"The Last Airbender" is a sad, sad, sad, sad piece of filmmaking that honestly should never have happened.
I mean, with a foundation as solid as the "Avatar" cartoon, how hard do you have to work and how far out of your way do you need to go to completely fuck it up? Now, granted it's not the worst movie EVER-- that still belongs to any one of the Star Wars prequels-- but the thing is that it's probably the 'best' recent example of a promising film being hijacked by an egotistical director, a smart and well-made children's series being reduced to a lowest-common-denominator prospective moneymaker, and a signpost of the depressing state of children's films in general
that aren't made by Pixar.
Honestly, I really have no idea where exactly to start with this.
"Airbender" is just trying too hard to shove too much into too short a time. For supposedly being the starting point of a big franchise, it feels less like a first act as it does a re-enactment of a clip episode stretched out to just barely over an hour-and-a-half. And that's not even considering the bizarre casting, the lousy fighting, the painful dialogue and that just about everything feels WRONG in the way things do when you realize you're in the middle of a really bad acid trip.
So on that horrifying note, let's just get right into this, shall we?
1) The Casting
First off, let's talk about the great big albino elephant in the room, the one that put this movie under so much scrutiny in the first place-- the issue of so-called 'whitewashing.'
While "Avatar" is indeed set in a mystical fantasy world that doesn't exist and never will, like most alternate universes it's rooted in something we can tie directly to our own, or at least relate to in some way. Similarly to how The Lord of the Rings is established in a world with a foundation in Arthurian/Norse themes and archetypes that's like our world but not, "Avatar" is set in a world seeped to the brim in Eastern mythology. From clothing inspired by different periods in East-Asian history
to various figures of myth
all the way down to the calligraphy plainly visible and accurate in just about any episode
Hell, this also accounts strongly for the very look of the show itself-- unlike other Western cartoons (such as Teen Titans or Totally Spies) that ape the 'anime aesthetic' for no real reason other than for the sake of aping it, it makes sense for it to look like an anime because it's so focused on capturing that particular sense of culture and design philosophy.
So when director M. Night Shyamalan announced his casting of the film,
Not to mention his remarks later on
-M. Night Shyamalan, in an interview w/ K. Gadette and E. Rowley for indiemoviesonline.com, July 7 2010
First off, as mentioned already the "Avatar" universe is as 'culturally/aesthetically ambiguous' as that OTHER "Avatar" movie had a subtle environmentalist message-- sure, something can be said about how people can see themselves in the characters regardless of background, but this ultimately has less to do with appearance as it does with the fact that they're well-written and relatable characters. Odds are most of us have known a Sokka or two that wasn't Inuit/Mongolian, or felt like Zuko despite not having a disfiguring third-degree facial burn and a megolomanical father.
So it might seem like it doesn't matter after all, but instead it proves that diversity is not an obstacle to a well-told story, despite what Hollywood is often inclined to think. While there are some fantasy worlds set in universes so clearly out-there that they do become 'ambiguous,' it's more important to pay attention and not apply the same mindset to EVERY fantasy world, especially where they have gone out of their way to make it as clearly rooted in a particular culture as possible.
The second thing to consider here is that the usual "best actor for the job" soundbite comes off as more than a little insincere the more attention you pay to it.
The "Prince of Persia" film from earlier this summer came under fire for similar reasons, and while casting mostly white people in the primary roles is definitely unfortunate, it still makes sense in an obnoxiously mercantile way-- Jake Gyllenhall is a big name, and big names sell tickets, and tickets are necessary to sell in order for it to become a franchise and make more money.
This isn't the case with "Last Airbender," in which nearly all of the primary roles are played by child actors, and by the nebulous nature of the profession child actors tend to be mostly unknowns (with a handful of exceptions). So going out of the way to lean your casting call towards white unknowns when there are plenty of children of color who are just as unknown being ignored ultimately feels like not just a missed opportunity but a reinforcement of an outdated Hollywood mindset: Whites are the target audience and they can only relate to other whites.
There might be the occasional bone tossed to pull in other ethnic groups
or to placate a vocal faction of protestors
Some people have argued that since several of the primary characters were actually played by whites in the show,
that whites portraying them in the live-action film shouldn't be as big a deal as it's become, but this argument doesn't hold much water considering that voice-acting is a rather different discipline to acting in person.
See, in voice-acting the most important thing is how well you can capture the essence of a character-- their emotions, reactions, etcetera-- using just that, your voice. Sometimes it's important for them to look the part too, as they can play an integral role in character design, or sometimes you're just picking someone for a celebrity voice hoping that it'll draw attention to an utterly generic animated movie, but ultimately voicework is probably the closest thing we have to an 'evened playing field' as far as 'who deserves the part' the most, and everything from color to attractiveness and even gender becomes irrelevant-- black people can play white people
middle-aged women can play young boys,
And Tim Allen can actually give a performance that doesn't involve grunting like an idiot.
I mean, most of us are at least vaguely familiar with Inuit culture, or learned about it at some point right? So what exactly does the film gain by honestly trying to convince us that the people living in an Arctic culture are all somehow whiter than the snow they live on?
Sorry, Shyamalan, but the "it's a fantasy world so just accept it" argument only goes so far, and if you try to use that as your only defense people are going to hate your movie. Which brings us to
2) Screw You ShyamalamabanananafofanamemimoOH FUCK IT
M. Night Shyamalan should not have made this movie. That we can agree on, but not for the reason you're probably thinking. See, Shyamalan can (or somewhere deep down in his cold obsidian heart, he still can) make good movies, history's proven that to be the case, and sometimes-- not all the time, but sometimes-- a director of one type of film can bring a new approach to an entirely different genre and actually improve it for the better.
Irvin Kershner was a confident director of offbeat, indie-flavored character dramas, but he ended up making the excellent "The Empire Strikes Back" as good as it was not because he treated an arch-genre sci-fantasy film as something completely different altogether, but by bringing his understanding of character development and storytelling and integrating it into what was already there.
Alfonso Cuaron, then of raunchy arthouse coming-of-age "Y Tu Mama Tambien" fame was cast with more than a few skeptical glances when called upon to bring the third Harry Potter book to the big screen, but his smart and frank approach to adolescent interactions and atmosphere helped "Prisoner of Azkaban" to prove that there were great movies to be made of the franchise and not just the rote cynical adaptations that had been made up to that point.
Hell, even Christopher Nolan-- an afficionado of head-twisting, structure-defying thrillers-- ended up making one of the best superhero films of all time by plumbing the thematic depths of the "Batman" universe.
Shymalan's films up to this point (outside of the gimmicky 'twist' trademark) are primarily slow-building, character-oriented thrillers in the tradition of Hitchcock and Polanski and given a genre-film wrapping-- "Sixth Sense" was a modern ghost-story, "Unbreakable" was a superhero origin tale stripped of its cliches and anti-realistic trappings, and "Signs" was "The War of the Worlds" tightened down to a small indie theatre-size cast.
Now regardless of whether his 'twists' work or not, in order for the movies THEMSELVES to be effective in this style, the director has to have a strong understanding of Atmosphere, Pacing, Indirect Storytelling and Characterization-- and all of Shyamalan's major works make it clear that he 'gets' these things. Even in his weaker films (some of) these hallmarks of the genre are clear (with "The Village" probably being the last halfway-decent one up until the absurd reveal), the things holding them back from being even 'good' pretty much boiling down to his progressively awful writing and bizarre egotism.
But then, who's gonna challenge Shyamalan at this point? After the critical/commercial honeymoon went awkward in "Village" he probably got rid of all the people who questioned him creatively, and as we've seen too often an ego-driven director can be a good thing for some movies, but akin to a human train-wreck when in a slump.
But coming back to those essential things I mentioned before, let's consider this: doesn't a filmography displaying a working knowledge of Atmosphere, Pacing, Indirect Storytelling and Characterization sound like the traits of EXACTLY the type of director you'd want bringing "Avatar" to the big screen, and doesn't it seem like this is EXACTLY the type of person who would at least be able to translate these aspects of the show into a cohesive narrative, especially since the guy is no stranger to genre film?
...So why the hell is "Last Airbender" joyless, confusing, overly expository and soul-crushingly BORING despite being stuffed to the gills with plot and solid-enough martial arts? Ironically, because the way all four of these principles are so completely broken as the film progresses.
Truth is, It's not even really bad in a reliably 'Shyamalan' way-- even in crap like "The Happening" the dialogue was at least passable in a clutching-at-straws-B-movie way and it was really the concept and plotting that killed the film-- it's bad in some completely uncharacteristic, brand-new-Shyamalan-fail kinda way.
Well, an adaptation like this clearly doesn't just spring out of the ether-- it has to be worked at tenaciously, the same way that any other filmmaker would work to make something good. Thus, exhaustive analysis is clearly the only way to go with this.
So I'll be taking apart "Last Airbender" on these four principles, with smaller subcategories to each one (let's call them... ELEMENTS, shall we?)-- Pacing, Atmosphere, Storytelling and Characterization-- with copious comparisons to other films as well.
And hopefully by taking a deeper look at what makes "Last Airbender" tick, we can all find closure.
Or come up with a a solid defense for "Avatards v. Shyamalan" before it gets immediately tossed out of court. Whichever.
(onward to part two!)