In 1998, M. Night Shymalan dazzled audiences with his creepy, well-crafted The Sixth Sense. Since then, his films have been a mixed bag ranging from his comic book inspired follow-up Unbreakable to his wonderfully frightening Signs to the less-than-happening The Happening. One thing that is consistent is his skill at crafting a detailed story and bringing his vision to the screen. In his latest film, The Last Airbender, Shymalan has taken the “Avatar” brand and created a detailed fantasy that is family friendly and filled with Shymalan’s moody setting.
Revolving around the disappearance of the Avatar, the one being who is able to communicate with the spirit world. In this world of four elements (Fire, Water, Earth and Air) it is the spirits who guide the Air Nomads in their lives. The Avatar, reincarnated as the young Airbender Aang is overwhelmed with the thought of being the Avatar and runs away. He has been missing for 100 years and the now dominant Fire Nation, led by Lord Ozai is on the attack hoping to eradicate all other Benders who can harness their native elements. Katarra and Sokka, siblings who discover and aid Aang in his return to his responsibilities must face not only Lord Ozai, but his exiled son Prince Zuko.
The story is a classic of fantasy realm ideology with good versus evil, but in this case evil comes from two sides with the Fire Lord looking to keep Aang from obtaining the ability to harness the other elements of Water, Earth and Fire (killing Aang would be futile as he would only be reincarnated and return in another form) and Prince Zuko who hopes to capture Aang in an attempt to get into his father’s good graces again. It is filled with action, splendid visual backdrops and some lovely fluid tai-chi inspired movements that represent how each bender harnesses their power.
What’s missing is the emotional core of a great epic fantasy. It’s difficult to care about these characters and their inner and outer struggles. Most interesting is the actor Dev Patel as Zuko who is certainly “bad” enough, but gives his character weight as he tries to balance his villainous ways with his yearning to be back home and gain approval from his father. As the Avatar, Noah Ringer is charming, but even his character falls flat at times. Even the talented Aasif Mandvi as Commander Zhao seems to struggle to bring dimension to his role.
The good news about the Last Airbender is that youngsters looking for their own version of the summer epic will be enthralled (and parents won’t mind sitting in the air conditioning for its hour and 43 minutes–or two hours if you include the trailers.) The not-so-good news is that the film doesn’t distinguish itself from other made from cartoon adaptations and can be best viewed on DVD when looking to kill a bit time on a Saturday afternoon.
Rating: 2 out of 5