Hannah, age nine, sits on the sofa with her folded legs drawn in, the remnants of a sandwich assembled on a bright melamine plate on the table behind her, rings of condensation off her water bottle progressing across the table’s surface.She fits her chin in the bridge of her joined knees, and if she’s blinked in the last hour I’ve missed it. For days Nickelodeon’s “Avatar: The Last Airbender” has been streaming in back-to-back episodes in my living room.I’d queued the first episode of Book One for some quick research and within minutes Hannah emerged from the recesses of the house, trudging across the living room rug and toward the siren call of a child’s voice:“Water.Earth.Fire.Air.Long ago, the four nations lived together in harmony.Then everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked.Only the Avatar, master of all four elements, could stop them.”As the sofa cushion reclaimed its shape after I stood and walked away, Hannah’s fingers crawled over to the remote.Then she took over.Or, rather, “Avatar: The Last Airbender” took over.
Hannah’s scrunched up figure in the flicker of the animated bald-pated boy with his eyes, as well as the arrows on his hands and head, aglow, spells out the hazards for M. Night Shyamalan as he steers the franchise into the cinema with The Last Airbender (the “Avatar” name having been dropped given the release of James Cameron’s blockbuster).Meaning the viewers who love this series really love this series, and they’re primed to scrutinize.Interesting that Shyamalan’s big comeback strategy would involve taking on another’s beloved story, effectively placing him in pretty much the same position he was in before.
Since penning perhaps one of the most discussed surprise endings in cinema history with The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan has been plagued with heightened expectations.For one thing, it’s hard to trick an audience twice, and when you don’t try to trick them again the audience thinks it’s because you’ve simply failed in tricking them again. Expectation has been Shyamalan’s nemesis.Well, among many other things.Like a movie with Marky Mark delivering lines like he’s half-asleep at his breakfast table, reading the back of a cereal box.
Enter The Last Airbender.
The critical comparisons began well before the July 1st opening with an L. A. Times article noting that major characters, including little airbender Aang himself (Noah Ringer), were cast with white actors instead of Asian and Native American actors.In my cursory inspection of the screen beyond Hannah’s silhouette as I’d cleared her plate, I have to admit I’d thought the animated characters had been intentionally drawn in ethnically ambiguous ways.Hannah, however, assures me the representations by the white actors in the film “aren’t quite right.” Paramount has noted the diversity of the rest of the cast, which includes Dev Patel as Prince Zuko.And as TNB contributor Matthew Baldwin said in our recent Twitter exchange on the matter:“Also, this ‘whitewashed’ film was directed by a man of Indian descent. I smell a subtext.”
And Shyamalan smells a sequel.Or two.His decision to direct a story not his own could reap some serious rewards.He may still be stalked by the weight of expectation, but at least the expectations have changed.At least he has changed a decade’s long conversation.It just wouldn’t be like Shyamalan if he did so without risk.If he pulls it off, he’s set for the next installment and perhaps a clean cinematic slate at last.And while the creative ownership rests with series writers Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, The Last Airbender’s overriding themes mirror those of every other Shyamalan film (with the exception of The Happening – which is why, I’ll always contend, that one bombed big time).The Last Airbender’s Unlce Iroh (played by Shaun Toub) clarifies this theme nicely when he says:“There are reasons each of us are born. We have to find those reasons.”
While condensed and selective, the plot-line of The Last Airbender follows that of the series’ first “book” of episodes to the letter. Airbender and reincarnated Avatar, Aang, is found after a hundred-year’s absence, but he’d gone off the grid before learning to bend all of the elements.Now he’ll have to make due in a world virtually emptied of its bending masters as the Fire Nation angles for complete control. Perhaps one satisfying subplot as well as performance comes from Patel’s Prince Zuko, the villainous outcast of the villainous Fire Nation, driven by daddy issues and navigating a gray area of shifting allegiances.Then of course, there’s the cool factor of the bending itself with the graceful, complicated series of taekwondo-like maneuvers required for commanding the elements.Except for the fire-benders.They move as if they’re shaking stray rocks out of their pant legs.
Gone are the plunks and doinks and dings of sound effects, the facial acrobats of Sokka’s goofball demeanor, and the often pithy landscapes like those paintings over the beds in old motel rooms. Shyamalan tweaks Airbender’s cartoony, slap-sticky tenor to skew more Lord of the Rings than Land of the Lost, infusing it with a sort of fantastical cinematic grandeur the layered storylines of the series seem to be begging for.And finally, finally, a Shyamalan film gets some decent special effects.I’m thinking of that boot brush that sat in the grass to approximate the “scrunt” in Lady in the Water. But as Hannah says, “That was way back when everything looked fake.”That’s right – way back in 2006.
For more details on how The Last Airbender differs from its series, read my post-screening conversation with Hannah here (another fine Matthew Baldwin tweeted suggestion, I might add.Credit where credit is due).