Yes, I know, this is a fight about as one sided as a three legged puppy versus Godzilla, but I did say I would go back to this movie after having watched the cartoon series (or at least after having watched season one, which the film was primarily based upon)
What I’m about to delve into isn’t exactly a review; my feelings on this film aren’t that different to how they were before watching the show. The movie is still a separate entity, and still hilarious in its sheer inept attempts at serious entertainment. Instead, this will be an informative analysis; both on the movie and on adaption in general. Just why does this film suck so hard with such a strong source material?
Well, to answer that, I will ask the following question: Why does this movie even need to exist in the first place?
Unlike most western animation, Avatar: the Last Airbender told a continuous story. It was the type of show with episodes you needed to watch in order. This was a rarity at the time it was made. The reason I bring this up is because most other animated shows that have had movie adaptions (e.g. the Flintstones, Scooby Doo, numerous Nickelodeon shows) were purely episodic, often lacking any kind of continuous story arc. As such, while most of these adaptions may have sucked, they weren’t showing us stuff we’d seen before. They were showing us new stories with the same characters we knew and loved.
The Last Airbender may have changed a lot of content (literally never for the better), but it was telling us the same basic story as the cartoon. We’d already seen this story, but we’d seen it told in a much better format, where nothing was condensed or removed.
And before you bring it up, no, this is not the same as adapting literature. Sure, adapting a book will mean telling the same story only more condensed, but with that you finally get to see things in a visual format. Avatar the Last Airbender was already in a visual format, just a less detailed one. And sure, putting more detail into it would be appreciated were it not for the fact that a lot of the bending in the show involved quite cartoonish movements. Seeing live action people flailing their arms about just looks awkward at times.
Especially when that person is Zhao
On top of the fact that the movie had to condense a lot of content, there’s the issue of what they chose to keep, and what they chose to drop. Some of the episodes of the first season are arguably filler, and dropping them is reasonably understandable (is anyone going to complain that they got rid of The Great Divide?). However, one plot you would have expected them to keep would be the plot of Avatar Roku; Aang’s most recent past life, who he was told by his long dead fellow airbenders would provide him with guidance. This plot is brought up when first visiting Aang’s old home (which is kept in the movie) and mentioned from time to time in following episodes. Then, in the Winter Solstice two parter, Aang finally meets Avatar Roku in a vision, and he gives him a warning that he must master all elements before the arrival of Sozin’s Comet.
This episode is arguably the point in the series where things get serious. Not only is it an episode of impressive quality, but this gives our heroes a major obstacle in the form of a time limit. Everything that occurs from this point is more tense due to the fact that the day the comet arrives is getting closer. And can you imagine how cool seeing Aang connected with Avatar Roku fighting the guards in the temple would have looked on screen?
Instead, Avatar Roku is absent, replaced with his dragon steed for some reason. And Fire Lord Ozai, who is not hidden away in the shadows to build an aura of intimidation and mystery but instead just on screen all clear to the audience, just brings up Sozin’s Comet at the end, while Aang and the gang aren’t there.
So, that plot line was cut, but what was kept then? The episode with the Blue Spirit was kept, and is admittedly one of the more loyal adaptions. However, it doesn’t especially work here, as the parallels between Aang and Prince Zuko aren’t really explored. In the cartoon, the episode The Storm explored Aang and Zuko’s backstories, and how both were controlled by the regret of their past actions. Fittingly, this episode was directly before the episode The Blue Spirit.
Then of course, we have the episode Imprisoned, where the gang has to deal with some captured earthbenders; and episode that sort of, and I mean sort of made it into the movie. In that episode, the captured earthbenders have been trapped in a metal prison in the middle of the ocean, miles upon miles away from any earth. Their broken spirits and inability to fight back make perfect sense here. In the movie, however, they’re imprisoned in a canyon. A place full of earth. Rather than having to come up with a clever solution through Aang airbending the coal kept in all of the prison’s furnaces out for the eathbenders to use, all Aang has to do is give a very underwhelming speech. And the earthbenders finally realise, shock horror, they’ve been standing on EARTH the whole time.
Why even keep this episode in if you’re going to change the plot so much that it becomes entirely senseless? If you wanted to show how the fire nation is bad, and that the Avatar brings hope, but not getting too sidetracked by a plot, then Warriors of Kyoshi would have worked, and may have been easier to condense down without damaging the plot.
If I were to write a script for this movie, and I’m not saying I would as I think making a live action adaption would be pointless, I’d use condensed versions of the following episodes: The Boy in the Iceberg, The Avatar Returns, The Southern Air Temple, Warriors of Kyoshi, Winter Solstice Parts 1&2, The Storm, The Blue Spirit, Siege of the North Parts 1&2. As I’ve said, I’d condense a lot of it down, and combine some of their plots into one, and mix in some important plot points from unused episodes. And you know what? The movie would probably be two and a half hours long.
(Oh, and I would have kept the climax with Aang joining his powers with the Ocean Spirit to combine and waterbend a giant fish monster to fight the fire nation, rather than just have him use a giant wave he could have made at any time)
Seriously, why was this not included. Imagine how cool this would have looked on the big screen
With these episodes and a longer run time, at least the pacing would have some chance to survive, and any sense of characterisation wouldn’t be sacrificed in order to cram in as much exposition as possible.
Which of course, brings me to another problem with the movie outside of just the plot. The characterisation.
Our main heroes in the movie have absolutely no charm or personality to them whatsoever. This wasn’t just a case of taking the characters and making them shallower and less interesting. They don’t show any signs of their personalities from the show at all. In the show, Aang is a naive, optimistic kid, Katara is a strong willed but caring, Sokka is an overconfident goof. In the movie, Aang is kind of angsty and that’s it, while Katara and Sokka might as well be walking mannequins.
The Fire Nation has it better, but only barely. Yes, they make it clear that Iroh’s a pretty decent guy despite being a fire nation general, but they don’t put forward his wise yet kooky old man personality. Zhao is a jerk here as well as in the cartoon, but here it feels like he’s just a jerk for no reason at all rather than due to a drive to beat Zuko and his lack of self control.
About the only character that feels in any way close to the original is Zuko. Credit to Dev Patel, for at the very least trying to convey the real Zuko’s obsessed, prideful and honour driven personality in spite of the atrocious dialogue. If it weren’t for this, and the fact that he looks literally nothing like Zuko, I’d say it might be a quarter decent adaption.
I get that the burn looks more realistic but would it have killed you to give him the ponytail?
To conclude, The Last Airbender sucked. But its suckiness was so unnecessary. People probably did ask for this movie to be made, but looking back, I’m sure these people can agree that we really didn’t need it. The cartoon already told the story perfectly. The only way this movie could have done better was visually. And having to sacrifice character development and story in order to gain that just was not worth it.
As I said earlier, were I to write a script for a reboot of this movie, there’s a lot I would do differently, and perhaps I could make something at least half decent, but would there be any point to it whatsoever?
At the very least I could rest assured that, while the cartoon set the quality bar especially high, Shyamalan’s movie set the quality bar as low as it could possibly go.