By both critical and commercial measures, live-action anime adaptations boast a record of futility second perhaps only to videogame adaptations. Some essential aspect of the source material is irretrievably lost during the process of translating Japanese cartoon to Hollywood tentpole, something that even the most bloated visual effects budget can’t conceal. Think Dragonball Evolution and Speed Racer.
And yet, Hollywood keeps trying, lured by tantalizing visions of cash-cow franchises fed by loyal, built-in — and most importantly, international — audiences. The latest casualty of this misguided ambition is The Last Airbender, based on the hit Nickelodeon series Avatar: The Last Airbender. To be fair, Avatar isn’t anime in the orthodox sense, in that it was conceived and produced in the States, but its style and soul are almost exclusively anime-inspired. As such, its big-screen fate is similarly sealed.
Who could possibly break such a rueful trend? For some reason, the minds at Paramount thought M. Night Shyamalan, that notorious purveyor of ponderous and increasingly shlocky supernatural thrillers, might succeed where so many other directors had failed. Even worse, they saw fit to hire him to pen the screenplay as well, ensuring that every vital aspect of the film would feel the crushing weight of his heavy hand. With such a hacky burden to bear, it comes as no surprise that The Last Airbender never really takes flight.
The film’s story is set in a world divided into four tribes, each aligned to an element: Air, Earth, Water, and Fire. Certain gifted tribe members, known as a “benders,” can manipulate the properties of their assigned element to suit their ends. In order to do so, they must first perform an elaborate and utterly ridiculous kung fu dance, after which a torrent of fire, water, or whatever arises to obey their command.
For the better part of a century, the oppressive and warlike Firebenders have besieged the other nations, gradually thinning their respective ranks. The Air Nomads have faired the worst of the lot, and are presumed to be extinct until Water peeps Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) discover a boy named Aang (Noah Ringer) trapped in a giant ball of ice. Not only is Unfrozen Kung Fu Warrior the last remaining Airbender (thus the title) he is also an Avatar, the only being on the planet capable of wielding all four elements. And only he can bring an end to the Firebenders’ evil reign.
Blessed with an opportunity to reinvent himself in a new genre and with a new demographic, Shyamalan can’t avoid falling back on old habits, most notably his penchant for awkward and cumbersome dialogue. It’s difficult enough for adults to deliver his lines, but it’s absolute hell for The Last Airbender’s youthful protagonists, whose not yet fully-developed temporal lobes can’t hope to adequately process the inanities of Shyamalan-speak. One can almost see the smoke coming from little Noah’s ears as he labors to complete each portentous sentence. Poor kid. Where are the Child Labor people when you need them?
But bad dialogue is only one of a litany of problems that plagues The Last Airbender, which suffers from mediocre CGI, inexplicable casting decisions (caucasians actors, none of whom are especially talented, are tabbed for asian roles when sufficiently mediocre race-appropriate actors were surely available), and a plot comprehensible only to the most ardent fans of the Nickelodeon series. Much as Aang bends the air, Shyamalan tries to bend the laws of quality cinema to his will, but they refuse to yield to the force of his ego. I only wish the execs at Paramount had been as stalwart.