Let's not even dwell on M. Night Shyamalan's career. He used to make good movies. Now he makes terrible ones. And for some reason, studio executives at Paramount thought it would be wise to hand the reins of a potential franchise - and hundreds of millions of dollars - to the struggling director to make The Last Airbender.
Based on the hit Nickelodeon cartoon about a young boy who has the power to manipulate the four elements (air, earth, water and fire) and unite several mythical nations, The Last Airbender was anticipated to kick ass by many fan boys. Having never seen the show I can't speak to how closely the movie follows the series, but from what I've heard, Shyamalan butchered things real bad.
Plot points aside, The Last Airbender does suffer from extremely poor casting, writing and general look and feel. The cast features white people almost exclusively, which is strange given that the cartoon appears to be more suited for Asian actors. The choice of white actors wouldn't be so bad, however, if they actually were any good. The acting is all around pretty terrible (yes, even from the minorities), though this seems to be a trend with Shyamalan's movies of late (look what he did to Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel), first-time actor Noah Ringer plays the title character but spends most of his time looking like a wide-eyed little kid. The rest of the cast, including Twilight's Jackson Rathbone, look equally confused.
The acting suffers from questionable writing and bland character development. The characters jump from one situation to the next with little setup or transition; Shyamalan chooses to explain certain scenes with narrative, but often times it isn't clear what is motivating the characters to push forward.
The action is also disappointing. While Shyamalan utilizes some cool special effects and delivers some money scenes, his buildup to the action is often lacking. In a scene early on, the three leads convince a bunch of earth benders to retaliate against their fire bender captors. Shyamalan gives the sequence no teeth or buildup. It could have been an awesome defining scene, but instead it's nothing more than a forgettable action blip.
Frankly, Paramount should have set out to make the next Lord of the Rings. The elements are there, but the settings, visuals and everything else are cheesy when they should be serious and glossy when they should be gritty. Shyamalan just wasn't the right director to bring The Last Airbender to life.
All that said, The Last Airbender isn't the complete disaster I was expecting. It's a disaster, but a mindlessly harmless one.
If the franchise is to continue, I recommend firing Shyamalan and starting over from scratch. The Last Airbender could be an authentic trilogy, but only if managed by someone who knows how to handle a production of this size.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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