I̵7;m an avid fan of Avatar the last airbender (HIGH) and could easily write almost 1,200 words about why you should watch it. I’m even a heretic Legra about Korra, a show like many Jump fans despise. So it should come as no surprise that Netflix continues to recommend The Last Airbender movie to me. But no, I’ll not look at that pile of rubbish again, and neither should you.
If you have heard of it or managed to clear its existence from your mind, The Last Airbender is a live remake of the similarly named cartoon. The idea started sounding: take a beloved cartoon, get a well-known director (M. Night Shyamalan, yes, that one), find some actors and recreate the story for the big screen with big budget effects.
Everyone involved was so confident in the concept that they thought it would lead to two more films and a fourth unannounced season for Jump cartoon. None of that happened. The film bombed. Epic.
What went wrong? Well, I had the unfortunate pleasure of seeing this barrier in theaters, in terribly converted 3D no less, and I can tell you exactly what went wrong. All.
Too much plot for a movie
The first mistake the film made was trying to squeeze too much plot into a movie. Instead of taking things slow, The Last Airbender tried to cover the same ground as cartoons did during its first season. The first season of Jump consisted of 20 episodes averaging 24 minutes. Just let it sink in for a minute.
Of course, with any show, there are episodes you can skip and you will not miss too much (I’ll watch you, The big gap). But eventually, when you try to squeeze in eight hours of content to just over an hour and a half, shortcuts are taken and important things are cut off.
The worst shortcut is the story. Lots, lots and lots of story. Every time essential things have to happen, but there is no time to show it, Katara tells the story. The film opens with a text search that Katara also reads aloud to us, and then five minutes later we get more story from her. The film has more narrative than action scenes, and it is an action film. The story gives us a story, between scenes story, and sometimes upcoming story.
And the many cuts in the plot lead to confusing changes in the overall story. The film completely skips Kyoshi Island, which introduces a crucial former avatar and a crucial character who plays a key role later in the series. Speaking of previous avatars, the film wipes Roku, Aang’s predecessor and mentor, from the plot and replaces him with a talking spirit dragon.
This list goes on with terrible choices, but can boil down to “too much empty in 104 minutes.” Unfortunately, this means that we never see Aang, Katara and Sokka grow as friends and adopted family. The story only tells us that was what happened, but it was earned.
No respect for the heart of history
The Last Airbender does not respect the heart in the source material. It is partly related to the complaint that there is too much space, not enough time, but it is not quite the same. Some choices are time constraints; some show a clear lack of understanding of the source material.
Let’s start with the small complaints. The film does not even pronounce the character’s name correctly. Aang (with a long Aaaaang) becomes Aang (Onnnng), Sokka (Sawka) becomes Sokka (Soh-ka). Iroh (EYE-raw) becomes Iron (EEE-raw). The list goes on, and as a fan who spent three years hearing the “correct” way, it’s outrageous to hear it wrong.
Even worse is that the film almost lacks humor. The few laughs we get are usually unintentional. Aang, a lovable carefree soul who often tells jokes in cartoons, is a boring scam in the film. Socks, the second source of humor, do not even smile through most of the film. He comes from a more stoic jerk than a loving brother with humor.
However, Katara can get the shortest end of the stick, as the film turns her into a mere love interest. Her strength is gone when the stakes are high; she mostly stands aside and lets others lead and act. And her best speech in a cartoon, one that inspires earth bends to strike back against oppression, goes to Aang. IN HIGH, she must fight against a patriarchal society to receive education in water bending; her education is a moment in the film. You understand the point.
No wait, Iroh gets the shortest end of the stick. Because in cartoons, he is a crucial character who provides mentorship and guidance to almost all other main characters. And in the movie, he’s barely there and serves as little more than a vocal punching bag for Zuko.
Horrible Horrible Horrible Effects
It’s always dangerous and turns a fantasy-based world into a live-action movie. With the right care about the story and special effects, you can get something wonderful like The Lord of the Rings. Without it, you get something terrible to look at, like The Last Airbender.
Let’s start by bending, for example. In ATLA, bending movements are inspired by real martial arts. Earth bending looks like Hung Gar, a style that is known for strong postures and roots to the ground. And the results look powerful.
Let’s take a look:
In the movie, it’s not at all. Everyone waves their hands for what feels like age before the slightest slightest happens. Let’s take another look:
The second clip is laughable and a pretty good preview of all the bending you see. Some of it is bad choreography, but most of it is bad special effects. Like the little rock. Or the time a giant ball of water fell on Sokka, and he is completely dry. But the worst offense is Appa.
Appa is Aang’s sky bison, a huge beast of a monster with six nutty legs. Check him out:
Now let’s look at what the movie gave us:
What in the big names of Kyoshi and Roku is that thing? How is it even on the exhausted legs? Who thought it was a good idea or even a close approximation of Appa?
And if you think Appa looks blurry, you’re not wrong. But that’s because the movie looks like that. Throughout the film, when the special effects budget dropped, things became blurred to cover up how bad they look. And no, it’s not working, it’s still awful.
It also led to more changes in the plot (such as the fire bend mentioned above). When the gang finds imprisoned earthworms in JUMP, the bucks are sensibly locked far from the ground and surrounded by metal. In the movie? The prisoners are completely surrounded by mounds and dirt and stones – probably because a metal prison boat would have been expensive.
The end of season one in the cartoon culminates in Aang merging with the sea spirit, turning into a giant sea monster and tearing apart a fleet of ships. The end of the film culminates in Aang making a really big wave … and doing nothing with it. It’s scary or something, so the other side gives up.
It’s in a nutshell why The Last Airbender does not work. Some small but bad choices, like covering an entire season in a movie, led to shortcut after shortcut and complemented bad decisions. And to hide some bad choices, the director made more bad decisions. HIGH is well regarded for a diverse role, and even though another world is set, you can immediately recognize Asian, Inuit and Tibetan cultures.
In the movie, however, all the good guys are white and all the villains are Asian. Not a good look and was exacerbated by the director who insisted that the reason for the incorrectly pronounced names was in the name of accuracy for ethnic origin.
The Last Airbender is the kind of junk you get when you rush into a concept and do not spend enough time understanding what made the original material good. It has no heart, no humor and realistically no conciliatory qualities. Except maybe the credits, because it’s finally over.
The Last Airbender is available on Netflix, but we do not recommend watching it.