On June 30, 2010 fans of the celebrated Nickelodeon show Avatar: The Last Airbender were no doubt excited to see their beloved characters in live action and on the big screen no less. Just 2 years after the hit show wrapped on television, M Night Shyamalan got his first shot at a big budget studio film. The director of cerebral hits The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and the divisive Signs was set to write, direct and produce. The only problem: after his meteoric rise to superstardom, he was on a streak of very poorly received films: Lady in the Water, The Happening, the previously mentioned divisive Signs, and The Village. Unfortunately for fans of the show and general audiences, this film wasn’t just another bust or a massive disappointment, it has gained a reputation as Shyamalan’s worst film and one of the worst films of the 21st century. Not only has it been 10 years since this monstrosity of a film hit theaters, the original animated show has been released on Netflix on this weekend. So in honor of the legendary source material, we thought it’d be fun to take a look back and see what exactly went wrong with its big screen adaptation.
If you are unfamiliar with the source material, The Last Airbender is based off of a 66 episode american animated Nickelodeon show that aired from 2005-2008. While not technically anime-anime refers to a specific genre of Japanese animation- the inspiration is obvious. The story is based in a world divided into 4 nations of people who are able to telepathically manipulate the 4 elements: Water, Earth, Fire, and Air. This ability is called bending. There is always one who can master the art of bending all 4 elements known as the Avatar. When the Avatar dies, he/she is reincarnated, and as the universe’s way of balancing power, each subsequent reincarnation of the Avatar is born into a different nation in order. This story follows the most recent Avatar who disappeared for 100 years only to resurface after the Fire Nation has claimed ultimate power.
What Went Right?
I’m going to be honest, not much. Sitting at $150 million, this film is the highest budgeted film in Shyamalan’s filmography to date. Most of that budget appears to have been spent on the visual effects which i have to admit look pretty good even by today’s standards. Historically, fire is one of the most difficult things to animate convincingly through CGI, however the VFX team did a great job with it here. All of the elements and bending sequences look spectacular compared to the lackluster whole of the film. The only other bright spot I could find upon my rewatch was the casting choices behind the Fire Nation. In a film landscape that has struggled to find equality and diversity among its most bankable stars, Shyamalan chose to depict the Fire Nation as this world’s personal Middle East/Southern Asia. In such, he brought in a great cast including Dev Patel, Shaun Toub, Aasif Mandvi, and Cliff Curtis.
What Went Wrong?
Short answer- Everything else.
From the opening “Water, Earth, Fire, Air” sequence, which was so iconic in each episode of the show, something just feels off. You could tell right then and there that M Night just couldn’t recapture the magic that was so beloved about the source material. That sequence is followed by the title card “Book 1: Water”, possibly the earliest ever example of sequel bait in a film’s runtime. And let’s not fail to mention they chose to mispronounce the lead character’s name. Aang is a long way from Ong. (insert angry emoji)
This film has been referenced alongside Ghost In The Shell, Exodus: Gods and Monsters, Aloha, and Prince of Persia -just to name a few- in the Hollywood whitewashing scandal for its portrayal of the titular Avatar and his 2 companions as white. While the show never truly references ethnicity of our heroes, character names such as Aang, Katara and Sokka as well as the anime influence suggests they should be of Eastern Asian descent, so casting american actors Noah Ringer, Nocola Peltz, and Jackson Rathbone only feeds into the narrative that all stories need a “White Savior” character. Speaking of the casting-other than the previously mentioned Fire Nation characters, the cast really struggles. Our 3 leads were relatively young when this was released and, while the script definitely deserves a lot of the blame, the line delivery feels robotic and unnatural at times. Poor Noah Ringer has a black belt in Taekwondo giving him the martial arts back ground to pull off the bending aspect of the titular Avatar, but struggles to bring any of the emotion of his animated counterpart.
“The Last Airbender squanders its popular source material with incomprehensible plotting, horrible acting, and detached joyless direction.“Rotten Tomatoes Critic Consensus
As I mentioned before, the VFX team did their best to make this film as aesthetically and visually pleasing as possible, sadly their efforts were quickly forgotten amidst the bland script and wooden performances. The finale action set piece has some of those great visuals, but there are no stakes because you don’t care about the characters as you should and you don’t feel the consequence of the battle. And though the visuals are good, the action itself feels like a cheap knockoff/ Zack Snyder imitation. They deserved a better film.
Shyamalan who had proven himself quite skilled behind the camera with interesting framing and beautiful camera work, inexplicably chose to include some quite strange and unappealing shots including some awkward and long close up shots and one long tracking landscape shot with nothing interesting to show.
The most glaring issue facing this film is the lack of screen time for such an expansive source material. Avatar: The Last Airbender like many other television shows are far too expansive to be restricted to a film. Not all properties are structured for short form story telling, and it is clear they could not find a balance here. They attempted to cram a 20 episode season into a 106 minute film. Most notably, they covered 17 episodes within the film’s first 55 minutes and then spend roughly the final 51 minutes on the final 3 episodes.
What we wanted was a faithful adaptation of a beloved tv show, and what we got was arguably M Night Shyamalan’s worst film to date with a paltry 5% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes. Though this film grossed nearly $320 million against its $150 million budget, after marketing budgets it was more than just a critical failure, it was a financial failure as well. This film crashed studio plans for a trilogy before it could even get started and subsequently ruined Noah Ringer’s career-he has 1 other acting credit in his filmography, Cowboys & Aliens. It has tragically stained the incredible legacy of the Nickelodeon cartoon. Netflix is currently working on a live action tv series based on this property and one can only hope they do it justice.
Make sure to check out Avatar: The Last Airbender on Netflix on Friday. Have you recently rewatched this awful film? Be sure to follow us on twitter to join in the conversation and download our app to keep up to date on your most anticipated upcoming films.