Film Review: The Last Airbender

Young superhero battles enemy nation in a rickety live-action adaptation of a Nickelodeon animated series.

Based on a Nickelodeon cartoon that started in 2005, The Last Airbender is an attempt to establish a martial-arts/fantasy franchise for younger viewers. Undistinguished on every level, the film rehashes genre clichés in a style that is both painless and instantly forgettable. Box-office prospects look grim, even with inflated 3D ticket prices.

Originally titled “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” the Nickelodeon series was a pastiche of anime and Hong Kong action, with an emphasis on kung fu fights and ersatz mysticism. The film condenses the plot of the first season, during which an Avatar named Aang (Noah Ringer) spearheads a rebel campaign to defeat the Fire Nation. Aang's skills are limited at first to controlling air, but as Avatar he can learn to master all four elements, including earth and fire. If he lives long enough, that is.

Aang is sought by evil Fire Nation minions, including disgraced prince Zuko (Dev Patel), military commander Zhao (Aasif Mandvi) and the tyrant Ozai (Cliff Curtis). Protecting him is Katara (Nicola Peltz), who has the ability to control water. Also helping are Katara's brother Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) and Yue (Seychelle Gabriel), a water kingdom princess with the magical ability to commune with a moon spirit found inside a fish. As in the series, Aang has a pet flying lemur who appears here infrequently, and Appa, a giant, flying bison who more closely resembles a Maurice Sendak creation.

After a lot of background filler, the plot leads to a confrontation between Aang and Fire Nation soldiers who want to throw the world out of balance by destroying the spirits of yin and yang. The sensibility is distinctly Buddhist, with endless talk of sacrifice and reincarnation. In fact, as Zhou points out to his fighters, it makes no sense to kill Aang, because he will just come back as another Avatar.

In the end, not much is at stake in The Last Airbender. Not only is the spirit of the Avatar immortal, but the PG rating means there are very few casualties on either side, despite the bombs and combat. And the ending does more to set up a sequel than to find a satisfying ending to the story.

The Last Airbender takes place in a pre-industrial fantasy world that ranges from armadas of steamships to mud huts and people in loincloths. Some of the visual ideas are striking, but they are not used with much imagination. Like the recent Clash of the Titans remake, the film was retrofitted with 3D. Facial features are distorted in several close-ups; otherwise, almost nothing is gained in the process.

Writer-director M. Night Shyamalan takes the same approach to the fantasy–action genre as he has to horror and suspense: slow and ponderous. The martial-arts fights feel heavy instead of fleet and airborne, and the heroes show no delight in their powers. Fans of the cartoon series may overlook The Last Airbender's flaws, but others will have little use for a watered-down Narnia with Lord of the Rings pretensions.