M. Night Shyamalan's live action adaptation of the Nickelodeon animated series. Set in a world of Asian-influenced martial arts and magic, Avatar...tells the story of Aang (Noah Ringer) and his quest to save the world from the ruthless Fire Nation.
By design or otherwise, M. Night Shyamalan will never occupy the middle ground. He’s the self-anointed auteur dressing B-movie genres in A-movie glamour, his becalmed style — autumnal, serious, tricksy — attempting to blend Spielberg with Kubrick: high adventure at a snail’s pace. But this former golden boy is now a laughing stock: Lady In The Water über-flopped, and his psycho-pollen thriller The Happening was by any reckoning misconceived. Things appear to have got worse. American critics, braying like a pack of hounds, have spilled loud, vituperative scorn on his latest, a would-be fantasy epic. Tedious! Nauseating! Incompetent! Hamstrung by a last-minute conversion into 3D! Hateful wouldn’t be putting too fine a word on it.
Inevitably, upon viewing this so-called atrocity, it turns out to be just a film. A clunky, occasionally stirring, but largely botched fairy tale targeting its saga of child-empowerment towards juniors dreaming of saving the world without the assistance of their parents.
Adapting a cult US cartoon series, bathed in a manga-like mythos of martial arts and quasi-Buddhist rhetoric, was an intriguing enough challenge. Could Shyamalan apply his aesthetic to the robust demands of the Lord Of The Rings-style world-building? He’s hired Rings cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, and spooked up some original special effects: water and fire swirled like pizza-dough by the tai chi moves of the (ahem) ‘benders’. And if the 3D is wishy-washy (but hardly ruinous), there are visual splendours: temples perched on mountain peaks, cameras racing across frozen wastes (Greenland in person), and the splendid steampunk battleships of the Fire Nation spewing corrosive smoke. There’s an anti-industrial vibe on hand that echoes its namesake, Avatar — the original series is awkwardly titled Avatar: The Last Airbender.
For Shyamalan, the pace is positively athletic. We flit, with disorientating swiftness, between the elemental nations on the back of a gargantuan furball, a monkey-faced familiar to the dog-eared dragon of The Neverending Story (an appropriate touchstone). And in amongst the mystical dot-to-dot (a quest, indeed, for balance in the Force) appear Shyamalan-like grace notes as James Newton Howard’s swelling score lingers over the balletic moves of the miniscule hero (Noah Ringer).
It’s when anyone speaks that it turns to stone. Unfathomably, in adapting a cartoon Shyamalan has written a cartoon. The script is a childish muddle of voiceover and rampant exposition, its young elementals robot-reading stage directions to one another: “We must go.” “Yes, we must go.” Out of the youthful troupe — a lithe, cheery bunch struck cardboard when forced to entertain acting — only Slumdog’s Dev Patel reveals any bite as the petulant Fire prince. But then, he is the only one with a discernable character. Shyamalan is surprisingly unsure of the material, and his tone haphazard. The plot creaks, great sacrifices and dazzling secrets slip by meaninglessly and the film falls dangerously short of the conviction that made the Rings trilogy sing.
The Last Airbender is also due to be a trilogy (this is Book I: Water, and the final scene is a teaser for Book II). That might make Airbending fans content, but most of us would opt for the once-promised Unbreakable sequels. For Shyamalan to get that icy-calm mojo back. Perhaps, try one of those twist endings again.
Far from the catastrophe the US bewailed, but still disappointingly clunky. Notch it between Eragon (below) and Dragonslayer (above) on a sliding scale of fantasy filmmaking.