Now, there are some movies adapted from shows or comics that, while poor, are still worth a hoot or two and worth collecting--if only to show to my kids one day, so we can laugh at them together (I’m looking at you, Ghost Rider). Airbender, however, is something best forgotten. It is so bad, in fact, I’m predicting $5 movie bin within one year of this date.
To be honest, I am a fan of the cartoon upon which the movie is based. However, in the past, I also considered myself a fan of Shyamalan’s work (though now, sadly, ONLY in the past). So, while it is possible that my opinion is influenced by my affection for the cartoon, I consider the movie just as much a disappointment for any fan of Shyamalan.
In reality, Airbender failed in four major areas, three of which are crucial in ANY film: acting/direction, writing/dialog, writing/story, plus respect for the source material. Though the source material handling was an issue, the rest of the movie elements (found in every movie) were handled so poorly that nearly any movie viewer would be disappointed.
Acting/Direction--While the delivery of a line is really up to an actor, the director is the one who tells the actor what kind of a performance he wants. While the child actor who played Aang, err, “Ong” (more on this later) was trying his best, his performance was stilted, disjointed, and very wooden. At one point, after a very badly delivered line, I turned to my friend and declared “Wow, sure was lucky he had the script page right there to read off of!”
While I wish this young newcomer was the only example, in truth the entire cast suffered from the same problems. The actor who played Zuko gave what was perhaps the strongest performance. However, the poor boy is so lop-sided and wide-eyed throughout the movie that he looks just plain silly and comes across as just short of ridiculous.
Furthermore, the fights, while occasionally visually impressive, are often slow and labored to the point that Han Solo could wander in, shoot both combatants, and wander out before the first punch is thrown. Consequently, the audience feels no concern, no sense of danger, for the characters. Not only do the characters talk funny, but they fight so slow, they could just lazily dodge the next blow!
Writing/Dialog--While the acting was terrible, especially in line delivery, the truth was that very few actors, if any, could overcome the vast problems with the script. While watching the movie, I was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of words and dialog repeated by numerous characters only minutes from each other. Characters would awkwardly fit in plot summaries, repeat what was just said to them, and recite long factual statements at the most awkward of times. One frightening example follows:
General: “We do not need to worry about the ocean and moon spirits.”Really and truly. How I wish I was exaggerating. I have read a few reviews to see if anyone agrees with me and have been surprised at the sheer number of people who feel the same way. One critic described the dialog in a way I had also considered: it was as though the script had been translated into Japanese and back into English, creating the feel of a badly dubbed Godzilla movie. And he couldn’t be more right; that’s exactly how it feels. The most frightening part of this realization is the thought that perhaps the dialog was not an accident of an inept writer but rather a stylistic choice! [Kate, who hasn't seen the movie but has seen most of Shyamalan's films, thinks this probable. See her comment below.] The mere idea is ludicrous but after watching the movie, one has to wonder if a person could create something so horrifically terrible by mere accident.
Uncle Iroh: “Why do we not need to worry about the ocean and moon spirits?”
General: “I have found a way to neutralize the ocean and moon spirits.”
Surely M. Night saw the dialog wasn’t working! Why didn’t he change it!?!?!?!
Writing/Story--The story of Aang is an epic tale that stretches over three seasons. While there is a lot of story there, there are also a lot of stand-alone episodes and mini-arcs that, while they add character development and background to the world, have little impact on the main storyline and outcome of that story. And so, in theory, one could shave off a lot of the “fat” from the series and come up with a much tighter story.
While it seems that M. Night tried to do this to a point, he messed it up something awful. Instead of trying to link key events from the seasons together into a cohesive whole, the director (referred to hereafter as “Sir Stupid Head”) tried his best to summarize the entire season in the first 2/3rds of the movie. And the movie was only 90 minutes long! As a result, some stuff didn’t make it in. The most surprising part was what hit the cutting room floor. Sir Stupid Head has confirmed that the kyoshi warriors were filmed but were cut. It’s heartbreaking to think of what other major things also went missing in order to fit the film into such a short running time. Though one has to wonder if making this movie any longer would have done anyone any good.
Because of the vastness of the material covered, the movie zips along at an absolutely insane pace, taking a break for badly timed flashbacks and monologues. The movie moves so fast, in fact, that major parts of any successful movie, such as character moments, character development, and bonding moments, are completely abandoned. The movie moves so fast, in fact, that no one thinks to wonder why the characters don’t learn each others' names until they have already traveled THOUSANDS of miles together! Seriously, watch the movie. The trio leaves the South Pole, travels to Aang’s home temple (which seems to be in India), waiting till they are there to learn each others' names! Without character building moments, the audience cannot connect with the characters, and thus does not care what their eventual fate is!
While some treasured moments from the show do make it into the movie, like the blue spirit, they are inserted with almost no structure or explanation, so much so that newcomers to the mythology will be completely confused by the events. While fan service is appreciated, you simply cannot portray an event in which a main antagonist behaves against his character without explaining how he did it (How did the prince learn that Aang was captured?!?!) and why he did it (Wait, doesn’t he want him captured?!?!? Why is he helping him escape?).
Respect for the source material--Sir Stupid Head, in several interviews, stated that the movie was an opportunity to correct mistakes in the show and insert “deeper ideas” into a big budget picture. Unfortunately, for an ADAPTATION, correcting the “mistakes” of the source material will not be seen as a favor, only tampering by a self-indulgent, egotistical narcissist. For example, the aforementioned “ONG” as opposed to the show’s “Ayng.” Sir Stupid Head cites that it is impossible for an Asian to pronounce the name AANG as “ayng” with that spelling . . . completely forgetting the fact that the source material is a SHOW, not a novel!!!! As I was sitting in the theater, you could hear a slow groan from every audience member when the narrator first said, “Ong”.
I understand that for the source material to be adapted, some things had to change. I even agree with some of the changes. I felt the way Zuko’s origin story was worked in was very clever, however badly shoe-horned into place. But other changes, such as changes to the rules and mechanics of the world, were just mind-numbingly stupid.
The most blatant of these changes was the bending, which was altered in two major ways. First off, the movie changed the rules of fire bending, so benders needed a source of fire. This is a change that affected some major plot points; if Zuko couldn’t make his own fire, how did he melt the ice that encased him, or the ice covering where he was swimming? While I do understand the thought--to put fire benders on the same playing field as everyone else--by doing so, the movie removed the thing that made the fire benders so powerful and so frightening: they could create their own fire! It burned from within! By removing this characteristic, the movie also removed the one major aspect that allows the viewer to believe that the fire nation has the power to dominate the entire world!
The second big change to bending was the process itself: instead of the elements bending to the will and movements of the characters, the benders had to perform a long series of perfectly executed steps to get the slightest reaction from the element. It reminded me of performing a finishing move on Mortal Kombat! Because of this, the bending never seemed organic, or natural; it also created a labored sense of slowness to the fights. All the fights seemed more like casual demonstrations of power than actual struggles for survival!
The truly sad part about all of this is that I could continue. While I have dealt with four major problems, the truth is that Airbender failed on almost every level a movie can fail on. Even the casting was awful, though not for the reasons that the racial equality people claim. A true tragedy is that the movie did have some good points. But they were so thoroughly overpowered and obscured by the bad that they are easily ignored and forgotten.
What could have been a fun, action-packed epic was instead a dreadful, plodding, hurried mess of a movie that squandered the potential of the source material in order to serve the whims and motives of a man whose career this disastrous movie has most likely ended.