Monday, December 6, 2010

Ridiculously Long Review/Rant of "The Last Airbender"

So I see a lot of movies or try to, but often will limit my reviews to a star rating and usually a quick blurb on either Facebook's Flickster movie app or on Netflix, but given my love of the original Avatar: The Last Airbender series and my vast disappointment in this movie, I thought it needed a full review. Plus, it was a good excuse to get back on the blogging horse.

Like I mentioned, I'm a big fan of the animated series and even bought it on DVD after watching all three seasons through Netflix. I had seen advertised before in the past but generally dismissed it as another goofy anime for kids not nearly up to par of the classics I grew up with (Transformers, GI Joe, He-Man, etc.). It was actually one of my college professors who got me seeking it out after he referenced it in class one day, stating that he enjoyed watching it with his kids. While I'm no stranger to animated shows and liking them, I thought I'd give it a shot as a potential show to watch and embrace my inner boy, since after all, do any of us men ever fully grow up?

Anyway, after seeing the series and hearing about the upcoming movie, I was excited like most anyone else who hears about a favorite book, comic, or TV series coming to the big screen, though I had my doubts knowing the task at hand of taking a season long story and shoving it into a less than two hour movie.

When it was all said and done, the results were not good. While many reviewers jumped on the anti-M.Night Shyamalan bandwagon, I dismissed those and focused on the actual movie reviews. Like most reviews, I try to take them with a grain of salt and rely on my past movie experiences and personal likes in movies to form my own opinions. Sadly, for this movie, I have to agree with many things already said.

Knowing the odds were stacked up against this movie, I went in or rather sat down hoping on hope that it would not be as bad as many had claimed, but after about five minutes I found myself telling myself in my head, "It'll get better. Just give it time. Just give it time." Sadly, I just found myself further disappointed and mostly sad. Not sad for the anything going on in the film, but sad that such a wonderful show had been translated so poorly to live action film. When it was all over, all I wanted to do was go crack open the animated series and watch the whole first season just to remember it properly... something I didn't do, but plan to soon.

So here's where I think it went wrong or at least the areas that I think went wrong that contributed to the overall "not goodness" that was this movie. Overall, the whole movie felt very 90's action/adventure/fantasy movie-like. Think Mortal Kombat 2 or something of that sort. Something that you kind of accepted as OK because it was what it was, but you knew ideally could have been better. Unfortunately, we are in the year 2010 and have come along way in regards to these kinds of movies and what we expect. There is no longer a need for a martial artist with bad acting skills or a good actor with a bad blurry stunt double. Actors are committed and are willing to learn martial arts or at least good choreography to pull off the look of good martial arts (The Matrix). We expect a good story or at least one that can keep our attention, even if we know exactly what will happen next (see formula for nearly every Romantic Comedy). Lastly, we want to be convinced the actors are portraying who they are supposed to be and are committed to the part, even if they are just the big strong man who only grunts and smashes things. Yes, phrases like "Hulk smash!" seem stupid, but wouldn't it be worse if it was "Hulk is mildly annoyed" and then he lifeless smacks his hand on a car merely denting the hood?

So here are those points in elaboration regarding The Last Airbender. Oh, and by the way. Was it really worth all the grief from James Cameron about not having this be called "Avatar: The Last Airbender" just because his "originally" titled movie Avatar had the same name? Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed Avatar, but it's not like it's an original word he came up with and worries about confusion are dumb, because someone will inevitably create a knock off movie where the box cover looks similar and dumb people will think, "Isn't that that movie where they are blue and on some planet or something?" Just go to your local Blockbuster (if one still exists in your area) and look around at some of the familiar movie's you've never seen or heard of before. My mom used to be duped by these all the time. Anyways, moving on.

Other than Katara (Nicola Peltz), I don't think anyone provided a convincing character and even she had her moments. This is particularly sad as I generally feel that one of M. Night's talents is iliciting some depth and emotion from his actors and characters. The only other character I took to was Uncle Iroh played by Shaun Toub. Even though it was portrayed differently than the animated series, his general character of concern and love for his nephew, Zuko, was evident. All the rest seemed like they didn't care, didn't know who they were supposed to be, or were all wrong. Starting with Aang (Noah Ringer), I felt like he was this scared little boy who was about to cry the nearly the whole movie, not the playful and fun-loving boy who quietly struggles with his responsibility of being the Avatar.

Next are Zuko (Dev Patel) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone). To me, they seemed way too old for their parts. Sokka, who is the older brother is pretty much supposed to be the comic relief who later in the series comes into his own as a leader, but instead was more like the sad, pathetic way older brother stuck with babysitting his little sister and her "about to cry any minute now" little friend. Zuko on the other hand was not too bad, but I just felt he was too old for the part. At one point he is fighting Aang and it looks like some high school teenager trying to beat up a five year old for sticking his tongue out at him. I can only imagine the awkwardness of future movies where you have a quasi-love triangle between Aang, Katara, and Zuko. Something will be off and the cops may need to be involved and without going into further detail, overall the fire nation and it's leaders just seemed bland and almost bored.

Way too rushed. Yes, I know a whole season needed to be crammed into a movie, but in my opinion this one would have been the second easiest of the three, yet I felt like nothing happened and what did happen, you didn't know why. Not sure it would've kept audiences coming back, but I think splitting the seasons in two to make six movies would've been best. Not to mention that seems to be popular lately (Twilight, Harry Potter). At least that way, you could properly tell the story and not rush through it leaving even the fans lost as to what is actually happening.

In our post-Matrix movie era, I think there is a higher standard for action and martial arts in movies. It either needs to be believable or so unbelievable we wish it was or we doubt whether or not it is believable and submit it to be tested out on Mythbusters. Overall, I felt the action and fight scenes were not good at all. This more disappointing considering Noah Ringer was cast for his martial arts background. Unfortunately, they didn't take into consideration that he was coming from a taekwondo background to play a character whose style is based off a Shaolin kung fu style. For the general public, you say, "what's the difference?", but one is a more rigid style and the other a more free flowing circular style and Noah's rigid style was evident. You can really see this where Aang and Katara are practicing together and she looks a lot better in her movements (possible dance experience or just general feminine grace). Most of the other fighting and action was bland and very 90's/made for TV-ish.

My other beef is how "bending" was portrayed. Tying back to martial arts, it seemed like a lot of wasted and showy movement for little result. I felt like anyone with a bow and arrow would've bested them all given the length of time it took for characters to move and bend fire, water, or air. Ironically, Sokka seemed the most effective with his boomerang. For non-fans, the irony being that he struggles a lot throughout the show regarding being useful to the team as a fighter because he cannot "bend" and often finds himself as the goofy warrior who rushes into a overwhelming battle situation. Like I said, I expect more from action/martial arts movies. Gone are the days of using martial artists who can't act or using actors who can act, but can't fight and require the use of blurry stunt doubles and actor close-ups of them punching the camera.

Something tells me a continuation of the trilogy is not likely, but if so it will only get harder and require a lot of revamp or else I see it getting worse. Ideally if it did continue on, I would take the introduction from the TV series and incorporate that into the second movie just to help people understand what wasn't understood in this movie. Then I would split the movie as season two was the longest and most complex of the three seasons. Next, I would scrap the cast with maybe the exception of Nicola Peltz (Katara) who did alright, and really try and make this better all around. Oh, and I wouldn't fret over the race thing. If Caucasian actors work better, go for it. Ideally, they'd all be Asian or atleast Aang, the Fire Nation, and the Earth Tribes, with the Water Tribes being more Native American. Yet, seeing this go forward as is would not bode well for the original series or M. Night.

The best bet would be to forget about it for a couple of years and do a "reboot" since time is not a factor in Hollywood regarding renewing old movies and series (SpiderMan, Hulk, etc.). Who knows, it could work out like Batman Begins. Maybe someone like Sam Raimi who did well with keeping the cheesy nerdiness of Peter Parker/SpiderMan, while still making an interesting and exciting movie.

P.S. And yes, it was weird that everyone's name was pronounced differently from the TV series. I'd be like Shia Lebeouf calling Optimus Prime, Oapteemus Preemeh in the next Transformers movie. Say what you will about those movies, but that would just be weird!