The Last Airbender is based on a Nickelodeon animated series called Avatar: The Last Airbender (A:TLA). The film adaptation omitted the word Avatar in deference to James Cameron’s billion dollar box-office monster of the same name. The TV show was popular in its three-season run from 2005 to 2008.
Unlike most children’s shows, which are episodic, Avatar is one three-season long story told in sixty-one episodes. The success of A:TLA surely must be at least partially attributed to the show’s appeal to both kids and parents. A:TLA was one of those rare shows that the family could sit down and enjoy together.
And so it was with anticipation of similar whole-family that we viewed M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender. The film is, in essence, a scaled-down retelling of the first season of the TV show. The plot is largely faithful to the main points of A:TLA Season 1, with all the character development and intrigue cut out due to make room for more angst and teenage brooding.
The acting is perhaps the worst you will see in a major-studio film of the 21st century. Honestly, the performances are more reminiscent of a local high-school rendition of Camelot than a multi-million dollar big studio production. Shyamalan’s films are known for their subdued tone and slow-paced dialog. That style just does not work well with the high-fantasy story line of The Last Airbender.
Perhaps Shyamalan was going for fantastic with the digitally-produced backgrounds, but instead they appear unrealistic and cartoony. The young actors heading the cast have an extremely difficult time interacting with non-existent object that would later be added by computer.
In any film adaptation of another medium, movie makers must walk a fine line being faithful to the source material while avoiding an unimaginative retread. The Last Airbender inexplicably changes the pronunciation of key characters names, replacing the short a in Aang and Avatar with ‘ah’, and pronouncing Sokka so that it rhymes with Soak-a instead of Sock-a. Sadly, those were the most imaginative changes in the entire film.