I wrote this as the pilot episode of Avatar – The Last Airbender plays on television, ironically. It was weeks ago when the movie adaptation of this great show opened domestically, and I’ve been wanting to write a review for a while, but there have been so many, and I was so caught in my thoughts that I didn’t know if I really would. Just bear in mind that I write this, not because this site serves as any forum on film critique, or that I posture myself to be any authority on film, but just as my personal take. I just felt that strongly about it.
Can you guys remember the feeling of being fanatically enamored by a fantasy work or fictional series as a kid? whether it be a book, show or game, most of us had something that we latched onto and would spend our moments pretending to be apart of or imagining life as so. There was a wonderment, an unwavering concentration and true fondness that made us happy, and even though we would dare not take our attention off of this thing, we were still antsy as we sat focused. THAT’s the feeling, that as a grown ass man, I felt when I started getting into the animated Epic known as Avatar (Yeah, the real Avatar – not the biggest movie ever).
Now I’m a huge conossuier of cartoons with sophisticated and compelling storylines that speak to more mature issues and ideologies. I especially have a knack for following animated series that win Emmy awards. Slapstick Looney Toons and Spongebob kinds of programming always bored me and even irritated me a bit, even as a young kid. I was much more a Thundercats, and The Real Ghostbusters kind of child.
I was first put on to Avatar by my oldest nephew, as it used to come on Nickelodeon and I had little to no interest, because unlike most guys, I can’t stand anime and manga. The emotionless, overexagerrated characters, speed-talking and stiffness of that style is the opposite of what I go for. However, it was my nephew Winnie, that brought it to my attention again one day this Winter, that made me finally tune in. I always have the television on some kind of children’s programming when I spend time with him. I prefer educational over entertaining, but this day, I was too busy to discriminate. It was an all day Avatar marathon, and I got sucked in. It was well worth it. This cartoon had all the combinations of great cartoons put together… it was charming, serious, humorous, deep, poetic and compelling all at the same time. It’s setting is in a fictional, post-Pangea kind of old world with an Asian slant. What I found is that the series isn’t exactly anime…a far cry from the Yugi-Oh! and Naruto card challenge crap that I was likening it to. No, this was more Anime influenced, Americanized stuff like The Thundercats and G.I. Joe that I grew up with, or like The Boondocks that all of you seem to love so much (which I think is super-wack and try-hard by the way). This explains the difference in the feel of the cartoon…the relatable quality, the overall tone that draws in even all of the grown ups, including my dad, who I’ve since introduced to it. It really feels like Crouching Tiger meets Lord Of The Rings meets some Disney film.
Now take all of that into account, and imagine a movie that has 3 volumes of descriptive and carefully paced source material, and barely comes up with something on par with The Pagemaster.
M. Knight Shymalan was named as the director, producer and writer of this film adaptation waay before I ever had any vested interest in this title. Once I got into it tho, I understood the fanboys’ concerns with a guy with such a shaky reputation in Hollywood taking on such a task. I thought to myself, ‘Unbreakable is one of my favorite movies, Signs was decent, and people hailed The 6th Sense. How bad could The Village have been? I made it through half of Lady In The Water, and The Happening was ehh…
But in this case, I was assured that he couldn’t make any wrong turns because it’s all spelled out for him. Then I saw the teaser trailer. I should have known then. In fact. I think I did. Once I saw a kid who only vaguely looked like the main character flipping around doing melodramatic martial arts movements, I was a little skeptical. As it got closer to the release of the movie, more details came to surface that were unnerving…little quirky changes that would affect the groove of things that M. Knight just felt he had to make to put his own spin on things. Things like pronouncing names of main characters totally differently to reflect the cultural accuracy. This would make sense if we were dealing with real Asia and not a fictional world where people shoot lightning from their feet! Just because it’s Asian-inspired doesn’t mean it’s so literal. This also brought up lots of controversy when the news of his casting choices came up, how he took it upon himself to cast the 3 protagonist as Caucasians, and reshape the look of all the villains to be casted as Indian/South Asian and Middle Eastern. I kind of understood Shymalan’s want to cast people more like himself, seeing as to how in all of his previous work, he hasn’t really gotten to do it, why not take advantage here and give a group of actors that don’t get as much mainstream attention some shine? This inevitably would change the feel of everything involved with the familiarity of the characters, but I didn’t see the bigger debate coming. The old argument about the Hollywood machine being at play again came up, and accusations of stereotyping abounded, claiming that by making the villains darker, as well as making the surrounding characters people of color, and making the heroes White…well, you could imagine…
It’s difficult to point out all of the gripes I have with this film, if you’re not already familiar with the series. Just know that M. Knight, who deemed himself as a fan, insulted all true fans by coming out with a work that seemed rushed, dry and dumbed waaay down. As one review I read stated, it seemed like his 2 daughters were telling him the plot points of season one, AS he was shooting the film. The fact that this movie is based on season one of the cartoon, a 21 episode span, with hopes of continuing a trilogy, is key. There are at least 5 of those episodes that were filler as far as the main story goes. The movie could have easily survived without incorporating any of those episodes’ material, but then there are the 16 other episode plot points that absolutely needed to to be included to have a cohesive movie. What M. knight did, was use about 8 episodes worth of material, and attempt to sculpt an epic out of that. Not only did he skip over parts, omit and use unemotional narration to explain parts that needed to be acted out, he also took the liberty of adding information and plot points and scenes that don’t come to light in the series until much later. Why add when there’s stuff that hasn’t even been touched on? To his defense, M. Knight stated that it’s force of habit in his movie-making style to minimize and keep things short. His penchant is for 90 minute movies. That doesn’t translate well to something that’s supposed to be an epic along the lines of Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter. Unlike those films, which make a respectable effort to engage both it’s kid and adult audiences, M. Knight insults both with overly simplistic dialogue that points out the obvious, and leaves plenty of gaps…sometimes over-dramatic, and sometimes not dramatic enough delivery.
I guess some of that can be attributed to the conscious choice to hire inexperienced actors. This would work, if the script wasn’t so horrible. But novice acting, coupled with shotty writing is never a good mix. SlumDog Millionaire‘s star, Dev Patel is the only young actor here with any chops, and it shows. It seems M. Knights biggest fault is his desire to have helmed the project, almost entirely. He’s so Spike Lee in the sense that he needs to direct, produce and write all of his works. That’s not such a great formula when this is not an idea from your own mind, but an adaptation with a large following hoping for the person in charge of bringing it to life NOT to fuck it up.
In other words, Shymalan needed to chill.
I truly believe this was all one big set-up for him to get his name back into the limelight and safely re-emerge to put out his new “Thriller”.
In respect for them being the ones who put me on to my favorite cartoon series of all time now, I took both nephews to see this movie, and watched their faces as they were let down by scenes that confused them. My oldest nephew Amari laughed at things, and Winnie had to keep asking me why they were saying the Avatar’s name wrong and who certain character’s were supposed to be. We all left feeling a little slighted. This was far from the reaction I got out of Winnie after seeing The Karate Kid. And that was just karate. This was supposed to be even more awesome, this wasn’t just karate, this was fire and water and wind all crashing into each other!! Instead what we got was ballet like Tai-Chi dances and 10 minutes of special effects scattered throughout. The only good thing about this film was the look of it. So much great attention was paid to the scenery and the landscape – it actually did look like the cartoon. Now if only it felt like it…
I really would put it out there, and encourage all of you to check out Avatar – The Last Airbender, whether you like animation or not. Catch it on Nicktoons, buy the dvd sets, or watch episodes here at this link
You’ll see why I made such a big whoop out of this. Trust me. Ok, I’m done sounding like an angry nerd.