Tue
Jul 6 2010 6:27pm

The Last Airbender: Caucasians Not In Their Element?

There’s something you should know before we go any further. I’ve never watched a single episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender. So I am reviewing this film not as a fan of the source material, allowing the film to stand completely on its own. I have no idea what they “left out,” and I don’t care. A viewer shouldn’t need to have watched a whole other television show just to be able to appreciate a movie. Films should be viewed and appreciated on their own terms. M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender has already been ripped a new one by critics and fans alike, but I am here to tell you that The Last Airbender isn’t that bad.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. It’s a bad movie. But it’s not that bad, and it’s certainly not the antichrist of a movie that people might have you believe. Its biggest crime? A lot of it was really boring.

The Last Airbender, for those who aren’t familiar with the show, is set in a world where cultures are divided by element. There is a Water Nation, an Earth Nation, an Air Nation, and a Fire Nation. Those who can manipulate their people’s element are called “benders,” and are highly respected. The story goes that a century ago, there was one person, the Avatar, who could manipulate all four elements, keep the Earth in balance, and maintain peace and prosperity in the world.  Then, the Avatar mysteriously disappeared, and the world has deteriorated in the hundred years since, succumbing to warfare and to the power-hungry whims of the Fire Nation, who went about conquering the others and forbidding them to practice bending their elements. Now the Avatar, a young boy named Aang (Noah Ringer), has returned and he, along with new friends and allies—water-bender, Katara (Nicola Peltz) and her brother, Sokka (Jackson Rathbone)—incite a revolution that will bring freedom to all benders and put the Fire Nation, as well as its disgraced Prince Zuko (Dev Patel), in their places.

Sounds like a cool story so far, huh? It is. And if nothing else, the one good thing about this film is that it made me interested in watching Avatar: The Last Airbender. There is so much to this story, and you can tell that the movie couldn’t capture what must be an extremely intricate world. Yet the film gives you a taste of something magical and makes you want more. Not a terrible achievement at all.

So, if the concept of the story is great, why did it fail so much in the execution? First of all, as I’ve said in a previous M. Night Shyamalan review, he’s a fine director, but he should never be allowed to write anything. Just because you’re a director doesn’t mean you should be a writer-director. The sooner Shyamalan realizes this, the better off we’ll all be. The dialogue was so cliched it hurt, and there were far too many scenes where nothing much was happening except characters reiterating things they’d already said clearly and succinctly in previous scenes. And then there was the pointless romance between Sukko, who was, himself, pointless as a character in this film, and Princess Yue (Seychelle Gabriel), princess of the Water Nation. If this romance exists in the original cartoon, it certainly wasn’t warranted, explained, or earned in this film. Not only did the script not give the relationship a basis in something real, but Rathbone and Gabriel were the worst actors in the film. Watching them pretend to be in love nearly made me vomit up my root beer.

Discussion of the actors leads me to one of the more controversial aspects of The Last Airbender. For over two years, groups like Racebending have been protesting the fact that, while this story is Asian in sensibility, most of the leads are non-Asian. Now, it has always been my opinion that minority actors shouldn’t have to play white characters in order to get to play heroic roles; that we need more minority roles written and that it’s up to minority creators to make those opportunities. The converse is also true. The few heroic minority roles that DO exist should go to actors of that minority. However, I will say that, with the exception of Rathbone and Gabriel, who couldn’t act their way out of a paper bag, I think that Ringer, Peltz, and Patel are extremely talented. Ringer gave us a nuanced Aang. I believed that this kid was raised by monks and could lead adults in a revolution, and that at the same time, he was plagued by a child’s insecurity. Ringer plays the role with poise, grace, and sharp intelligence. Nicola Peltz as Katara, while shaky in the beginning, gives a solid performance once the character comes into her own and becomes a true heroine. And Dev Patel, whom I loved in Slumdog Millionaire, gave a great performance as Prince Zuko, believeably longing for the love of his father and hiding behind a harsh demeanor. A scene in which Zuko, in disguise, asks a child to tell his guardian what he knows about Prince Zuko’s humiliation was especially heartbreaking. 

So, these three are solid actors all. However, the fact that Patel is the only obvious Asian did pull me out of the story. The opening scene, in which Katara and Sukko are out in the snow and come across Aang in the ice, was cringe-worthy, because they looked and sounded like two white kids playing dress-up. They felt out of their element. Watching their very white grandmother tell them the story of the Avatar was even worse. They were wearing parkas, and yet the conversation could have just as easily been taking place over tea in a suburban New England home.

You wouldn’t hire an all-Black cast for The Leif Erickson Story, so why would you cast mostly white people in a story with such a strong, obviously Asian sensibility? I was forced to wonder why Shyamalan, who is of Indian extraction, would cast in this way. Surely there are talented Asian actors who would have played these roles just as well? Interesting, too, that the Asians given the most prominence in the film are Indian, which makes it look as though Shyamalan is willing to sell out the Asian continent while making sure the Indian sub-continent is well represented. That was uncomfortable to see, as it’s one thing to make sure your culture is represented, but quite another to do it at the expense of someone else’s. Especially when that choice makes much of your film feel false.

Lastly, this film failed because of the very thing that was supposed to make it cool. I will say right here and now that I hate the 3D craze and can’t wait for it to go the way of laserdiscs and 8-Track tapes—or the way of 3D the other times it’s tried to be a force in film. For all the talk of “eye-popping 3D,” nothing really popped. The 3D element didn’t enhance the story, but seemed to be stuck in for its own sake, and the fact that the 3D glasses still have space around the edges where the glasses stop, and the thing that’s popping out at you also stops there distracted me. I would have much preferred the special effects to just be really good in 2D. I go to the movies precisely because I enjoy looking into a world. I don’t need that world popping out at me.

The Last Airbender is a poorly-excecuted film. To many fans of the original source material, it’s an abomination. To me, it is simply a misguided attempt at adaptation that made me curious about the real thing.


Teresa Jusino was born on the same day that Skylab fell. Coincidence? She doesn’t think so. She is a contributor to PinkRaygun.com, a webzine examining geekery from a feminine perspective. Her work has also been seen on PopMatters.com, on the sadly-defunct literary site CentralBooking.com, edited by Kevin Smokler, and in the Elmont Life community newspaper. She is currently writing a web series for Pareidolia Films called The Pack, which is set to debut Fall 2010! Get Twitterpated with Teresa, Follow The Pack or visit her at The Teresa Jusino Experience.

28 comments
EricW
1. EricW
While I understand the race issue, I have a question that vie never seen brought up:

Why should an entire world be Asian?

Based on the movie, it seemed like the water tribes were Eskimos, earth kingdom was Asian, fire nation was Indian/Greek, and the air nomads were...sort of mixed, but they're nomads so it's okay.

Why should an entire world be Asian? I believed that this was a varied world just like (surprise!) ours.
EricW
2. omega_n
@EricW--that's been addressed in some of the discussion surrounding this film. The Water clan is not so much Asian-influenced as Inuit, and the other clans are a mix of various cultures from East Asia. Casting an Indian actor as the lead Fire character is somewhat misleading--if anything, the original (TV version) Fire nation is most closely connected with China and Japan--lots of emphasis on fireworks and the color red, and very samurai-like armor and a strict honor code. "Asian" is a very broad term, as it's used here, but most of the Avatar cultures are heavily Asian-influenced, so having Asian or Asian-American actors (rather than white ones) portray them would have been more appropriate.

The "entire world" then would indeed be mostly Asian because that's where the original premise and most of the cultural and artistic influence came from.
Phoenix Falls
3. PhoenixFalls
I would also point out (just to be a devil's advocate -- I hate the 3D craze too) that this was a film that was filmed in 2D, then converted much later to 3D (just like Alice in Wonderland). In general, this leads to a very poor experience (IMHO), where the 3D seems pointless and darkens the entire color scheme of the movie. But I would argue that a skilled director who actually directs the picture in 3D (like Avatar or Up) at least has a shot at making the extra $3 worthwhile.
Alex Brown
4. AlexBrown
Generally speaking, casting is done first and foremost for bankability. Unless you're doing an indie or low-budget film with little interest in wide-scale distribution, you need bankable (and insurable) actors, and most of those are white. Also, if you plan to market your film internationally, films (especially action/adventure) with people of color in the lead roles don't generally do well overseas. So, again, you need white people in the leads to increase your profit margin, and, with a film that cost as much as this one did, you're going to rely more on international sales than on national sales because the overseas' market is where the money is, well, that and DVD sales/rentals.

Not that any of that makes it *right*. I just know the business. It's not a racial/racist decision and Shyamalan probably had limited control over casting. People think directors are the queens and kings of the set, but it's really the producer (read: the studios) who have full control. Even if he wanted to an all Asian cast it would've reduced bankability both here and overseas and even if he argued the point he would've lost before he even began.

Not that any of that makes it *right*.
Teresa Jusino
5. TeresaJusino
@Milo1313 - That would make sense if they cast Dakota Fanning as Katara and Justin Bieber as Aang. (*shudders*) But white does not automatically = more bankable. All of the leads of this movie were unknowns. Why not then take the extra step to hire more Asian actors? After all, Dev Patel was an unknown amongst other unknown actors, and Slumdog Millionaire was really successful, particularly for an indie movie, and it launched his career.

Also, directors have more pull than you're saying, particularly when they are as well-known as M. Night Shyamalan. Yes, casting is a group effort between producers, a casting director, and the film's director, but for a big name like Shyamalan, if it had been a condition of his involvement in the film that he would only cast Asian actors, they would've done that for him. They don't say film is a "director's medium" for nothing.

@omega_n And from what I've seen in photos, Prince Zuko is actally light-skinned, while the heroes of the story are dark-skinned. That was another problem people had with the casting. That in the film, the "heroes" were light, but the "villain" is the dark one.
Teresa Jusino
6. TeresaJusino
Also, to be clear, I never at any time said the casting decisions were "racist." I don't think any of this was malicious, but I do think it was unthinking. It was everyone involved in this film allowing themselves to be propelled by momentum as opposed to stopping and saying "we have an opportunity here. Let's do something else." It's just a waste of a chance, is all.
Alex Brown
7. AlexBrown
Teresa @ 5, 6: But Dev Patel is bankable (more so than the others) via Slumdog. He has a "name", so to speak, and a recognizable face...and you can say "from Slumdog Millionaire" so that adds more name-cred.

And I know you didn't mean that it was racist, but that is generally the argument people start shouting. It's not racist to not cast, say, Donald Glover as Spiderman, but it is racist for fanboys to start screaming that he *can't* be Spiderman.

Oh, and #DonaldGlover4Spiderman!
Teresa Jusino
8. TeresaJusino
@milo1313 - Right, but what I mean is, he was cast in Slumdog as an unknown. He's bankable NOW, but SLUMDOG succeeded despite his being an unknown. That's what I was talking about.

Also, he's the most bankable one IN The Last Airbender, and HE'S THE ASIAN. The rest of the cast are white unknowns. Again, would Asian unknowns have been so hard?

And also, I hope you read my Pink Raygun post about the Donald Glover thing - which is now obviously moot now that they've cast the new Spider-Man.
EricW
9. mirana
"the Asians given the most prominence in the film are Indian, which makes it look as though Shyamalan is willing to sell out the Asian continent while making sure the Indian sub-continent is well represented."

I'm confused on this one. I will never see this film, but was there some indication in it that aligned the fire nation with India? Dev Patel and Aasif Mandvi are of Indian decent, but Shaun Toub is an English man of Persian/Iranian decent and Cliff Curtis is a New Zealander. A quick look at the names of other fire nation actors suggest a variety of backgrounds. If this idea is just based on two actors, I think it's better to say "people of color" than specifically Indian (and even then, supposedly Zuko was originally cast white). Still comes back to the "PoCs are villains" motif that will keep me out of the theater for "Last Airbender."

It's good to have a review from someone unfamiliar with the source. I often distance myself from source material prior to an opening so that I can enjoy it for it's own sake. Good call. :)
EricW
10. LarryS
He may have been unknown to many Americans & moviegoers, but Dev Patel had been a cast member of Skins for two years before he was cast in Slumdog.
Teresa Jusino
11. TeresaJusino
@LarryS - yes, I knew that, but after Slumdog. So, that explains why he was cast in that film - but it still needed to be marketable enough to distribute the film here in the States. To Hollywood, he was an unknown, and the film was promoted out the wazoo anyway.
Paul Arzooman
12. parzooman
It's biggest problem is that it was directed by M. Night Charlatan, a guy who for me made half a good movie (because that's how long it took me to figure out the "twist" in I See Dead People: The Motion Picture). The only respect I have for the man is that he seems incredibly resilient, bouncing back time and again after each miserable failure of a film. All his films are as dull as dirt and come across as having taken their inspiration from the worst episodes of The Twilight Zone (the original, not the cruddy attempts to revive it). You might come up with a million reasons why it is a bad movie but when you step back and see the forest instead of the trees, it's the director.
René Walling
13. cybernetic_nomad
My daughter is a *huge* fan of the show, she saw the preview and her first comment was that "Katara doesn't look like Katara. She doesn't have brown skin and the eye colour is wrong". When a (caucasian) nine year old who's never heard of whitewashing spots the problem during the preview clip, you know you kinda didn't succeed with your casting...
EricW
15. Dawn the glass bead maker
I took my kids (17 year old girl, 9 year old son)to see it on Friday. They are fans of the show. I've never really paid attention to it.

When my son and I saw something this past summer (had to be the last Harry Potter or the Transformers movie, that's all he and I saw alone), there was a very cool trailer for this movie.

It had Aang doing his dancing thing in a room on this itty bitty island with huge steep cliffs. There were candles everywhere, and as he danced around and waved his staff and banged it on the ground, the candles wavered and you got lots of shots of all these ships coming up on the island. Thousands and thousands of ships, attacking it. Fire all over them. Men scaling the cliffs in droves.

I wanted to see that scene and find out what happened.

It wasn't in this movie. I am disappointed.

3D doesn't do a thing for me, I have vision problems. Neither of my kids does, though, and they both said it wasn't worth it for the 3D. If the next movie is made (maybe it will have that scene in it?), we won't see a 3D version.

My son was more disappointed in the story than my daughter, though they argued plot points all the way home. They both want to see the next movie.
Chris Meadows
16. Robotech_Master
Teresa: Go with that curiosity.

Avatar: The Last Airbender is easily one of the best TV shows made in the last ten years. Not just one of the best animated TV shows, or one of the best children's TV shows, but one of the best TV shows period.

And I say this as a 37-year-old bachelor who lives alone, not from any vicarious watching-it-with-the-kids enjoyment. The first half of season 1 is a bit slow, but after that it just gets better and better. (Well, through the end of season 2, anyway; season 3 has its moments but is a little anticlimactic.)

This is part of why it's so terribly upsetting that the movie adaptation turned out to be so bad.

Netflix has the first season in streaming format.
Azara microphylla
17. Azara
#4
Also, if you plan to market your film internationally, films (especially action/adventure) with people of color in the lead roles don't generally do well overseas

As someone who lives 'overseas', I find that generalization a bit grating. There must be a bit more granularity in the figures than this. Presumably, Asian leads do well in Asia; I certainly don't believe that the audience response in Europe, Asia, Australia, South Amercia and Africa is predictably uniform on the one hand, compared to the US market on the other.
EricW
18. Anna Letha
I have to disagree that that actors for Aang and Katara were good. To me they were so wooden or overly earnest that I felt like I was watching actors tell me a story instead of watching a story unfold with believable characters.

I have watched all of the episodes for the Last Airbender and truly my biggest complaint, beyond the terrible acting, was the way they handled bending. In the show one movement from a bender will cause the element they're working with to move. As they move, the elements move. But in the movie there were so many movements before a single thing happened, it looked like there was too much effort being expended for one simple thing to happen. I truly think this ruined the concept of bending. At least for me.
Mike Conley
19. NomadUK
Milo@4: Also, if you plan to market your film internationally, films (especially action/adventure) with people of color in the lead roles don't generally do well overseas.

You're joking, right? I'd love to see some kind of evidence to support this assertion.
EricW
20. N. Mamatas
Ringer and Peltz were just as terrible as the rest of the film.
EricW
21. N. Mamatas
RE: the need for white leads for an international release, the two-word refutation: Jackie Chan.
EricW
22. orokusaki
I cringed for most of the movie, though not in front of my nephew, who loved it. And let's be honest: there are worse movies than this.

Seriously, who cares about the ethnicity of the actor playing a particular role? Hypothetically, would I be surprised that a white guy was cast as someone like Luke Cage? Yep. Would I boycott said movie based on that? No. I might be crazy, but my criterion for acting is... acting ability, not race.
EricW
23. disappointedFan
What everyone seems to be missing is that they are nations based on their form of elemental magic, not ethnicity. The best examples in the animated series are the Air and Earth Kingdoms - they are clearly shown as mixes of Asian and Non-Asian peoples.
EricW
24. Novashannon
Big deal on different races. For the new Thor movie, they are having a black guy play Heimdall, a Norse god. the Norse are white, and their gods were created in their image, of course.
EricW
25. XtremeCaffeine
There is actually precedent for dark-skinned folks in Norse legend.

But when there's a single source (the animated series) to disregard elements of that source material for no apparent reason is especially grating.
EricW
26. nick66
This movie was a horrible portayal of the series. The fire nation should not have been indian, nothing in the show made any of the fire nation seem indian they are all whiter than snow, in fact none of the main characters in the show seemed asian except maybe uncle iroh so no asians should have been cast for main roles. The actors for katara, aang, and zuko were horrible in my opinion. The actors for sokka and iroh were tho only two experienced actors in the cast. I also thought the bending was horrible and Aangs name was pronounced incorrectly the whole movie.
EricW
27. Cassi
the actual show is more interesting than the movie i do not agree with the part that you say that if the director stops writing he'll do us all a favor? No, speak for yourself. And if the other people that made a comment saw the actual show they would understand everything better, this movie was based on that show and it is a perfect anime in my eyes so start watching that show if you want to understand the movie that was based on it!
EricW
29. Awinash
@nick66 - What do you mean none of the charecters looked asian except for Uncle Iroh? Pretty much every person in the show that was from the Fire Nation looked Asian (especially Japanese) and the same goes for everyone in the Earth Nation. The people of the Water Nation looked like they were Native Americans (Inuit). The Air Nation was so obvisouly filled with Asian Bhuddist Monks that it was jolting to see a clearly white kid playing Aang. The issue is that the source material is so seeped in Asian culture and with Asian people that it comes off as either blatatnly racist/ignorant or inuslting to the source material. Now, the worst part of the movie was an Indian Uncle Iroh. What the hell?

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