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movie review

Noah Ringer plays Aang in The Last Airbender.

The Last Airbender

  • Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan
  • Starring Noah Ringer, Nicola Peltz and Dev Patel
  • Classification: PG

After his breakthrough with The Sixth Sense in 1999, M. Night Shyamalan's career has been painful to contemplate. Hailed as the new Spielberg, he has made five movies, ranging from the awkward-but-promising ( Signs) to the ridiculous ( Lady in the Water). Never content to be a conventional hack, Shyamalan shows auteurist ambitions in his films, with themes of grief and loss of faith, when supernatural agencies intrude in ordinary lives.

The Last Airbender has been touted as a change of direction. With a hefty $150-million (U.S.) budget, it is offered as the first film in a blockbuster trilogy. The movie is adapted from Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko's well-regarded Nickelodeon animated television series Avatar: The Last Airbender, which draws inspiration from various Asian cultures and takes place in a world with four nations named after the elements of earth, water, air and fire.

Each nation produces a few special individuals who can "bend" their elements telekinetically - throwing fire, causing whirlwinds, moulding rocks or turning water into waves. But only one individual, a reincarnated Dalai Lama-like Avatar, can manipulate all the elements to maintain peace.

As we start the story (shot initially on the snowy landscape of Greenland), an adolescent girl, Katara (Nicola Peltz), and her teenaged brother, Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), are out hunting seal when they find a glowing globe under the ice. Inside it are a giant flying bison and a 12-year-old boy in what appear to be Tibetan monk robes. The boy (Noah Ringer) introduces himself as Aang and eventually as the legendary Avatar, who has been missing for the past century after running away from his monastic school. In his absence, the elements have gone out of balance, as the Fire Nation has launched a war against the other tribes. Now, the children must unite to save the world and put the elements back in harmony.

Shyamalan ran into his first controversy while the film was still in production by using Caucasian actors to play most of the characters, who were, in the original, apparently either cartoon Asians or Inuit. Actors of other ethnicities play background roles. The exception is the war-like Fire Nation, which is populated by people played by darker-skinned actors, including Cliff Curtis (Maori), Shaun Toub (Iranian) and two actors of Indian origin, Dev Patel ( Slumdog Millionaire) and a miscast Aasif Mandvi (from Jon Stewart's The Daily Show) as a seething Fire Nation general.

The puzzle of Shyamalan's racial casting soon becomes secondary to a much more pressing concern - trying to follow the cluttered story. Like Clash of the Titans, The Last Airbender was upgraded to 3-D to cash in on the post- Avatar trend, and it offers some visual pleasures: The Fire Nation's gnarly war ships suggest giant witches' shoes, and the way the water particles shimmer and congeal is, the first half-dozen times, lovely.

The story is a much more serious problem, a run-on, overstuffed narrative that feels like a very long prologue for a climax that never comes. Characters have little chance to develop between the clots of exposition, and Shyamalan's mediocre action sequences don't add much to the emotional engagement. Repeatedly, characters perform slow-motion tai chi moves, before hurling balls of fire, walls of earth and waves of water at each other, like some overblown game of rock, paper, scissors. The young actors are often forced to stand delivering long strings of exposition, as we learn more information about the spirit world that lies beneath this one, about Aang's background, about trouble at the Fire Nation court.

Aang is kidnapped, initially, by Prince Zuko (Dev Patel), the estranged prince of the Fire Nation, who wants to impress his father and win back his place as future leader. His ally is the sympathetic uncle, General Iroh (Toub). After that, Katara and Sokka assist Aang and take a crash course of element-bending with the world's top experts. Along the way, Sokka falls in love with Northern Water People Princess Yue (Seychelle Gabriel), who has her own backstory about the Moon Spirit and her special relationship to spiritual carp she keeps in a cavern pool. While meditating in the cavern, Aang visits a baritone-voiced spirit dragon who advises him that he must deal with his grief issues and let his "emotions flow like water."

This is a familiar problem with Shyamalan. When he attempts to dive deep philosophically, he comes back with a pearl of triteness. Though his pop-therapy messages have worked spectacularly at the box office in the past, at this point, The Last Airbender looks less like a career change than another bead in the director's chain of odd disappointments.