the last airbender reviewed, fans, & filling in the blanks

For Paul’s birthday, we had key-lime pie and a matinee showing of The Last Airbender.  And while I understand why people are complaining, especially anyone new to the story, it is not the awful, soul sucking event that the tidal wave of terrible reviews would have you believe.

The good:

1- The Last Airbender is gorgeous.  Often stunning.  At least, it is in 2D—I can’t speak for 3D because that ain’t what we saw.  But as far as I am concerned, this is the thing Shyamalan got totally right—the ovie looks right.  And it looks amazing. The world, the landscapes, the weird Fire Nation tech, the spirit world, the creatures like Appa and Mo-mo, the bending, all of this is beautiful, rich, bright, realistic, layered…gorgeous.  I don’t understand how anyone could be describing the look of it as boring or flat or generic.  Maybe the 3D really messed it up?

In addition to the content, the way the shots are composed is often beautiful.  I’m thinking, for example, of Aang summoning the tidal wave in the end, with him on the lower half of the screen on the wall and the water swirling above.  The dance-martial-art summoning of the bending is simply lovely.

2- Related to this, the action sequences are terrific. Again with the gorgeous.  Dancelike, graceful, especially Aang, which seems  right out of the show for me.  The action is often surprising, too, as a good action sequence should be.  As in the show, the different element fighters have distinct styles, with lots of fluid tai-chi-like movements for the water benders, dynamic and brutal movements for the fire benders, frontal assault slams from the earth benders, and Aang’s trickster-y, swirling airbender style.  Some have complained about too much slow-mo but I liked it—there is so much going on in each action sequence shot and so much of it so interesting, that I appreciated the slow downs just to let me take it all in.

3- Zuko and Iro rocked.  The Fire Nation prince and his uncle, are complex and sympathetic characters amidst difficult times and terrible pressures.  Well done.  Knowing Zuko’s phenomenal arc, I am totally interested in watching Dev Patel make that journey.

5- Noah Wringer was fine.  I cared about him.  He didn’t blow me away, his line delivery wasn’t fabulous, but his expressive face and beautiful movements carried a lot of the weight of his character and worked for me.  He looks just exactly like the cartoon Aang, too, if you ask me.

6- The flashbacks to Aang’s life with the monks were simply wonderful. They never failed to evoke smiles and delight from me.

The bad:

1- Kitara was awful. Whether it was the actress, the lines, or the direction, I can’t say.  Combo is my guess.  But I just started just wishing she would stop speaking altogether, which is pretty much what happened as the movie went on, and I was grateful, because every line delivery jerked me out of the story with its epic terribleness.  Which made me sad because I adore Kitara from the show.  Show-Kitara is strong, dynamic, a warrior, a powerful woman, smart, loving, inspirational.  Movie-Kitara seemed in a constant state of exaggerated surprise/fear/distress.  I have never seen acting that felt so much like pretending.  I never felt anything when she was on screen.  Basically, she was painful to watch, except when she was water bending, which was very pretty.  But Kitara should be at the heart of the story.  In fact, one could find ample evidence to show show-Kitara, over show-Aang, as the main protagonist of the story.  With movie-Kitara so broken, it’s hard for anyone to care about what is going on in the plot.

2- 80% of the lines are delivered as if they are Something of Terrible Importance, and this makes me want to bop people on the head after a while.  This is a continuation of #1 because Kitara suffered from this the most, but other actors fell into as well.  Or were they directed into it?  Was it a conscious, exaggerated style chosen for the movie that just didn’t work?  Dev Patel as Zuko was the only one who could pull it off.  Sokka and Aang suffered from this Terrible Significance, too, only not as badly, because they did have a few moments of more natural interactions, humor, etc.

3- The friendship and humor of Team Avatar—the community of the show—is missing. This is a painful loss because it is one of the best parts of the show.  But really, I can’t imagine how they could have captured a natural, easy, playful vibe with these three actors in the exagerated delivery they used (especially movie-Kitara.  Movie-Aang, movie-Sokka, and movie-Kitara did not work as real people.  What’s odd is that this feeling of friendly play is totally present in the Airbender Temple flashbacks with Aang and Monk Gyatso and the other students.  So Shyamalan can totally create these scenes.  Just not for our wonderful threesome.  Big sad face here.

4- The choppy story-line sucks. Honestly, this didn’t trouble me as much as you’d think because, knowing the source material so well, I found myself simply plugging in whatever was missing.  But it was bad.  Boom, we’re here.  Bang, we’re there.  Oh, now they’re in love.  Oh, now we’re having a Profound Moment. The whole finale section is really moving in the show—and if you haven’t seen the show, you may find that hard to believe, but it totally is, I was hanging on to my seat the first time I saw it, crying, the works—but the compressed story and quick-cut shorthand of the movie just couldn’t generate those feelings in me. If I wasn’t deeply familiar with the material, I probably would have been bewildered by what the heck was going on, what am I supposed to care about, who are these people, etc.

Which got me thinking about how forgiving, in a way, viewers/readers can be when a story really works for them on some level.  I mean, I found myself plugging in the missing bits, so happy to see these favorite scenes in such a gorgeous, live-action format, although aware that often the feelings I was having were largely borrowed emotions from the show.  But still, I was willing to skip over the bits that weren’t working to get at the parts that were.  I observe the same phenomena, say, in the other movie-rendition of popular source material in the theaters at the moment, “Eclipse.”  The fans of the Twilight Saga seem perfectly aware of the many flaws, problems, downright silliness, etc, of the books and the movies, and yet they are able and willing to skip over those bits in order to mine the veins that run through the Twilight material.  I mentioned in an earlier post that I am enjoying the podcast that Jennifer Crusie and Lucy March are doing, the Popcorn Dialogues, a deconstruction of romantic comedy in film.  A couple of weeks ago they did “The Philadelphia Story” and Lucy made the point that, although the movie was terribly flawed, she didn’t care, she was willing to sort of rewrite the broken bits in her head, in order to enjoy the parts she loved.  And she loved that movie, indefensible, in some ways, that it was.  “The Last Airbender” benefits, I think, from this phenomena.  I’m not saying this is a good thing, or a bad thing, exactly—just that it is inevitable in any story-retelling.

In a way, the movie came across to me as some really, really EXCELLENT fan art.  It did not tell the story of Book One: Water.  I do think it failed in this in any coherant way.  But what it did for this fan was gorgeously illustrate various scenes from Book One.  And because I love the show’s story, and because these live-action ‘illustrations’ were phenomenal, I really enjoyed the movie, and can easily imagine seeing it again.  But, perhaps illustrating a handful of the best scenes from the show and then filling in the transistions with voice over can never work.  Perhaps to really tell Book Two: Earth, well, you’d have to start from scratch, create new scenes by lifting out the bones of the story and giving them new flesh, to match the increased pace required by a movie.

Basically, as a fan, I was really excited to see various well-loved moments from the show brought to life, which speaks to how great the show is—the film benefits from the love of the story and the characters generated by the show.  A slosh over effect that Shyamalan undeniably is riding here.

Paul said, to hell with the critics.  He liked it.

Luc (4) said he liked all of it except that there was no penguin sledding, and Fire Lord Ozai didn’t have a beard and just didn’t look right.  And where was Roku?  Why was Roku’s dragon talking to Aang, instead of Roku himself?

Sophie (6) said Ozai didn’t look right.  He’s supposed to be the most powerful fire-bender but he didn’t look like a fire bender.  How could that guy jump across those rock towers [in the show]?  I don’t think he could do that.  And he wasn’t scary.  But I liked the movie.  Appa was cool!

I hope that Shyamalan gets another shot at this and gets to do the second movie.  I hope that he takes to heart the critiques he has received and, maybe, gets some strong writer to help him construct better dialog and smooth out the lumps in the pacing.  I hope he drops the info-dumps (or at least decreases them).  And I really hope the actress playing Kitara gets some major acting lessons and that they all drop that exaggerated line delivery thing.

I hope, I hope…

In sum: don’t listen to all the Shyamalan bashing.  The movie is flawed, yes, even broken in places, but if you’re a fan, you might not care.

3 thoughts on “the last airbender reviewed, fans, & filling in the blanks

  1. Shannon

    Thanks Maya,

    It is good to hear something other than just bashing. I know how excited you were because of the show that you loved. I was excited by Airbender because of Shyamalan. I love his work except for the last one with the plants, but even then it was interesting, not bad. I like him because he is always doing something different. Never the same. I also thought Airbender looked beautiful. Thank you for your thoughtful review of the movie. I am hoping my husband will read your post and we might get to see it then. We have to pick carefully our films as we don’t get to see one too often on the screen. Still, it looks like one to see on the screen just to get the full effect.


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