Who would have thought to take a goofy anime made by white people about a bald kid with a magical construction sign tattooed on his head, give it a dark spin, a multi-million dollar special effects budget, and have M. Night Shyamalan direct it? If someone told me that before I would have puked in a bucket and thrown it at whoever pitched it to me. Though it seems I would have had that same shame-filled puke bucket thrown right back at me, because that idea turns out to be pretty decent looking on screen.
The world of Airbender is divided between 4 major races, each based on an element- earth, fire, water, and air. And no, unlike in Captain Planet, heart doesn’t count. Our hero Aang (Noah Ringer) is the last of a race of Airbenders, and it turns out he’s also to inherit the role of the Avatar and become the lone person to have the power to control not only his own element, but all three others. Oh, Aang not only has the power to control all four of the elements, but he can apparently trip balls and talk to dragons. However, with sweet-ass power comes bitter-sweet responsibility, as well as people wanting to kill yo’ ass all the time.
Disgraced Prince Zuko (Dev Patel of Slumdog fame) is vying to regain his place as leader of the Fire Nation, a tribe of industrial minded, power-hungry, war mongers who are none too pleased with this Aang kid cramping their plans for world domination. Katara (Nicola Peltz) and her more useless brother Sokka (Jackson Rathbone of unfortunate Twilight fame) are from the waterbending tribe and act as the plucky sidekick duo and pals to our hero Aang. There are also some earthbenders, but they aren’t that important.
The movie is based on the Nickelodeon cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender, and is not to be confused with the recent trivial billion dollar blockbuster that squeaked in there and snapped up the name. While it doesn’t feature the same brightness, comedy and goofiness that can be found in the original series, this faithful reconstitution of the show brings the tale to a wider audience while still showing respect to the fans of old. Shyamalan successfully stays to the show’s storyline, curtailing its side-plots in order to shrink it down to feature-length.
Teaming up with Industrial Light and Magic, Shyamalan, and visual effects supervisor Pablo Helman, made sure that if they were going to do a film about people with the power to control the elements, it was going to look fucking bad ass. In many ways, the visual effects are as much a part of the story as the actors. For being based on a Saturday morning cartoon, the level of realism brought to the film visually is mind blowing. I mean, seriously, there’s a six-legged flying albino water buffalo with a beaver tail and it looked like something that looked believable. Yeah, it’s that good.
ILM had to develop both new hardware and new software to create the “bending” effects. I’ve long been impressed with the visual work they’ve done in the past, and as always, they have pushed the limits to a new frontier. Creating water and fire has always been a daunting pain in the VFX ass, but ILM tackled the task delivering jaw dropping results. There were parts I had seen in studio at ILM during a sneak preview visit during production, like when Aang jumps off the boat and rides his kite and when he is fighting alongside the Blue Demon, and I KNEW that they were CG and seeing them on screen, they looked seamless.
One of the drawbacks of the film was the acting. At times, as a viewer you are made painfully aware that until a month before the film started shooting, 12 year old Ringer was not an actor, just a badass kid who knows Taekwondo and could easily kick my fat ass. I guess when you need a team of children who can handle performing fast-paced advanced martial arts action, you are going to have to accept some sacrifices in their ability to perform as actors. Character development I felt was kept to a minimum. I would have enjoyed to see a bit more done with it.
So you may be asking, what’s the signature Shyamalan gimmick “oh snap!” plot twist this time round? Nothing. There is none. Shyamalan breaks his reputation as the twist trick-pony prince and delivers a film that holds up as a story from start to finish. In doing so, perhaps delivering the biggest surprise to his audience yet.
-Jonathan Yost & Laura Gaddy