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Thursday, September 2, 2021

Avatars and Airbenders (Review)

I of course have been bingewatching a lot of television lately, but most of it is a rewatch. But I recently binged an older series I never watched on its first run: Avatar: The Last Airbender. And then I watched the movie adaptation. Reviews of both below.

Full explanation of my ranking system is here. Summary: C is average, A/B is recommended, D is badly made, F is something to avoid.

Avatar: The Last Airbender (TV series)

Rating: B to B+

Not only did I miss this on its first run, but I don’t think I was even aware of it. I was an adult with no kids, so I didn’t really keep track of what Nickolodeon was up to. Years later, I occasionally heard the name, but no real details. Then, about a year ago, I heard some good things about the series, but put off watching it until a few weeks ago.

Honestly, it’s pretty damned good. Even for something aimed at kids. It’s about war and morality and trauma, but not heavy-handed at all, and manages to mix in humor without spoiling any of that. In general, it’s a solid B, but there’s a few better episodes in the 2nd and 3rd seasons.

The Last Airbender (movie)

Rating: C-

And then M. Night Shyamalan came along.

I think it was the release of Shyamalan’s movie that first alerted me to the existence of the TV series. I know it was savaged by the fans, but decided notto judge the film on omissions and inaccuracies, other than “big picture” errors. And of course critics were as harsh on this film as they are on most of Shyamalan’s films, but I’ve already seen some really bad Shyamalan films, and about three decent ones. I can give him some leeway.

The Last Airbender finally helped me clarify Shyamalan’s flaws as a director.

First, let’s get the obvious out of the way: Yes, a lot is missing from the movie. It’s a condensed version of the show’s first season, so of course a lot of details had to be cut.

And yes, there were some odd casting choices, but you gotta figure at least some of that was due to studio pressure. Iroh doesn’t feel like Iroh at all.

And also, yes, Shyamalan decided he had to write it himself, with his stilted way of writing dialogue, a preference for “tell, don’t show”, and some weird hobby horses he likes to ride around in every movie. A bad move when adapting someone else’s material.

For example, he likes to do “spiritual” themes, so he decided to ditch the idea of the Avatar preparing for a final battle. The Fire Nation aren’t imperialists! No! They hate the spirits! For some reason! And Aang isn’t destined to fight a final battle! No! He’s got to teach everyone to be spiritual!

Granted, there is an element of spiritual rebirth in the series, and Aang does wish he could find a peaceful solution … but for some reason, Shyamalan thinks Aang is the one who has to learn to be more spiritual and more peaceful, when in the series, it’s the opposite: he learns some things, but he’s more peaceful and spiritual at the beginning than the people who’ve had to live with a hundred years of war.

But we could ignore all that and call the movie a different interpretation of the same story seed, if the movie were good. And… well, it looks pretty good, except in a couple places. And it’s no worse in terms of plot than many other fantasy knock-offs.

But the directing…

Most of the characters feel kinda dull and devoid of personality, especially when compared to the TV show. And it can’t be the acting, because a lot of these actors have done good work elsewhere. It’s got to be the directing, and to a lesser extent the writing. Watching The Last Airbender made me realize this is a recurring feature of M. Night Shyamalan movies that I somehow was always aware of, but couldn’t put into words until now. He likes drab, emotionless characters. Where that makes sense because the character is damaged or despirited in some way – Signs, Unbreakable, and The Sixth Sense – his writing and directing style are actually a plus, and he makes a good movie. Where it doesn’t makes sense, like in The Village, it makes for a kind of blah movie. Where he actually wants a different tone, especially a comedic tone as in The Lady in the Water, the movie feels like a failure.

The Avatar TV series is a potentially dark theme that’s lightened up with a lot of humor and personality. That makes the darkness easier to handle. It’s easy to watch the series and just enjoy it, then think about it later and realize there’s a lot more going on than jokes. The movie, though, has maybe one half of a joke, somewhere? The rest is just dull plodding through a storyline that Shyamalan doesn’t seem to understand except in the most superficial ways.

It’s not a terrible movie. If you’re just watching random garbage on TV anyways, you can probably make it through this one. But just remember: you have to think of it as a cheapo martial arts or direct-to-video fantasy movie, just with a bigger budget and better production values.

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