Friday, July 02, 2010

The Last Airbender (Movie review)

I went to see The Last Airbender last week. As a long fan of the Avatar series, I thought I'd write down my thoughts on the movie and how it stacks up to the original. Overall I thought the movie was OK, although it felt awfully hurried to try to fit into one movie what originally took place over a season of a television show. As I feared, character development suffered a bit from this; I thought both the characters of Aang and Zuko were pretty well fleshed-out, but most of the remaining characters were pretty flat, which is unfortunate. In some ways, the movie does a better job of pulling in some major themes (such as the Avatar's relation to the spirit world) than the early series did. On the other hand, it should be able to draw in some of these later-developed themes better, since it has the completed series to draw off of. But ultimately I'm not sure I can see the movie as hugely successful. It felt rushed, most of the characters felt under-developed, and somehow even the bending scenes failed to be compelling. So that said, let me say a bit about what I liked and what I found lacking. And I guess from this point out, there be spoilers--both for the movie, and for the rest of the series.

I liked the fact that the relationship of the Avatar to the spirit world was spelled out early on and woven deeply into the plot. As I recall, this was something which was introduced a bit later in the series. The dragon as a sort of spirit-guide works. (I'm assuming it's still Roku's dragon, although this is never mentioned in the movie.)

The movie tells us that water bending is strongly tied to emotions, which I think helps us understand Aang's overwhelming grief at the loss of all of his friends, guardians, and mentors, and his guilt over abandoning them. It's a nice device to get the idea across quickly. (But I have to wonder: What are the other elements linked with?) The betrayal of Aang by the Earth villager, who tells him he spent a life in poverty because of the Avatar's absence, deftly underscores the idea that some resent the Avatar for disappearing. An episode in the first season of the series dealt with the theme of the Avatar abandoning the world to the Fire nations ravages, and I remember that episode impressed me--and caught me off guard. It was a hint that the series was going to be deep and interesting. It's difficult to pull off the same trick in a single movie, since we have to identify with Aang before we can see this more complex (and uncomfortable) shading of his character. The movie tries (I think) to develop sympathy with Aang by having him start helping Earth nation villages right away. This works, but on the other hand is a little weird, since from Aang's perspective, he basically ran away from his responsibilities as the Avatar yesterday. So why exactly does he suddenly decide to accept those responsibilities and start acting like the Avatar?

The same series episode which started the development of Aang also started the development of prince Zuko, who wants to regain honor in his father's eyes by capturing the Avatar. The movie does a fairly good job of outlining Zuko's history and motivations. I think they are a little too quick to dive into the character of Iroh, Zuko's uncle, 'though. I recall him being a rather enigmatic figure for some time into the series. His reactions to and willingness to turn on other Fire nation troops so rapidly in the movie I think lead to a lot of loss of subtlety for the character. The movie watcher would have no real reason to question the Fire Lord's assessment when he calls Iroh a traitor, but this is a mischaracterization of Iroh. Iroh is proudly and fundamentally of the Fire nation; he's just not insane or evil, and tends towards a more harmonious blending of the all the nations rather than a desire to have the Fire nation completely dominate. There are certainly strains of "with us or against us" totalitarianism in the Fire nation, but I don't think there is enough in the movie to undermine that idea with a viewer unfamiliar with the series.

Unfortunately, despite some careful work on Aang and Zuko, and some attention to Iroh, most of the rest of the characters in the movie are pretty flat. The romance between Yue and Sokka is pretty much handled by saying, "Um, and they're in love, OK?" When Yue sacrifices herself to save a spirit, it's hard to pull much emotion out of the scene since we pretty much met Yue fifteen minutes ago, and much of that fifteen minutes was spent watching Aang try to learn to water bend. Katara isn't developed much either. After the movie harps on the idea that Aang abandoned his responsibilities because he was told he could never have a family, the scene at the end where Katara bows down before Aang as the Avatar--just like everyone else--could have resonated strongly, reminding us of what Aang was giving up, had the movie (like the series) suggested that Aang might have feelings for Katara.

The only other characters of any significance in the movie are Zhao (portrayed as a simple villain) and the Fire Lord (portrayed as, well... not much of anything, I think). Most of the other characters don't even get names. (I will say that I think the decision to have the monks in Aang's memories never speak is interesting; it keeps that past distant from us, and leaves us with just impressions about Aang's feelings about them, which are pretty clear. It helps emphasize the idea that these are memories of long gone people. Not that I think there would be a problem if they are to speak in a later movie either; it just worked well here.)

Partly the movie suffered from trying to cram a season worth of episodes into one movie. The first half of the movie left me trying to catch my breath; it seemed like a constant series of rapid scene changes. Now go here! Now there! Now Aang's captured! Now he's escaped! Now he's visiting a temple! Now he's in the spirit world! Now he's leading a rebellion! Now he's captured again!... To have been a successful translation to the big screen, I think the movie would have to have been twice as long (at least). Unfortunately, no one would have gone to see it.

Then there are distracting and weird changes made for no real reason I can see. Why in the world would you change the pronunciation of some the characters' names from the series? And fire benders seem to need an external source of fire to bend now, which I suppose makes them more like the other benders, except it also seems to put them at a huge disadvantage: While it's hard to go anywhere that has no earth, air, or water, it's not that unusual to be places without fire. (Of course, this also leaves me wanting to scream in the battle scenes with the water benders: "Just focus on putting out their fire source in the first place!") I suppose it gives an easy hook to emphasize the idea that Iroh is a truly gifted fire bender, or a way to explain what the comet will accomplish, but it mostly just seems unnecessary.

And one last minor complaint: I'm not impressed with the bending scenes. The animated series did a better job on two counts. First, the bending in animation seemed more controlled. The bending in "live action" (in reality computer animation) ended up looking more like a vague suggestion to the element, probably in an attempt to make it look more "real". Secondly, the bending motions in the movie rarely seemed to actually do anything. Most of the time the characters seemed like they flailed around for a few minutes, then finally something would happen. Sometimes. In the series, the element seemed to respond immediately to the work of a bender, and it seemed linked and connected with their motions. The movie bending looked more like a bunch of magic passes, followed by a brief magic trick. Perhaps this is partly a problem in coordinating the computer animation with the choreography, but there never seemed to be much connection between a bender's motions and the response of the element.

I'm not sure what the overall reaction to the movie will be, but I'm not feeling it's been a very successful retelling of the tale, and I'm not sure it will have the same appeal. (Of course, I'm sure more people will see the movie than the animated series; it's being sold as a summer blockbuster and there are plenty of people who just won't watch animation anyway.)