock at a guard.
I have to sigh in frustration here. I am a comic book fan, and I play a lot of role-playing games (both table-top and computer). I love fantasy as a genre. I’ve also seen the television show. But here’s the thing – when I watched the show, my thought watching the bending was, “Yes! This is always how I imagined this could be!” I already had an idea in my mind of how awesome those kind of powers could be. Maybe this is due to my exposure to these fantasy media.
But this movie completely lacked imagination as far as the spectacle that bending should be. The earthbenders threw rocks and made a rock wall. A little bit. Katara got someone wet, once. Aang blew a guy away. The slowness of executing any move just made the lack of imagination even more glaring. For anyone who hasn’t seen the show, please check out these links – this is Aang fighting a master 112-year old earthbender, and this is a 12 year-old blind earthbender fighting a bunch of other wrestlers. Just one single earthbender. But in the movie it takes six earthbenders a full thirty seconds to throw a rock one of them could have just hurled with his arm. Even if the director/writer had none of my shared background, he could have just watched the show to realize how it was done. Hell, the opening credits for the movie are almost shot for shot the same as the show! There is really no excuse for how this turned out.
Ultimately I feel this movie could not have been more insulting to the source material, and that is a damn shame all around.