The Last Airbender (2010) Movie Review

M. Night Shyamalan’s live-action “The Last Airbender” is the first part of a proposed trilogy, and is it ever obvious. As a result, there is no real conclusion, just a series of set-ups for something grander in the horizon. If, that is, the film proves profitable enough to warrant a sequel or two. Mind you, while this is a very real problem with the film, it’s not the only problem. If you did not know that Shyamalan had been slaving on the project for the last two years, you would be hard-pressed to guess that he not only wrote but also directed the film. This does not feel like a film from the same man who gave us “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable”. Then again, considering his more recent outputs, the egocentric “Lady in the Water” and the unintentionally hilarious “The Happening”, maybe “Airbender” won’t be that hard to associate with Shyamalan after all…

“The Last Airbender”, based on the Nickelodeon cartoon “Avatar: The Last Airbender” (the “Avatar” part was excised as not to confuse it with James Cameron’s film, though considering the titanic (get it?) box office of Cameron’s “Avatar”, that might not have been a wise move), comes with heavy baggage. The animated series is essentially a children’s action-adventure show with children heroes. Shyamalan has translated the original source as best he can, with newcomer Noah Ringer standing in for Aang, the franchise’s young hero. Aang is the latest in a long line of mythical Avatars, essentially the fictional land’s Beat Cop. When the film’s four individual nations – Earth, Water, Fire, and the Air Nomads – get a little too big for their britches, it’s the Avatar’s job to summon all the four elements at his disposal through the art of “bending” and whup some ass, thus maintaining “balance”.

Alas, it’s been 100 years since the last Avatar disappeared, and in that time the Fire Nation, led by the bellicose and (not so much) father of the year candidate Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis) have been terrorizing its neighbors. The Fire Nation, whose soldiers have the ability to bend fire – that is, control fire through, for lack of a better word, kung fu – have razed the land with their “machines”, a source of much derision among the other Nations. In the naturalistic, fantasy world of “The Last Airbender”, everyone lives in harmony with nature, so the Fire Nation’s clunky war machines are seen as instruments of brute, ugly violence and insults against the nature that everyone cherishes so much. It’s all very obvious and “sledgehammer to the face”, yet something else the film’s script has in common with Cameron’s film.

Into this world arrives young Aang, who is found frozen in ice by siblings Katara (Nicola Peltz, also our narrator) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), members of the over-powered and subjugated Southern Water Tribe. Aang doesn’t know it yet, but he soon discovers that he’s been frozen in ice for the last 100 years, and his presence has alerted young Fire Prince Zuko (Dev Patel, “Slumdog Millionaire”), who has been scouring the land all these years in search of the Avatar in order to find redemption and somehow get back into the good graces of dear old dad. Zuko is assisted by his kindly uncle Iroh (Shaun Toub), but is resisted by douchey Fire Commander Zhao (Aasif Mandvi), who spends the entire movie being evil and, well, more evil. If it isn’t obvious by now, subtlety is not exactly the strong point of “The Last Airbender”, and I’m afraid that’s just one of many issues the film can’t conquer.

It’s not so much that “The Last Airbender” is a bad movie, it’s just that … well, it just kind of exists for the sake of existing. I’ll be perfectly honest with you, I had a hard time trying to decide if the film is bad, or if it is just mediocre. One thing I can safely say with 100% certainty is that the film is never outstanding. Not once in the entire two hours. It’s as if M. Night Shyamalan spent so much time with the little things – getting all the details of the water city stronghold just right, the nooks and crannies of the Fire Nation ships, the colorful outfits of the various tribes — that he forgot to make the film good. Oh sure, the sets are huge and the CGI is always outstanding, and all the “bending” effects are seamlessly integrated into the scenes with the live characters, but … well, what else is there? Not much, I’m afraid.

I’m reminded of George Lucas’s “Star Wars” prequels. All three films were marvels of CG technology, and you absolutely knew, without a doubt, that Lucas wrote those films specifically so he could show off the newfangled technology he had come up with since “Return of the Jedi”, and not necessarily to tell a coherent, interesting, or even believable story. Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not demanding that “Star Wars” be believable. Likewise, I don’t care if “The Last Airbender’s” world is believable. There are guys using kung fu to throw fire, water, and dirt at each other? That sounds cool, I can dig it. Unfortunately, watching “The Last Airbender” I couldn’t shake the notion that this is what Shyamalan’s career should have started out with before he eventually matured into the man who gave us “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable”. In fact, he seems to be regressing as an effective storyteller, which is something he should be very worried about.

“The Last Airbender” is led by young Noah Ringer, a novice actor who was doing martial arts showcases in tournaments one day and fronting a big-budget Summer Event studio film the next. It’s one hell of an impossible situation for the kid (what was he supposed to do, turn it down?), and the young man gives it his all, but he’s no Dakota Fanning or Haley Joel Osment. Then again, I’m sure those two couldn’t throw down like Ringer, so that’s one thing he has over them. This is actually one of the few areas in the film where Shyamalan does well – he smartly keeps Ringer from having to shoulder the entire film, and has surrounded him with a large cast to share the workload. Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone have almost as much screentime as Ringer, and half of the film is devoted to the life and times of Dev Patel’s Zuko. It’s curious, but the film feels like two different movies – the tortured, adult story of Zuko’s quest, and the whimsical adventures of Aang, Katara, and Sokka.

“The Last Airbender” is not a terrible film, but it is a film that makes you wish Shyamalan had done more with the opportunity (not to mention the budget he had been given). And while it would have pissed off the diehard fans, it might have been wiser to cast an older Aang and made the film more than just a series of bloodless, mostly consequence-free CG combat. Despite the film’s talk of war and conquest, it’s never more than child’s play (the movie is rated PG), which seems justifiable given the film’s original source material. The big leap in faith here is that Shyamalan expects to be able to make parts two and three, and has given us a film that is only one-third of the whole story. The problem is that it feels very much like an incomplete movie, which might not have been such a bad thing if audiences are only asked to pay one-third of the ticket price to see it. Alas, that is not the case.

M. Night Shyamalan (director) / M. Night Shyamalan (screenplay)
CAST: Noah Ringer … Aang
Dev Patel … Prince Zuko
Nicola Peltz … Katara
Jackson Rathbone … Sokka
Shaun Toub … Uncle Iroh
Aasif Mandvi … Commander Zhao
Cliff Curtis … Fire Lord Ozai
Seychelle Gabriel … Princess Yue


Buy The Last Airbender on DVD



About Nix

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Editor/Writer at BeyondHollywood.com. Likes: long walks on the beach and Kevin Costner post-apocalyptic movies. Dislikes: 3D, shaky cam, and shaky cam in 3D. Got a site issue? Wanna submit Movie/TV news? Or to email me in regards to anything on the site, you can do so at nix (at) beyondhollywood.com.

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  • kidslovedit

    I took my ten and eight year old sons to the movie yesterday. They are big fans of the cartoon..They loved it and are hoping for more!! That made it great to me..Were looking forward to the sequels..

  • An Honest Fan

    Anybody who has taken his or her own time to watch the entire cartoon series knows that The Last Airbender was a complete upset. The storyline didn't follow that of the series and the director changed WAY too many essential elements that made me, as a kid, fall in love with the series. I was very unhappy with the changes he made, and I truly regret wasting my money on the movie! I wish I wasn't so big of a fan that I might waste my money on the second and potentially third movie, but I am willing to give the director and producers another chance. Please pull through for me! :)

  • Nate

    i mean he changed the names on purpose because it sounds much better and more fitting, also not really going to fit the tv show into a movie under two hours if he doesn't alter some of the plot. what makes me soooo angry is your comment along with everyone else that are claiming this movie to be horrific. its certainly not the best, but very entertaining.

  • hiphopmamashusband

    Man!! I got off work early for this Bro.. I needed them hours!! I stayed up late after my son begged me 2 cut an Ang style arrow N his head 4 this? After the movie, Me & my family had these looks on our faces, like we met the President & he farted in the room. The acting was so slow… What where they waiting on?? The script lady 2 feed them lines?!!! Example: Aung!!!………………………….. We have to go!! What???????Hi Zuko!! B4 U slap me with fire up against a tree, first….. let me tell U who I am… Where I'm from… my social security number… & my mama's maiden name……….
    The only 2 people that earned my respect was Uncle Iro & the Princess. Well….. I did like Ang….. Until he starts acting. All in All I'll give Books 2 & 3 a chance cause I'm going to hollywood to slap M. Knight & make sure he makes Books 2 & 3 are good!! Cause I'll be there on the set with some MMA Gloves on. C' Mon M. Knight! U can do better!!

    • Anonymous

      Why the hell would you cut an ang style arrow into your suns head?

  • Rob

    To the creators of the avatar the last airbender please do not let M.” fuck the movie up” Shalawhatever write, produce, or direct the next two movies. It hurt to the heart to see this man fuck up another movie. Man did he even watch the series!!! My family of five all agreed that he rushed the story. Bad effects on the bending. For all that money they should have done the whole thing in cg. They messed up Dragonball now this how could he blow this but what do you expect from him…..

  • HUGEavatarFAN

    in fact im watching seige of the north right now on avatar. BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT OF MY LIFE. i just turned 16 two days ago and my brother and i are huge fans of the show and he took me for my birthday. the movie was terrible, it was rushed, horrible horrible dialog. Their attempts for comedy was epic failure. i heard talk before seeing this film that it was bad, but being the optimistic person that i am, i went anyway to give it a chance. my brother and i understood that changes were to be made because it was a film version of the show, but seriously dude????….why change the name pronunciations and character development. if there are books 2 and 3 to be made, i hope they exceed book 1: water. toph is my favorite character and i swear to GOSH that if they mess her up im slappin someone. one good note i can say is that the special effects and fighting scenes were good and sexy jackson rathbone from twilight was in it(lol). that's it. okay, let me stop talking, my angry is getting the best of me…

  • HUGEavatarFAN

    *anger

  • Gr5150

    When I first saw the trailer to the movie last I was like f'ing cool and then at the end I see M. Night Shaymalan. My first thought was ” Oh no”. Seems I was right.

  • http://twitter.com/Musiqlova247 Brittany Johnson

    I am purely upset of the hype this movie put out… and the actual content this movie had. I am a huge fan of the cartoon and I understand that movies that are based off cartoons..books…etc will be Hollywood'd but seriously.
    For one… everyone was a bit to serious in this movie. I mean not one joke was said.
    Sokka for one, in the cartoon he is the one that breaks the intenseness between the group and for the audience. He was way more concern about keeping Katara safe and trying to stay away from trouble. In the movie you notice he wants to actually dive right into the action and help Aang, which in the cartoon this is Katara's roll.. not Sokka's. Also Zuko's Uncle… I'm was more concern about his personality than his appearance. Where is the listen to my fortune cookies and have tea Uncle?? And Aang. Who is this person they have chosen? His personality is gone out the window also! Aang is known for his childish behavior and silly jokes. Honestly did everyone in this movie have to be so uptight?!

    Now, about this wanna be 3D movie. What kind of joke is that?! What part of this movie was 3D. The previews was more stunning than this! The most I remember being 3D was the three water balls Katara bend and they didn't even come at us.. they just kinda sat there. Also, the subtext, telling us the locations. That was the entire career of the 3D movie. At one point of the movie a friend of mine took the glasses off, I should have done the same.

    Lets move off that shall we? Beinging someone who watched the cartoon.. at the Northern Water Tribe battle scene, I remember Aang turn'd into this huge blue like thing that destroyed everything. Not waves.
    And the dragon.. I believe he past live(s) talked to him… not the dragon, when he asked for advice.

    In the cartoon Fire Lord Ozai, Father of Zuko, he was persevered to be an all mighty ..well Lord. The cartoon did not show the character face so often giving viewers the chance of imagination time. He just seem'd like 'one of the guys' to me. Hollywood fails. Also the scar Zuko's father gave him, where was it?! OH… that dot on his face?? To be an almighty fire bender.. his father sure does give his son a soft punch. And while I'm on bending.. whats going on with Katara. I know she sucks at water bending at the beginning.. but the movie shows no improvement until she has to fight Zuko. In the cartoon Katara is teaching Aang tricks.. not barely making it herself. And im going to back track a bit. When Katara and Aang have the water bending scroll and begin practicing at the lake.. I believe in the cartoon he and Katara are kinda stuck together. Even thought Katara shows Aang the little she does know Aang gets a hang of it rather quickly. The movie basically says.. he sucks because hes just so upset right now… he'll try again later. Katara actually gets jealous for the first time because of Aang's talents. Hollywood fail.

    I won't bash on the actual actors because hey.. they had to work with… well with what they had. But I had to go back… lets get personalities down please!

    Oh and one other thing. Before making a movie about a cartoon…lets watch it first okay? Because throughout the entire movie you have actors and actresses mispronouncing characters names!

    Overall this movie sucks for those who have watched the cartoon and compared it to the movie. This movie is probably pretty good for viewers who have never even seen/heard of the cartoon series. But honestly.. most people that saw Wolverine are Marvel fans. Most people who saw Avatar the movie.. are fans of the cartoon.

    Big ups to those in the special effects department of this movie. And that is all.

  • Big Iroh Fan Guy!

    Ok here is the truthful long and short of it. I was am and will remain a very big fan of the Animated series. If you have seen the cartoon, then you will keep up with this movie perfectly, parts of it are fast paced for those who dont know the storyline. The acting from Dev Patel is a shining testiment to his skill, because his counter part, Noah something who played aang, is just too young and unaware to be on screen, he didnt know what he was doing. The CGI was amazing, the story line does its best to hold true. Iroh is amazing, Zhao is the perfect mix of crazy and genious, Yue and Sokka are well played by their actress/actor. Recast the main role, slow the story down a bit, and speed up the bending fights, and you could have a good sequal there bud