Fri
Jul 2 2010 12:33pm

The Last Airbender: The Greatest Fan Film of All Time

Tor.com asked us to review the newly released The Last Airbender film as an aside to the Avatar re-watch. Just so you know, the re-watch will return to a regular schedule after Readercon. Also, be on the lookout for our exclusive interview with the creators of Avatar: The Last Airbender next week!

Jordan
This movie took the heart and soul out of everything that is Avatar: The Last Airbender and turned it into a mediocre action/fantasy movie. As a fan of the show, I went into the theater with very low expectations, but I was not prepared for what I was about to watch.

The opening sequence is so faithful to the show that I allowed myself to feel hope… but that quickly died. The movie drags along in what feels like an endless montage of season 1 of the television series. I’m not typically the type of person who is angry when plot changes occur in order to condense very detailed source material, but this film made me understand that anger.

The saddest aspect of this film was the lack of humor and fun. The television show practically thrives on the humor, which helps to balance the darkness of what is actually occurring. The only laughs I heard in the theater were no laughs of joy, but rather, mocking laughs at how ridiculous some of the dialogue and shots were. Appa and Momo were total afterthoughts. Momo’s name isn’t even mentioned until his final appearance in the film. Things like this happened multiple times over the course of the movie. A character would be introduced visually and take part in the dialogue, but the audience wouldn’t know their name until the second or third appearance. I wonder if this is something that viewers new to the world found difficult to follow.

I’m not getting into the casting much, except to say that I do not buy the line that these were the best possible actors for the roles. It felt like none of them really understood what their character was based on. The only casting that really worked for me was that of Shaun Toub as Uncle Iroh. Iroh is also one of the few characters that I felt carried over some of the television show’s character’s essence.

In our rewatches, I repeatedly mentioned my hatred for the character of Haru. I want to take a moment to discuss how frustrating it was to watch Haru make an appearance in the movie, but with no sign of Suki whatsoever. I seem to remember seeing promo photos featuring the Kyoshi Warriors and Suki, but that scene must have ended up on the cutting room floor.

All in all, the film was a huge letdown. The quickly put together 3-D did nothing to enhance the visual storytelling of the film and in the end actually hurt the color scheme of the film. The dialogue was painful and filled with excessive voiceover info dumps to move the plot along.

It was sad to see such beautiful source material turned into a mediocre film. The heart was ripped out and in turn, my heart was broken.


Matt

Critics with a greater gift of snark than I have will be able to provide the heavy-handed irony that seems to be expected of reviews of The Last Airbender. Frankly, all the hate is exhausting. So, rather than bash an easy target like this terrible movie, let's carefully examine what went wrong, and maybe start a dialogue about how they could have fixed it.

I don't want to criticize the performances in this movie, even though they were part of the problem. It is hard enough for anyone to carry a massive epic fantasy film. Lord of the Rings had Ian McKellan. Star Wars had Harrison Ford. Heck, even the bad Star Wars had Liam Neeson. The Last Airbender had a thirteen-year-old martial artist from Texas. Combine this with the clunkiest dialogue in history, and a director who in this writer's opinion has never directed actors well, and you have the stiff performances you get here.

The thing that hurts The Last Airbender the most is that it is based on a popular television series. Too complex to rope in a new audience, too short and Cliffnote-y to satisfy all the fans. Almost all the best adaptations deviate heavily from their source material. They have to. TV and film are not the same. When filmmakers cling to the structure of something far grander than a two-hour movie can contain, the result is a film that feels more like a much longer film with all sorts of stuff cut out, indiscriminately, like a horror movie shown during the day on network TV.

As a simple example, think about the original Star Wars film. You have a brief prologue on a spaceship, then three acts. Each act has one major set piece. Tatooine, Death Star, Yavin. Three settings. The Last Airbender jumps around a dozen locations, never really giving us enough time to sink into the world before we are whisked off to some other scene.

There is also far too much plot in this movie. Generally, plot and character are two sides of the same coin. The more character development, the less plot (look at the films of Robert Altman or Judd Apatow for examples of this), and the more plot, the less character. The Last Airbender is a perfect example of the latter. In the series, Sokka and Katara are equal leads to Aang, rich characters with lots of backstory and distinct personalities. In this film, their personalities are non-existent. At least Aang is given something to overcome, and Katara has her mission (protect the Avatar at all costs!). Sokka's only tangible objective seems to be to get laid, even if it means the destruction of the Northern Water Tribe and the moon. But other than those few token elements, the protagonists of this movie are bland, hollow characters.

I wanted to get through this whole review without raising any complaints about stuff that someone who has not watched the television series would never notice, but there are a few things that really irked me. They are all examples of, “If it ain't broke, don't fix it.” Who exactly are Ahng and Soakah and Eeroh and the Ahvatar, and what's an Agni Key? This isn't a book, where the names are only written down and you can debate the pronunciation of Saruman with your friends. This is a TV show, where living actors spent three seasons pronouncing certain names the same way in every episode. I can just see the production meeting: “I got it! Let's distinguish our version of Avatar by pulling fans totally out of the movie every time someone says a proper noun.” And then another executive says, “Yeah! That's a great idea. And then they'll all be whispering to each other in the theater, asking how we could be so stupid, instead of listening to the dry expositional voiceover. It'll be great!”

Perhaps my biggest complaint is in regards to bending itself. In the film, the entire concept of bending changes. In the show, bending is an extension of martial arts. When you punch, the water punches. When you kick, the boulder flies. When you jump, the air lifts you high up. In the film, the concept is totally different. The bender must perform a complex kata, dancing around, and at the end of this routine, a single act of bending takes place. A water whip, or a burst of fire. Not only does this totally change the physics and logic of bending, it slows the fight scenes down...a lot.

At times The Last Airbender felt like a fan film, in terms of production value, storytelling, and performance. I often found myself wondering where the budget went. I suspect the inexcusably bad green screen effects were the result of the 3D conversion rush job, which in a way sums up everything that is wrong with this movie, and perhaps movies in general. Dear Hollywood, Stop giving us what you think we want, and just tell a good story.


Matt London is an author and filmmaker who lives in New York City. He is a graduate of the Clarion Writer’s Workshop, and a columnist for Tor.com and Realms of Fantasy. His fiction is forthcoming in the anthology The Living Dead 2. He holds a BFA in Film Production from New York University.

Jordan Hamessley is a children’s book editor at Penguin Books for Young Readers where she edits the Batman: The Brave and the Bold and Chaotic publishing programs, as well as developing original series. She is also an assistant editor for Lightspeed Magazine. She can be found on Twitter as @thejordache.

26 comments
wandering-dreamer
1. wandering-dreamer
Um, just a question, if both of you guys didn't like the movie (and it does sound like no one did) then why is the title of the article "The Greatest Fan Film of All Time"? Unless that was meant as serious sarcasm I'm really puzzled over here.

And I know the perfect way to solve this, have you guys continue the re-watch! Not too much at once but enough to ease the nasty flavor out of your mouths and make you forget the movie ever existed.
Jordan Hamessley
2. Jordache
The quality of the movie is that of an epically bad fan film... that's what we meant.

We in no way mean to say that this is a good film.

~Jordan
wandering-dreamer
3. wandering-dreamer
Ah, I think I get what you mean now, and I just read the part that says you guys will be continuing the re-watch so ignore that as well (and exclusive interview? Now you guys have me psyched for next week).
wandering-dreamer
4. Dragon-Knight
They call it a fan film because it looks and sounds as though fans made it with a limited budget. Not a multi-million dollar budget and hollywood film makers.
wandering-dreamer
5. BrianTX
Agreed, the article title seems to shout that you loved it ... and you hated it. Hate away, but maybe someone should fix the title, neh?
wandering-dreamer
6. Ésquilo
Since when "fan film" is a cumpliment?
Christopher Andrews
7. Black0
I think the confusion stems from the fact that while fan films tend to be bad - they do tend to be faithful (and one of the larger complaints I've seen is that this isn't). Nothing I've read leads me to believe a fan was involved anywhere in this production...
Thomas Jeffries
8. thomstel
Definitions of "fan film" and merits thereof aside, I'm sad.

My eldest daughter and I love the series, but not in a hardcore, "own the DVD" sort of way. We usually catch an episode or two in the evening on one of the Nick stations most weekdays, and were pretty psyched about the film. Having heard that it's beyond bad means that I may just sink some cash into the first season DVD instead. Definitely won't touch the 3D for sure though, even if we do go see it.

Thanks for the heads-up guys. My expectations will be below low. I hope that's good enough...
wandering-dreamer
9. sara123
The TV series Avatar: the last air bender is one of the highest rated cartoons in the world and I know why. It is amazing, funny, clever, enjoyable, and really keeps you want to keep watching it (sometimes over again). It really made me upset when they decided to end the series because in fact it is one of the greatest shows out there.
With that said I would like to say this also. I was sooooo disappointed in the movie. I mean what were they thinking? They totally rushed the story which ruined it and you never got the feel for the characters (also some bad acting on their part) but how could someone take an amazing story like that and completely RUIN it in one hour? Could they not make it at least two hours? The characters weren’t as bad as I thought they would be but the script was BAD and I WAS LAUGHING ALMOST THE WHOLE TIME when I saw the earth benders. Ok so they do this big elaborate dance but can only pick up a pebble? WHATS UP WITH THAT? That is not earth bending.
Also I understand that they probably couldn’t fit the whole book into a two hour movie but come on…… it was an hour and also the whole story line was out of wack it never flowed and barley had a sense of what was going on. I was so excited to see this movie but really it just crushed me because like I said before the cartoon series was ended for the making of the movie and a deeper inside on the characters. Well what a crap load. I can’t believe they ended the series for this. It was really bad. The names were ridiculous the Earth benders were a bunch of crap and the storyline never flowed. I can’t even describe how upset I am after I watched that movie. It made me want to cry considering the series was so amazing. Shamalamadingdong needs to be knocked off the movie and let a person who really knows what they’re doing step in and make the next books better considering this one was totally demolished in the poor…..well everything.
Could they not even make the movie two hours? I had high hopes for this movie and now I feel like a kid who just found out Santa clause isn’t real.
PLEEASSE PUT BACK ON THE SHOW!!!! We all deserve it after that terrible disaster of what some would call a movie but honestly, I would just call it a big pile of garbage.
OH…..also its aang NOT unng! PUT BACK ON THE SHOW CONSIDERING YOU DEMOLISHED THIS MOVIE!!!! Ok sorry calming down a little.
Ok so… I wanted to like this movie. I read reviews before seeing it, heard it was crap, but still went. This is one of the few times where the critics were right, for the most part. First of all, the names. "My name is Uung." What? "Uung." His name is Aang HELLOOOO! And the fire benders only able to bend fire when there are actual flames in front of them. At first I hated that, considering in the series they could produce flames at will. But after a day to cool down, I guess I can live with that, though it's cheap considering that air, water, and earth are practically everywhere. At least they could say the a portion of the fire nation could produce their own flames while fire benders in training had to make due with bending flames that are already there, but nooo, they had to have the uncle be the only one capable of doing that. And the uncle, man oh man. Am I the only one who thinks that he fits the role of the fire lord better than the actual actor who played the fire lord? OH MY GOSH the fire lord actor would've played a better uncle than that guy! Worst casting call ever (ok, maybe not ever, but it's up there)!
The finale was also anti-climatic, especially compared to the series. With the entire budget the movie had, is it really asking too much to make a giant water fish to wipe out a decent portion of the navy? At least it would have been a little more original the a "The Abyss" knock-off! Should have been more action and more of an epic feel to the finale (though that also applies to the entire movie).And it did annoy me a little to see how much dancing was required to pull off some of these bender abilities, especially the small ones. And yes, the acting wasn't all that great. Shymalan, you have directing potential, you really do, but your writing hasn't exactly gotten better. Your style of writing just doesn't work in movies like this. You know his directing talents towards bringing out the potential in actors aren’t that great and you just can't tell if it's good or bad acting. Since the acting is obviously a step down from the acting in a lot of his movies so maybe he's gotten worse with it. If he ends up directing a sequel, there better be a different writer doing the script. Now I'm not quite giving up on Shymalan as a director for 1 reason only. The action scenes were awesome. They really were. He can make some good action scenes. There were some good scenes with not long cuts that demonstrated excellent camerawork, cinematography, and choreography. Unfortunately, that was the only real good thing about this movie, and I don't feel it was that much of a redeeming factor. That is, unless a director's cut exists that has some 20+ minutes of footage that can add more depth to the story and characters, and for the love of God slow the pace down. Though I dread hearing the name Uung again. How the did he mess that up? Intentionally?
My rating of the movie, 5/10. I could watch it again with a lot of encouragement (not in 3D though), and will definitely give it another shot with a Director's cut. After a second viewing though, the rating could go up or down, depending. If you've seen the show, don't see the movie. If you haven't seen the show, skip the bad movie, buy a couple episodes of the show instead, and watch that. Also I am sorry for the inconvenience of a bad review, but I am sure all of the Avatar fans feel this way.
p l
10. p-l
@9: I could watch it again with a lot of encouragement (not in 3D though), and will definitely give it another shot with a Director's cut.

So, you didn't like this movie, but you might see it again in the theater and you'll definitely buy the DVD? This is why terrible genre films continue to be made.
wandering-dreamer
11. Sitka
Arrgh! I will still see this movie only because I adored the animated series and am possibly a masochist. But I really have to wonder what Mike & Bryan think of this hoopla. Double Arrgh! I suppose the only solace is that there is a new Avatar project in development for 2011 - bring on Avatar the Legend of Korra . . .I hope!
Noneo Yourbusiness
12. Longtimefan
I have the same problem with this movie as with "the Golden Compass". The sequel is not just an option, it is required.

Also not an option. Seeing it in 2D. I do not know if it is the same elsewhere but in Portland the theater I could see it in only had the 3D version which would have been fine if it was not more expensive than the 2D version.

One more dimension, 4 more dollars. What if I just want to see the movie but do not care about the gimmick?

The extra D did not make the movie better. If anything it made the tracking shots blurry which did not help with the enjoying.

I would give the movie a solid "Meh". It is not the end of the world if you don't see it but you will not turn into a pillar of salt if you do.
wandering-dreamer
13. Doug M.
My biggest grudge against this is that my small boys, who loved the series, will clamor to see the movie.

@Thomstel, go ahead and buy the DVD. In terms of hour-of-solid-enjoyment-per-dollar, it's a very good deal.

@sara123, the fact that it ended was one of the series' great strengths. Three seasons, three "books", one overarching story arc, over and out. Yes, we all want more stories about the Gaang, but this story is complete and that's good. _The Lord of the Rings_ doesn't need a sequel, and neither does this.
wandering-dreamer
14. Marbelcal
I felt like I was watching the Emerald Island Players.
Brandon Wood
15. brad21088
I'm not a fan of the TV show (I've caught bits and pieces of a couple episodes while channel surfing) but I've wanted to see the movie because the action sequences look awesome. It just looks (from the previews) like an awesome action-y, special-effects-y movie. But from the reviews, it sounds like the action isn't that great and the general suckiness of the movie outweighs the (clunky) special-effects...
wandering-dreamer
16. Russ comments
Marbelcal@14: You win the comments for this article.

And I second DougM@13 - if you don't have the DVDs of the animated series, go buy those instead. It's one of the best cartoons I've ever seen (for adults or kids), and that way you're supporting the quality product not the cash-in knock-off.

So very disappointed, but not suprised given how they cast the movie in the first place :(
wandering-dreamer
17. Yang2
@Matt: I loved your review points about the name butchering and the over-use of martial arts because those were exactly the two points I raised with my girlfriend after watching the movie. Since we agree 100%, I know that you too are a fine upstanding gentleman of culture and intelligence. :D

Some things I'd like to add which disappointed me: lack of burns of Zuko (they made it look like claw marks instead). Earth Kingdom village going from all Asians to all Africans during their minute long liberation run. Also did anyone notice that the Asian Earthbender's choreography was vastly superior to all others (especially Katara's)? They were actually in sync.

I wish they would let a fan interview Mr. M Night and ask him if he actually watched the series at all (as he claims to have done).
wandering-dreamer
18. namrepus
be sure and see my youtube video about the movie... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xo9up21cGfk
wandering-dreamer
19. filipinoairbender
Oh my gosh! I'm sooooo freaking glad that I'm not the only one who is ticked off about this movie. They obviously didn't watch the series. The names were messed up, they freaking made all of the firebenders indian, and the special affects were crap. Roger Ebert could not have said it better. I was so excited to see the movie but after like 5 mins in I was crushed. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE do NOT let m night gayamalan do the next movie!!!
wandering-dreamer
20. filipinoairbender
Also, I meant to say thank you Matt and Jordan for your reviews. They were right on point. Was it not obvious that shyamalan conviently made the firebenders all indian? I honestly have nothing against indians lol but when it comes to having honor and drinking jasmine tea...I just can't believe it. Zuko sucked. Dev was great in slumdog but puke on his performance in TLA. It was dreadful. His anger wasn't believable. I'm not just picking on him though. Basically the whole cast sucked. I wanted to just slap Katara or any one that said Ahng or Ahvatar. Seriously, where did they find these people? BadActorsRUS? On a lighter note..the costumes were sweet.
wandering-dreamer
21. disappointedFan
On the bright side, Uwe Boll feels better about himself after seeing this movie.
Irene Gallo
22. Irene
I went expecting it to be bad and i was _still_ disappointed.
David Enyeart
23. blink62051
@Marbelcal: Absolutely the most accurate way to describe the movie. You win.
Matt London
24. MattLondon
@21 DisappointedFan -- Uwe Boll is the anti-christ. Mentioning his name in public poisons all that is cinema. The Airbender film is nearly perfect when compared to anything that sadist has ever produced. Shyamalan's big mistake was being too much of a fan, trying too hard to be loyal to the source material. Boll deliberately screws up good source material as a way of mocking fans. His whole career is a big practical joke. He's a middle school bully with a distribution deal. Ugh. Just thinking about him makes me throw up in my mouth.
David Enyeart
25. blink62051
Who exactly are Ahng and Soakah and Eeroh and the Ahvatar, and what's an Agni Key? This isn't a book, where the names are only written down and you can debate the pronunciation of Saruman with your friends. This is a TV show, where living actors spent three seasons pronouncing certain names the same way in every episode.

Thank You!!! This was the number one thing that I hated about the movie. I don't understand how in the world the mispronunciations were put in there. Like you said, the names were said over and over again throughout the TV show, there's no excuse for them to be pronounced wrong in the movie. None at all. NONE!

I can just see the production meeting: “I got it! Let's distinguish our version of Avatar by pulling fans totally out of the movie every time someone says a proper noun.”

And that's exactly what happened as I was watching it. The mispronunciations were more distracting than the family with 9 little kids that sat right by us.
wandering-dreamer
27. AangFan1
We went to see The Last Airbender on July 2nd. My family and I went expecting BAD THINGS and, I must say we weren't disappointed. I REALLY HOPED that we would be wrong, but we weren't: this film was bad. We are Avatar: The Last Airbender fans; we watch the show just about every time it comes on. The movie made me sick. I just couldn't believe that Nick and the original Avatar: TLA guys LET this movie happen!
My complaints about the movie are the same as everyone else has said. The names are mispronounced, the action sequences dragged, the dialog was so stilted that I would think that a 5 year old wrote it, the 3d was VERY distracting, and the writers didn't even try to make us CARE about the characters (one of the wonderful things about the series). This movie was a bomb (and not the good kind).
We, my husband and I, have desided that we should purchase the cartoon on DVD. I can't say it any plainer than that. Although, I imagine that we'll still see the next two movies. (Being fans, we can't help ourselves!)

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