Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Last Airbender Movie Review AKA I'm Sick To My Stomach and Want To Hit Something

Before I begin to yell and flail my arms, as we Italians do, I want to put this review in perspective. I LOVE Avatar: The Last Airbender. That cartoon is the greatest animated series ever created. No place else will you see consistently fluid and beautiful animation with a solid style that never gets lazy and flat, like most modern cartoon series. On top of that, the story is extremely well written with every character possessing of a unique personality and evolution that moves in a logical and satisfying arc into the third and final season. Speaking of which, the finale of this show remains the most amazing and satisfying finishes I’ve ever seen on TV, both visually and mentally. Even the music used in each ending battle sequence is a work of art. For someone to turn a series like this into a live action movie, they’ve got to have great respect for the source material and realize all the tools they need for a successful film are right there. In a perfect world, that might have happened.

That didn’t happen.

Aang is the reluctant Avatar, destined to achieve mastery of Earth, Air, Fire and Water with a talent called “bending” in which the user does 15 minutes of lavish Kung Fu moves to get fire to jump up at their opponent or water to smack them upside the head. He is young, so when the time comes for him to take his place in the world, he runs away and becomes locked in a block of ice for 100 years. By chance, Sokka and Katara of the Southern Water Tribe find Aang and free him, but the reality of the future he has stumbled into is a grim one. The Fire nation has decided the world would be a better place under their rule alone and has created an army of machines to help them accomplish the task. Now Aang must master all 4 bending forms and along the way, inspire the people to rise up against the fire nation to bring peace back to the planet.

The Last Airbender is such a mess; it is upsetting for any fan. The contradictions at play with each film making decision are vast and will leave you scratching your head wondering what suit with no knowledge of the popularity of the cartoon got their claws into the mix. This is going to be nitpicky, so I’m warning you in advance, but I need to lay out the odd choices that seem mostly made just to put a stamp of ownership on this new work. Throughout the film, it seems like each major character’s name is pronounced differently from the way we’ve known it. This could be because the film is using more accurate, Asian pronunciations of those names, but the act seems like hypocrisy when you realize there are very few actual Asians in the movie, based on a cartoon taking place on an entire planet of Asians. The dialogue is very slow, with the deliberate intention of a cast recording a Charlie Brown special. Several plot points are repeated seconds after they are revealed, and then reiterated by other characters later in the movie in case your mind wandered into thoughts of ice cream. Mirroring this is the action itself. Every fight scene is shown in slow motion. Like some cruel joke, nearly every moment of bending is also painfully slow, as if we are watching a low budget stage play and have to wait for the men with ropes to lift the actors on their wire rigs and hurl foam boulders at each other. You can chalk this up to those pesky film makers deciding this is a children’s film, so the action must be dialed down as not to frighten kids and give them ideas of going out into the world to Kung Fu their little sisters and Grandpa Joe. The repetition of words can also be blamed on this, as they utilize the proven Teletubbies format for getting children to memorize things. All this is hysterical to me when you realize THE MOVIE IS BASED ON A CHILDREN’S CARTOON THAT PLAYS ON NICKELODEON!!! To dumb down a cartoon which was already safe for kids is nothing short of an asinine act.

Where once (in the original cartoon) there was excellent writing with constant touches of humor and even downright realistic, innocent goofiness from children faced with an oncoming world war, there is now nothing but humorless dramatic weight. To make matters worse, the decision to shove this into a kid’s movie format dictated the amount of time they had to tell a tale that took place in 20 half hour episodes!! The only way to do the source material any sort of justice would have been to take 3 hours per film and let the audience get to know the characters as they confront every amazing obstacle and meet the diverse characters along the way. Instead, we have this breakneck speed which plays out like someone made a montage of their favorite moments from the show and spliced them together with 30 seconds of spoken context to set up a scene. Oddly, the only character we get any emotional depth from is Prince Zuko, who seems like the real focal point of the film, but his often shaky acting will yank you right out of any moment as quickly as it grabs you. We call this the rag doll effect. You leave the theater completely detached and feeling like you’ve wasted your time and money or worse, as if the film maker grabbed your head and shook it around, telling you where you should be looking at all times. All I can say is THANK GOD we watched this in 2D. I can’t imagine the nightmare of fuzzy 3D added to the boredom. I can’t see AND I don’t care? Fantastic.

With wire fighting that would make Jackie Chan spit, pace of action that gets topped by Twilight: Eclipse, humorless children, a “cliff’s notes” reenactment of an epic tale, horrible writing and equally bad acting at every turn, The Last Airbender may go down as the biggest waste of Hollywood cash since someone got the brilliant idea to make a Bullwinkle movie. What we are left with is a fairly pretty picture that translates better in a hardcover book on your coffee table. Flipping through those pages would move the action along faster at any rate. I swear I had Supergirl flashbacks as I watched rock and water float benignly above the ground before gingerly making its way over to the intended target, in no apparent hurry at all. No worries. The Fire Nation soldier will wait there to get hit with it. It takes a lot of ego to make a movie this bad from a TV series applauded across the planet. I should probably be angry that a new generation of children won’t be able to enjoy the stories in a different format, but screw it. They can buy the DVDs half price on and you can be sure they’ll release them all on Blu-ray in time. Even if you aren’t partial to cartoons, watch the original series and you’ll be hooked after 5 episodes. IGNORE the movie at all costs and let their failure show Hollywood you can present intelligent, mature subject matter to kids if you pepper it with action and fun and they’ll eat it up and beg for more.

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