Of Avatars, Bending and Dimensions X 3

Tomorrow marks the release of The Last Airbender from one time Next Big Thing director M. Night Shyamalan. Based on the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender which ran on Nickelodeon from 2005 until 2008. To avoid confusion with the James Cameron film Avatar, the title of the live action adaptation was changed to simply The Last Airbender. In order to cash in on the recent 3D trend, the movie has been converted into 3D in post production. Some of you may recall that the same thing was done with disastrous results in the recent remake of Clash of the Titans.

Avatar: The Last Airbender is a remarkable animated series. When I first became aware of it I dismissed it as just another attempt to cash in on the anime craze that has been sweeping North America since the loathsome introduction of Pokémon back in 1998. That was unfair of me and I repent of my earlier dismissal of the series. Avatar is a unique entity in North American television animation in that it wasn’t conceived to sell toys, nor to carry on indefinitely so long as the money was rolling in. In fact, when the series ended after its third season it was at the height of its popularity and could easily have just carried on for many more lucrative seasons. That Avatar was conceived to tell a single story from beginning to end is remarkable and praise worthy. That Avatar tells that story so well only make the achievement that much more impressive.

I could go on about the series, discussing it in detail, but I’ll save that for another post. My purpose today is not to sell you on Avatar (though you should all go watch it right now if you haven’t already) but rather to discuss the upcoming live action adaptation. It’s received a lot of negative press from the beginning. I want to tell you that it’s undeserved… I want to tell you that, but I can’t.

The first issue right from the start was that M. Night Shamwow was directing. For those with their fingers on the pulse of the entertainment industry, you know that Shamalamadingdong has been having a pretty magnificent losing streak recently. His first film was the highly regarded The Sixth Sense, which I seem to be in the minority of disliking. The success of The Sixth Sense made M. Night Hollywood’s new Golden Boy. When the industry talked about him, they spoke of him as a master story teller and called him the next Spielberg. He followed up with the critically acclaimed Unbreakable which was largely overlooked by the movie going public, but which I thought was quite interesting. This could be because I’m a geek and I found this particular take on a comic book super hero movie to be quite compelling.

Next we come to what many people point to as the first major stumbling point in M. Night’s career: Signs. I quite liked signs personally, but as with The Sixth Sense, I’m in the minority on this one. Finally we reach the point where Shyamalan’s career implodes, The Village. Like Bart Simpson rewinding the tape to pinpoint the exact moment that Ralph Wiggum’s heart ripped in two, this is the milestone in M. Night Shyamalan’s career where it is plain for all to see that he’s got nothing left. When I saw The Village in the theatre I spent the first 10 minutes thinking to myself “Is this a comedy? Is that the twist? That would be GENIUS! Marketing this film as a suspense/horror/thriller when it is in fact just a huge joke!” but as the movie crept on at it’s snail’s pace it became clear that, no, this was not a genius comedy in disguise, M. Night was deadly earnest about the whole thing. The film was slow, predictable and totally lacking anything that could be regarded as competent story telling. I knew exactly what was going to happen, what the twist was, who the monsters were and when the reveals and scares would come within those first 10 minutes. I left the theatre thinking I had just witnessed the final nail in the coffin of M. Night Shyamalan’s short and mostly uninteresting career.

I was wrong though, because for some reason Hollywood wasn’t ready to let go of their once lauded raconteur. 2 more movies, each more critically panned than the last made it out of M. Night before he was given The Last Airbender. The Lady in the Water and The Happening. I don’t think I even need to comment on those films, so I won’t.

So Hollywood gave what was almost certainly a guaranteed cash cow, based on the recent success of fantasy films at the box office coupled with Avatar’s built in fan base, to this man? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the inmates are running the asylum down in Hollywood. The rest of the problems in the production all stem from this one incredible miss step.

The next major problem was casting. Avatar is interesting in that all of the characters are clearly rooted in varying cultures and ethnicities. The world of Avatar is devided into 4 peoples: The Water Tribe, The Earth Kingdom, The Air Nomads and the Fire Nation. The Water Tribe are clearly of Aboriginal descent, Inuit or Haida, or to the layman, Eskimo. The Earth Kingdom is of Asian ancestry, Thai or Chinese. The Air Nomads seem to be more of a mixed bag, although once again predominantly Asian. The Air Nomads could be said to most closely resemble Tibetans, although the design of a number of the children in the Air Nomad community appear to be bordering on Caucasian.  Finally, the Fire Nation is very clearly Japanese, without any doubt.

Given the rich cultural significance and diversity present in the animated series and it’s main protagonist, it’s little wonder that fans of the series were outraged when the casting was announced. All the main characters were to be played by young white actors. Now I’m less incensed by this than others. I have no real issue with caucasians playing other ethnicities. If Ben Kingsley can be Gandhi then who am I to say, right? Not to mention that to me, at least, Aang; the titular Avatar himself, I always assumed was white just based on his character design.

Where I take issue however is with the casting of the fire nation. Originally the antagonist of the film, Prince Zuko was to be played by Jesse McCartney. That was a travesty in and of itself. However, due to a schedule conflict and no doubt the pressure they were feeling from angry fans over the percieved racism in their casting choices, the roles of the Fire Nation went to Middle Eastern actors Dev Patel and Shaun Toub. I’m sure they’re both fine actors, but why the change? Why recast an entire nation? I’m no conspiracy theorist, but it doesn’t sit right with me that the antagonist nation of the piece has been recast from Japanese to Middle Eastern considering the current global political climate. Maybe that’s just me though.

Let’s take a look at the characters as they were, and as they will now be:

Aang, the Avatar

Now apart from the poor kid playing Aang just being unreasonably ugly, I have no real issue with him being white. I still maintain that I thought Aang was white in the series, like Caine in Kung Fu. Aang was raised by monks and no revelation is ever made about his parents, so who knows. All I know is the kid they cast has a fish face and dead stare, and what little I’ve heard of his voice is… well, I’m sure he’s a very nice kid.

Katara of the Water Tribe

So it seems that no effort was made by the make up department to at least help this young actress look like she might be of native descent. That is an issue for me more than the casting of a white actress. This just seems lazy.

Sokka of the Water Tribe

Again, no effort has been made by the makeup department to help the actors credibly pull off their roles. It’s disheartening.

Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation

Here we come to my big issue with the casting. On the left is Prince Zuko, clearly of Japanese decent. On the right is Dev Patel, clearly of Indian decent. Was he the right choice for Zuko? I suspect not. Further, what is it with the makeup department on this movie? Zuko’s major distinguishing feature is his scar. It’s important to his story. Very important. However, in the movie they’ve downplayed the scar so much that it may as well not even be there. Zuko doesn’t have a scar because it looks cool or bad ass, it’s an integral part of the make-up of his character. The Story behind Zuko’s scar is tragic. It’s not just the photo either, I can assure you, the scare has been all but removed.

Iroh of the Fire Nation


I think I’ve made my point as far as the casting is concerned. It’s astonishing, M. Night talks about what a huge fan he was of the series, how watching Avatar was a family event weekly in his household, and yet he seems to have missed the point of the series completely.

The third problem is the scope. The Last Airbender is attempting to condense one whole season’s worth of story into a single film. Not only that, but the film has a running time of a meager 103 minutes. Really? Condensing 20 episodes worth of story into less than 2 hours worth of film? If this film was to have any hope of properly conveying the story it needed to be 3 hours long, minimum. This movie needed to be given the same leeway that was given to Harry Potter, the Narnia films or the Lord of the Rings if it was to successfully translate Avatar to film.

The fourth issue is just sad. In an attempt to get more money out of what I’m sure the Powers That Be are already aware is a box office bomb just waiting to go off and take the unsuspecting movie going public with it, this movie has been converted into 3D. Now, I’m not a big fan of 3D. As of yet I’ve not truly seen any movie that makes use of the technology in a way that is integral to telling the story. That makes it a gimmick. A neat gimmick to be sure, and I do enjoy it sometimes, but it is largely pointless and doesn’t truly add to the movie going experience in any real way. However, I get upset when movies shot and conceived in “2D” are then converted after the fact into 3D. This is not how they were shot, they were never meant to be 3D, leave them alone. All you’re going to accomplish by introducing an artificial 3D effect onto the film is making it worse. And based on all early accounts, that’s exactly what they’ve done to The Last Airbender.

There are of course other issues with this film, the production design seems to run the gamut of breathtaking to ridiculous. There’s no excuse for how badly they’ve realized Appa’s face considering he was a pre-existing design. The special effects look remarkably bland. However, all of this is based on what has been seen in the trailers. I won’t be able to make a fair assessment until tomorrow.

Alas, nowhere in my city is this film playing in standard 2D, so I don’t really know if I’ll even bother going until it hits the Roxy. I think I’m just going to sit back, re-watch the incredible animated series, and try to pretend the live action movie never happened. Much like that 4th Indiana Jones movie they talked about but never made.


~ by Pagz on June 30, 2010.

3 Responses to “Of Avatars, Bending and Dimensions X 3”


  2. Awesome update, Geoff. I agree in every way. I doubt I’ll see it even at the Roxy. Perhaps in a drunken daze with a pirated version. But I’ll never admit it.

  3. I thought The Happening was Shyamalan’s best film since Signs… and, given he was apparently already familiar with the animated series, I figured the powers that be had chosen a more appropriate director for Airbender than they had for Transformers…

    Seriously, though, live-action adaptations of animated series have sucked in the past, suck in the present, and will continue to suck in the future. I can’t think of a single exception to that rule, regardless of director.

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