"I'm going to rate this movie, "Five Stars.." ... Which means... IF YOU LET "NEW MOON" BEAT "NINJA ASSASSIN" AT THE BOX OFFICE, I'M GOING TO KILL YOU WITH FIVE NINJA STARS!!!"
-The "Ask a Ninja" Ninja Man
Well, it's here. The motion picture event that all the ardent fans of the acclaimed Animated show "Avatar; The Last Airbender." have waited for.
Of course, now we can't call it "Avatar." Jim Cameron will sue.
And if you've read any of the internet buzz... or looked at the Tomatometer as of late [link]
You're likely aware of how unwell the movie is being received among it's fan base and how bitterly it's going to stick in the craw of those who had held high hopes of seeing such a beloved piece of recent television history getting the shaft by the Hollywood marketing machine.
So how did it happen?
How on earth did an animated series that received high marks and awards for writing and storytelling burst onto the big screen only to have it's waxen wings melt under the glare of critical and audience reception?
Sadly, there is a parallel that can be drawn, that of Joss Whedon's "Firefly," and it's less-than-successful adaptation to the big screen; "Serenity."
When Hollywood saw how successful the canceled series "Firefly" had become on DVD, they opted for a moderately-budgeted big screen adaptation to try and continue the franchise and rejuvenate interest (and marketability) in the series.
Unfortunately, the movie failed to meet box office expectations and the vague plans for two follow-up movies were quickly scrapped.
Sadly, this familiar story might well be the fate of "The Last Airbender."
(Although they were smart enough not to have the best character die right out of left field. [link]
So why will "Airbender" in all probability take up the mantle of "New Serenity" and be banished to the "Bargain DVD" bin at your local Wal-Mart once it gets released in that format in a few days?
Well, lets start at the beginning.
Let me start out as saying that I enjoyed the series when it first ran. I really did.
And I'm not so attached to it that I can't understand why it didn't capture a larger audience than it did, even though it's fan base was of decent enough size to spur a big-screen adaptation.
The series is based around Aang, a twelve-year-old boy who is charged with the duty of saving the world from being engulfed in bloody conflict.
Right away, you're severely limiting the demographic and marketability of the series.
"Avatar; The Last Airbender" is proof positive that it doesn't matter how fantastic or amazing the backdrop of the series is, it doesn't matter how wondrous and believable the made-up world you're creating feels, It doesn't matter if you have intelligent writing, well-conceived characters and compelling story arcs.
The bottom line is, if people don't want to take the journey you're offering in the shoes of the main character, or otherwise in the shoes of the supporting characters, they'll flatly refuse to take the ride.
This is chiefly why the show's audience skew was limited to young children, or at most oddballs such as myself and the leddies who devoted themselves to fan speculation regarding various character romantic entanglements.
So, why was I drawn to the show? In all honesty, it had a lot to do with the show's care and attention to the detail they put into their Martial Arts.
Heavily steeped in various forms of physical combat, the show paid loving attention and impeccable detail to the Martial Arts that were the root of the elemental "Bending" magic.
Now, one might say "I LOVE KING FU!!!" [link]
Needless to say, as someone who not only spent 8 years studying the Martial Arts, but has in past paid good money to have commission pieces done featuring characters from obscure Martial Arts sagas:
The show grabbed my attention, and in spite of the fact that I was well out of the advertising demographic, I became hooked on the show by virtue of it's creative visual style, strong story telling and rich characters.
The series ran for three seasons (or "Books") on Nickelodeon, and garnered both critical and audience acclaim, and was by any standard, a huge he hit.
Enter one M. Night Shamalamadingdong.
A noted film maker who's career was inarguably in decline, he first became aware of the series when his kids started getting into it. He became an avid follower of the series and subsequently pursued the live action movie.
The film was beset with problems from the beginning, most of them revolving around appropriateness of casting decisions and fiercely flying accusations of racial pandering and stereotypes in said casting decisions.
All road bumps aside, the film was made and was supposed to be released tomorrow. In all likelihood hoping to extend "Opening weekend" as long as possible, the studio upped the release date to today.
Well, I knew full well all the negative buzz and the advanced bad reviews associated with this movie. But having eaten up the series with a gravy ladle, girded my loins (quite literally by wearing my tightest, most binding pear of underwear) and got set to head out to the theaters.
Although admittedly, my choice of lunch before going to the movie might have been a bit inopportune.
Although it's never brought up in the movie, it's well-established in the series that Aang, the main protagonist, is a vegetarian. And the irony of that didn't escape me when I was eating my pork tenderloin and fried egg sandwich.
Could my own bad choice of lunch and bad Karma have had a hand in all those bad reviews? Only Vishnu knows the answer.
That being said, I just got back from the theater, and what can I say about M. Night Shamblellamahachmoodackmadinajad's interpretation of the series?
... I kind of needed to cry.
Or at least be grateful I didn't have any high expectations to shatter.
... I mean, DAMN!
Granted, I know it's a considerable challenge to take the first season of a TV series and condense it into one feature-length movie... But... DAMN.
Now granted, there were a few saving graces... I only need one hand to count them. But they were saving graces nonetheless.
The scale and visual style of the movie were... mostly on par with the series. And it was indeed invigorating to see a series that existed as nothing but 2D drawings rendered to a live action medium.
Some of the casting choices were anywhere from decent to pretty good, and there was at least ONE thing I thought the movie handled better than the series.
But that being said, there were truckloads of wrong associated with the movie.
I saw the movie with my dad and my sister. Me and her both know the series front to back, and we had fun giving our uninitiated dad a synopsis of the story on the ride to the theater.
Subsequently, on the way back, we had fun tearing the thing apart and figuring out exactly what went wrong.
-My dad's main point was the clunky exposition.
When you condense such a lengthy, nuanced story into an hour and a half (Seriously, you couldn't make it two hours to give us some more goddamn character development?) you're naturally going to loose a LOT And with a story that necessitates a hell of a lot of backstory and explanation, it's better to have time to gradually absorb the whole of the story than to just force it all at us up front.
Not only does the story telling suffer from the frantic an inconsistent pacing, but the characters do to.
A lot of fans have a favorite couple in the series, and even I'm not immune to such things. My favorite couple, bar none of the whole series was that of Sokka, brother to our heroine, and Yue, the princess of the Northern Water Tribe.
Thankfully, for me, Yue didn't get the shaft like a lot of other ancillary characters and actually appeared in the movie.
I thought the casting choice was quite apt too. She definitely, definitely looked the part, and while her acting wasn't spectacular, she was more than able to carry the part and inhabit the character, and at least give us a partially believable performance in the time she was allowed onscreen. And that's just the problem. We barely got to see her! *SPOILER ALERT* What made Yue's character so resonating was her selfless sacrifice at the end of the first season. She gave her life for the good of not only her tribe, but the whole world. Since we had 3 half-hour episodes to get to know her and watch her grow as a character, the pathos when she finally did sacrifice herself was all the more impacting. In the movie, we barely know Yue and there's only one, hurried, tender moment with Sokka. It's hardly sufficient to give us any kind of emotional reaction when Yue ultimately makes her noble sacrifice.
Long story short, the plot of "Avatar" was hard enough to follow when it was a series. Trying to shove it all at us and expect us to coherently understand it in a shortened movie makes it far too flat and forced, like taking a dirty bath mat and trying to force it under the bathroom door. THAT'S how flat and forced this movie was.
-My sister's main point was the bad writing.
And boy could it get bad.
A lot of critics and fans complain of bad acting in the film, but I think there's a larger answer than that.
For the most part, an actor is only as good as the material he's working with. A truly gifted actor can bring life and unexpected dimension to his material, but having a strong structure to draw from when performing is often a precursor to said developments. Rotten Tomatoes described the dialogue as "Laughable" And or a portion of the movie, I'd have to agree.
Some of the scenes were well-acted and well-executed, but a good many others just stand out as dreadful. The scene where Aang and Katara are trying to inspire hope in the imprisoned Earth Kingdom soldiers is an example of this. The dialogue was so hackneyed and the action so disconnected and forced that I felt like I was watching a bad middle school play, not a multi-million dollar hollywood movie with significant investors, millions of dollars in special effects and people's careers hanging in the balance.
But, in truth, I credit this lacking area more to bad writing and directing than I do with bad acting.
I was worried about Noah Ringer, the child actor cast to play Aang. From the trailers, he didn't at all sound like a competent actor, and didn't deliver his lines with conviction. But he actually did a better job than I expected. Not great but certainly not terrible. Shaun Toub, the actor who portrayed General Iroh didn't disappoint either. In the role of perhaps one of the most complex characters in the series, he didn't quite fill the shoes of Mako, beloved veteran voice actor who played the roll for 2/3 of the series before his tragic death, but he wasn't half bad either.
Overall, I don't have a lot of complaints about casting and acting (Although I will concede that Aasif Mandvi and Cliff Curtis were awkwardly miscast as Admiral Zhao and Firelord Ozai respectively.)
I can't really blame the actors for the grinding performances, and instead place the blame solely on the films writer, director and producer, M. Night Shamalanautovonschnitzelpusscrankendescheitmeyer
-And what was MY main point? namely one of the oldest rules of writing itself. SHOW! DON'T TELL!!!
One of the oldest rules in writing fiction is never TELL us a thing if you can SHOW us a thing.
This is similar to my dad's gripe about clunky exposition. But my point it there was far too much exposition. We have Katara acting as he narrator for the whole film. A lot of times when we don't need her to.
Like in the example I mentioned with Sokka and Yue, we have Katara telling the audience "My brother and the Princess became friends right away..."
... YOU SHOULDN'T HAVE TO FUCKING TELL US THAT!!! WHAT ARE WE, FUCKING STUPID?!?!
Never tell us a thing if you can SHOW us a thing. What's more fascinating to watch, two people growing together and realizing their mutual attraction, or watching two people get unceremoniously get thrust together by the hammering plot while the narrator tells you about... Do I even need to finish this sentence?!
Avatar the animated series was lighthearted but wasn't afraid to deal with deathly serious themes. The last Airbender movie tried to have a dark, serious tone but seemed to have no faith whatsoever in it's audiences cognitive abilities to watch the characters emotional development... even though it expected us to follow a forced, incomprehensible plot.
And there was of course the "Oh So Dramatic" ending.
Herein, Aang learns to accept the teachings of the monks who raised him and "Learned to never use his power to hurt."
The only difference was, in the series, instead of using a show of force to convince the Fire Navy to retreat, he gets possessed by the Ocean Spirit and destroys the entire fleet, making for a much more impacting and psychologically satisfying ending.
And so the movie that eviscerated even the lowest of expectations foregoes the perfectly good ending it was handed by it's source material and falls flat on it's ass.
So that's "The Last Airbender"
A movie where even good special effects, wonderful costume work and grand, epic setting couldn't come anywhere near to saving it's good actors written and directed into a performance stupor, sub-par dialogue and pacing that's likely to confuse the ADHD kids in the audience.
The show even failed to live up to the loftiest achievements of the series.
In the series, the spirit realm was otherworldly, bizarre and a total mind trip. A psychedelic world based in no logic where monsters can steal your face and the ancient spirits of the past wander to give guidance.
What do we get for the spirit realm in the movie?
... A forest shoot with some paper lanterns and a CG dragon who never comes out of the shadows....
So, what is to become of the legacy of "Avatar; The Last Airbender" and the film-making reputation of Mr. M. Night Tackanovahupenshirerickytickyhamstermasterpollywollywannabingbangmesupercalafragilisticnicknackpattywackgivethedogabananafanafofrescahickorydickoryhockitypockitywackitywackangelinafranchesca the third?
Well, we still have the strength of the series to fall back on...
And if Kevin Smith's information is anything to go by, If our distinguished twister can continue to make Hollywood a little bit of money with his flicks... They're gong to keep let him making movies.
So unless "Airbender" totally tanks (and there's every indication that it will) He's going to keep throwing these flicks at us.
This is a sad sting for me, as I hate to see such a great series butchered like this, and I used to really love the directors body of work... But then I used to love Jimmy Buffet and the Spice Girls... You grow up, you move on and try to keep your dignity intact.
You want my advice?!
Avoid the movie theater entirely this summer! Get outside! Play some basketball! Ride a bike for Christ sake!
They can't ruin our beloved franchises if we don't let them.
Well, anyway, that's enough of that.
I'm going to get drunk and re-live the GOOD memories I have of the series.
The first thing I have to do: Watch all the episodes with Sokka and Yue... Which is in fact the LAST thing I have to do... and is in fact, the ONLY thing I have to do...
... You heard me.
... Peace out, Y'all!
"In Hollywood there's one typewriter and a thousand copiers."
-Old Showbiz Proverb