Exclusive: Shyamalan On Last Airbender

Updated: Plus, it now has a release date

UPDATE: Since we published this story, Variety has announced that Paramount is calling the movie simply The Last Airbender, to avoid confusion with James Cameron's Avatar, and that the movie has been given a US release date of July 2, 2010.

If you're a person who laments the decline of the Saturday morning kids cartoon genre, then you should really check out Avatar: The Last Airbender. It may not currently be on TV (we've not been getting up early), but it's available on DVD and it's properly brilliant; beautifully animated and very well written for kids' entertainment. M Night Shyamalan is currently in pre-production adapting the cartoon into a movie trilogy, so now is really the time to get yourself familiar with it.

We chatted with Shyamalan recently and he filled us in on a few details of the movie. For those who don't know the show, he explains the plot thusly:

"The actual plot is in a place where there are four tribes of people. And these people each have people within their tribe that have mastery over one element: water, earth, fire or air. They all live in a balance and harmony and once every generation there is born an individual who can bend – that is manipulate – all four of those elements and thereby keep a balance between all. They are kind of a Buddha figure to some extent. The story is about how, in this particular time, this avatar is born into the airbenders and disappears. Then all hell breaks loose and the fire nation basically commits genocide and eradicates the air tribe in the hopes of killing the avatar and taking over control of everything. This child then re-emerges, which is the beginning of our story. He reappears having been frozen in the ice — there is a whole story about how that happens — a hundred years later and this world is all fucked up and he is the last airbender, but he doesn’t want this job. He’s forced into the position of putting the world back together again. It actually has a lot of Shakespearean overtones to it. There’s lots of family angst, and fathers denying sons in different storylines."

That all clear? Short version is, there's a small boy called Aang who has the potential to control all the elements and everyone wants to capture him. Shyamalan says it was the mythology and philosophy inherent in the story that attracted him to it.

"Buddhist and Hindu philosophies run through the stuff," he continues. "When I realised that is what it was, it really drew me as the template for putting storytelling on a new level. There is a kind of thread that connects Star Wars and The Matrix – the first one. That same thread is in this story, about a forgotten belief system, or the illusion of the world now."

Of course, philosophy doesn't necessarily guarantee bums on seats. But this is a film that has a great deal of potential for incredible spectacle. The most powerful of the element benders can do great things with their powers, like controlling a raging river or manipulating walls of flame. Done right, this should have some incredible action.

"Obviously [there will be] some breathtaking visual effects," the director says. "Just imagine if you saw a little girl bending water out of a glass into the air as an extension of her own personal discipline. It’s three movies about the hero learning three elements. Live action".

But, equally, Shyamalan doesn't want the film, which he says will shoot on stages in Philadelphia, as well as locations including Greenland, to simply be an excuse for empty spectacle. He also acknowledges that this is a long way from anything he's done before. It's got the philosophical elements he likes, but it's also painting on a much larger canvas than any of his other films and speaking to a younger audience.

"It’s daunting on the level of not doing it properly," he admits. "It can’t be special effects for the sake of special effects, it has to be [that you use] take seven because the girl breathes properly on take seven. I have to tell the animators that. Everything, has to have that detail. I can’t leave it. I have to make sure that I make it the same kind of storytelling, but with just one more tool."

Like we say, this is very different to anything Shyamalan's done before, but we can really see him making this work. Whether you like all his movies or not, you can't deny the man is blessed with a lot of imagination. And that's exactly what a project like this needs – someone who can wrestle the multiple ideas of the show into a simple, coherent and visually amazing film. This should, and hopefully will be, fantastic.

For more from Shyamalan, including extensive discussion of his new film The Happening, pick up the next issue of Empire, on sale April 25.