Wednesday, June 21, 2017

I'm going against popular opinion here and saying that M. Night Shyamalan's The Last Airbender is actually not terrible.

My friend Meg has a teenaged daughter that loves a Nickelodeon series called Avatar: The Last Airbender. I'd seen the movie, which mother and daughter both despised with vitriol that is seldom-seen unless talking about the atrocities of concentration camps in World War 2. Nevertheless, she and her mom convinced me that my life just wasn't complete until I saw the series (which is way better than the movie "The Last Airbender"). So I've been slowly making my way through it via Amazon, and to be honest, although it is enjoyable it's also really childish. And when I say childish...I mean it's really not all that good. Is it still watchable? Yes. But every episode clearly has a moral of the story to it, and because its Japanese animation the eyes and exaggerated emotions get kind of silly after a while.

So out of curiosity, I watched The Last Airbender again on television. This movie by M. Night Shyamalan almost killed his career. It is not a great movie by any means...but a career killer? I fail to see why people were so outraged that they literally spit on it. Sure, they cast a bunch of white people as Asian characters. However, this happens all of the time and has been happening for years. And for what the movie disregards in the form of silliness (for me) seems to streamline the story to make it more that more things are happening faster. In the cartoon, it takes forever for Aang to reach the water bending people. In the movie, it happens within the breadth of a couple of episodes.

I think if people could get past the liberal outrage of having white people play Asian characters, they could actually see that the effects and the work that went into the film qualify it to be an average film. Sure, it had aspirations to be this amazing blockbuster, but it made too many mistakes to ever qualify for that. This, I gladly caveat to the eviscerating critics of the movie.

I'm a little disappointed that we'll never get to see sequels to the movie. There were supposedly three that had been planned, and perhaps there would have been opportunities to include more of the things that people loved about the cartoon into those movies. But there's a part of me that wonders if anyone even understood why people went nutso over Avatar: The Last Airbender. Again, it's plot doesn't strike me as all that original in the vein of fantasy, and the incessant "smacking one over the head" with a moral was kind of annoying. Maybe kids just liked the cartoon because 1) kung fu has always been "cool," and 2) anything Japanese like "Hello Kitty" is also cool, and 3) combining kung fu with magic is somehow the most amazing thing ever.

Or maybe I'm just too jaded to see the sorcery at work here. Yeah, maybe that's it.


  1. I don't recall raving about this movie but I thought it interesting.

  2. First you say The Last Airbender cartoon isn't all that good. Then you defend a movie that sucked all the life from an amazing series. On this day, we have become enemies. :P

    Obviously it wasn't just kids that liked the series. I do agree that Aang acted like a silly child at the beginning and I remember being annoyed with him for much of the first season. That is part of the point. He's twelve years old when the show starts and is being asked to save the world. During the first season Aang struggles to accept his responsibility but the further you get into the series the more he's forced to grow beyond his years. It's heartbreaking which is why fans remember the innocence of the first season with more reverence than it probably deserves.

    If the movie had been released without the cartoon as a basis, no one would have cared about M. Night's end result. He didn't understand this movie needed the fun and magic you saw in the first Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings movies. What M Night delivered felt too gritty with bad acting. As I recall he got pulled in late so it is a bit understandable that he didn't have a firm grasp on the subject matter. Another problem was the studio wasn't prepared to spend enough money to do the story justice so I'm sure that constrained his writing. The biggest issue might be trying to tell a coherent story in an hour and a half based on a TV show that had eight hours.

    The better question for me is - Why did M Night get involved with this movie that seemed destined to fail in hindsight? You seem to forget his career had a downward arc long before The Last Airbender released. Sixth Sense and Unbroken were great but The Village, The Lady in the Water, and The Happening showed he'd lost his way and Hollywood didn't see him as a bankable director anymore. M Night took on this job for the same reason he took After Earth a couple of years later. Money. He wanted to work.

    I'm glad to see M Night is having a bit of a comeback and he recently hinted about a sequel to The Last Airbender but none of that makes his first attempt any better. You really should watch the entire series before making judgement as I'd be really surprised if you don't find yourself drawn in during Season 2. If you can watch "The Tales of Ba Sing Se" and not recognize the show's truly great writing, we will remain enemies forever. :)

    1. On a related note, you might like the 'Legend of Korra' more than The Last Airbender. It's set in the same universe only 70 years later. Technology has made rapid advancement and is challenging the power of benders giving the world a steam punk look. The main character is the new Avatar, a 17 year old waterbending girl who is being asked to hold the world together against all competing factions.

      This show removed much of the childishness of the first series preferring to focus on more adult themes. I liked it but I'm not sure the writers had a clear plan of their goal from the beginning. It is still well worth watching. I bet you will love the last scene of the show. Very bold for a show targeted at kids.

    2. You are too funny. Hey Kev, if you see this you should give me a call. We should catch up. I'd like to hear about how your move to Arizona went.

  3. I don't think this was a career killer if it hadn't been preceded by The Happening, Lady in the Water, and The Village. Studio execs don't have lots of patience when you lose their money.

  4. Eldest nephew loved the show. And I think he enjoyed the movie somewhat. He's now 11, so he was rather young when this was a thing. I think that's part of it. Just look at what kids go nutso over, and many times you'll wonder at their taste. But I think what they respond to is theme and mood, and it's something that hits them subconsciously.

    Anyway, I never did see the show, but eldest nephew had all the toys.

  5. What Pat said, though you can add After Earth to that list. And, actually, Signs. That's where he lost most people (even though I liked that one).

    Let me put it like this:
    My kids loved the anime and really wanted to see M. Night's movie, so I rented it for them. Not a single one of the three would sit through the movie because it was so bad. All three of them got up about half way through and refused to watch more of it. Kids. And they watched a lot of stupid stuff at that point but wouldn't watch Airbender.