Disclosure: I love the Nickelodean series and watched the whole series while I was in St. Louis for six weeks because I spent those six weeks cooking, working on a play and watching Avatar: The Last Airbender and both parts of Kill Bill.
I will also point out that I saw the movie in 2D rather than 3D because the movie theater in Cedar Falls did not show it in 3D.
The Last Airbender isn’t an awful film. I’ve seen awful films and The Last Airbender is much better than a movie I turned off 30 minutes into the film. The Last Airbender just isn’t very good and suffers from a huge problem of condensing an entire season into a 103-minute film. Some of the explanations as to key concepts come off as seeming awkward or forced as a result.
The film centers around the plot of the first season of the acclaimed Nickelodean show, which takes place in a fantasy world divided up into the Earth Kingdom, Fire Nation, Water Tribes and Air Nomads. Certain members of those realms are able to bend the elements, meaning that they have the ability to control the elements native to their land. Only one person per generation, the Avatar, can master all four of these elements. At the start of the film, a war led by the Fire Nation is raging and the Avatar went missing 100 years prior to the action of the film. While out hunting, Southern Water Tribe members Katara (Nikola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) discover a boy trapped in an ice bubble. They later discover that he is Aang (Noah Ringer), the Avatar and the last airbender. Aang must learn how to master the elements of water, earth and fire before he can bring peace to the world. However, Fire Nation Prince Zuko (Dev Patel) is out to capture Aang to restore his honor, traveling with his calm-mannered uncle, General Iroh (Shaun Toub), as they race against Commander Zhao (Aasif Mandvi).
That is, in a nutshell, the plot of the first season without giving away any spoilers. If you’re familiar with the series, you’ll notice that there are a lot of events absent from the film and that most of the time is spent on a siege on the Northern Water Tribe.
But many of the events in the first season that are absent the film can do without. What the film lacks is emotional depth from many of the actors. Peltz and Rathbone give incredibly flat performances and usually seem to react on command. For a majority of the film, Ringer lacks emotion seen a very carefree and fun loving character in the series. The only real depth and, well, acting, seen from the actors is seen in Patel, Toub and Francis Guinan’s performances. (Guinan plays Master Pakku, a water bender) While Patel and Toub have been given characters that aren’t written very well, both of those actors give their characters depth, giving the audience a clue as to why the characters are motivated to do what they do.
Guinan’s character doesn’t play a major role in the series or in the film. He essentially shows up and teaches Aang how to do a better job water bending and kicks butt during an epic battle. And yet it is one of the more memorable performances because it’s clear that he put thought into what his character was saying.
Although a problem I had watching the film was being familiar with Mandvi from watching The Daily Show and he delivers his lines like he does on The Daily Show. As a result, I kept expecting him to say something like, “That’s right, Jon, they’re going to the Northern Water Tribe.”
There are also problems with the fact that pronunciations of names are changed and the fact that for some reason, in a tribe that looks similar to the Inuits, Sokka, Katara and their grandmother are Caucasians. This apparently is a trait that only exists in their family since they stand out in the scenes with the rest of the tribe.
While there are some neat things about the film, such as the detail on the Northern Water Tribe’s stronghold, the film simply can’t compare to the TV series, which is out on DVD and available on Netflix Instant Viewing. If you absolutely must see the movie in theaters, I recommend seeing it in 2D. But I still advise you to watch the series.