Four elemental nations — Water, Earth, Air and Fire — are led and protected by benders, powerful mystics who wield their native elements with kung fu moves. The Avatar, a reincarnated hero who can bend all four elements, keeps the harmony. Or should. When the last Avatar disappeared 100 years ago, the Fire nation set to conquering and now threatens to ruin the world. Now the new Avatar, 12-year-old airbender Aang (newcomer Noah Ringer), wakes from century-long hibernation to a world where the airbenders have been wiped out. It’s on him, the last of his kind, to master the remaining three elements and defeat the Fire Nation.
The flick is adapted from an inventive three-season Nickelodeon cartoon, in which each season, or “book,” is centered on an element Aang has to learn. This first of an intended movie trilogy tackles book one, condensing over eight hours of episodic cartoon story into less than two hours of live-action movie.
Maybe this wasn’t the smartest choice of adaptation. It’s certainly no small challenge, as producer/writer/director M. Night Shyamalan (The Happening) handily proves.
The telling is a jumble of random scenes plucked from the series, shuffled and modified for the movie’s purposes. There’s no fresh invention to set up the scenes, build suspense, bridge events, or give any appreciable degree of context. Dots are merely connected by exceedingly poor narration blabbed by Katara (Nicola Peltz: Deck the Halls), a waterbender girl joining Aang on his quest. Narration is supplemented by equally poor expository monologue that tells about key events and developments rather than showing them on film. Even puppy love sprouts and dies out of nowhere. Really, the movie is like a lavish and angry production of Reading Rainbow at some points.
Personality is strikingly flat. Shyamalan pays no mind to developing his characters. Aasif Mandvi, a comic correspondent on TV’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, is inexplicably cast as chief villain Commander Zhou and handed a script as lame as his acting. So much for menace. Prince Zuko (Dev Patel: Slumdog Millionaire), as a “complex” Fire Nation enemy, evidences barely a hint of his supposed obsession with capturing Aang. Even the hero is blandness. You wouldn’t think a kid modeled after a Buddhist warrior monk and given a loyal, six-legged wind bison to ride through the sky would be boring. But Shyamalan found a way to make him flatline.
Humor, too, has died in Shyamalan’s world. The comic relief and goofiness of the cartoon are quashed save a few klutzy attempts. Otherwise the world is heavy and dark. Such atmosphere might at least be good for action, and there is some payoff. Elemental bending as supported by special effects can be fun to watch. But even the elemental magicking is weighted by overwrought gesticulations that only serve to eat up time, and fight choreography looks as though it was orchestrated by the light saber kid from YouTube.
All said, this is a bad movie. The story is too wrecked to welcome newcomers, and fans loyal to the toon might take particular offense — many have even stirred up a controversy over non-Asian casting as rudely misrepresentative of the original characters. Either way, you’re better off watching the original series on DVD. It’s good stuff and brilliant by comparison.