Paramount, looking for a franchise to rival “Harry Potter,” and M. Night Shyamalan, trying to recover from a string of disasters, have fastened on a Nickelodeon anime series as a possible answer to their problems. The series was called “Avatar,” but for obvious reasons only the subtitle has survived in this big-screen, live-action CGI extravaganza, which has also been converted to 3-D in line with current audience preferences. But the likelihood that this projected first installment of “The Last Airbender” will beget any more successors than “The Golden Compass” or “The Vampire’s Assistant” did seems remote.
There’s a “Star Wars” vibe to much of the proceedings, but this isn’t a space adventure set in some distant galaxy, but a quasi-Buddhist save-the-world yarn set on some relatively primitive earth-like planet. The premise is one based on the old Greek idea of the necessity for balance among the four elements (or in Galenic medical terms, the four humors) for stability or good health. The world depicted here is one divided into four nations—the kingdoms of earth, water, fire and air. In each of them are individuals with special powers, “benders,” who can manipulate the realm’s element. But since the elements are naturally at odds, an overall controller is needed to maintain order among the kingdoms. That role is played by the airbender, who can manipulate all the elements and thus keep each realm stable and secure, preventing war among them.
But for a hundred years there has been no airbender, and the kingdom of fire headed by Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis), has used its hulking machines to subdue much of the planet and impose an oppressive rule. But two youngsters of the water realm—incipient bender Katara (Nicola Peltz) and her older brother Sokha (Jackson Rathbone)—find a frozen globe that, when broken, releases a monk-child, Aang (Noah Ringer), who was in fact the airbender-in-training a century before but ran away from the monastery, wanting a normal life. Somehow—it’s unexplained—he and his huge furry steed (a critter that resembles the dragon in “The Neverending Story”) were encased in the globe.
Now that he’s freed, he finds the world in turmoil and his old monastery empty. (Indeed, the entire Kingdom of Air seems empty, the result it would seem of the Fire Kingdom’s aggression.) He must lead resistance against the tyranny, but to do so he must learn how to manipulate the elements other than air (his training hadn’t proceeded to them before his flight). So he travels with his new friends to the extreme northward enclave of the free water-people to be instructed. Thus the subtitle of the picture: “Book I: Water.”
But he’s being pursued by enemies, of course. There’s the leader of the Fire military, Commander Zhao (Aasif Mandvi), with his hordes and machines. And there’s Ozai’s son, Prince Zuko (Dev Patel), living in exile with his uncle Iroh (Shaun Toub), who wants to capture Aang and bring him to his father in order to win back his place at court. Another plot point involves the spirit of the moon, the source of the water people’s power, which exists in fish form in the northern enclave and is somehow inextricably linked to the life-force of Princess Yue (Seychelle Gabriel), on whom Sokha quickly develops a crush.
This is quite a mouthful, and it’s no wonder that Shyamalan has to tell us a lot of what’s going on via exposition clumsily inserted into dialogue scenes, and through periodic flashbacks. But despite the effort, there’s a start-and-stop quality to the narrative, which lurches from episode to episode without much care for transition, pausing once in a while to add some stuff about meditation or reincarnation.
In fact, Shyamalan seems much more interested in the visuals than narrative (or the dialogue, which is pretty ripe, even by modern action-movie standards). There are lots of fights in which element-manipulation is involved: wind gusts that slam people against walls or encase them in dusty whirlwinds, snakes or globes or walls of water, earth barricades popping out of the ground. CGI-wise, they’re all done well enough, but they hardly seem new: the water stuff isn’t much different from what we’ve seen as long ago as “The Abyss” (or even “The Ten Commandments”), we just had even dustier dust storms in “Prince of Persia,” and for much bigger earth-moving effects you can check out any Roland Emmerich epic. As for the spurts of fire, they’re about as old-hat as you can get. By today’s standards, though, the effects are okay, and the 3-D enhancement isn’t offensive, even though the images will undoubtedly be brighter and crisper in the ordinary format, making Andrew Lesnie’s cinematography look even better, though it won’t benefit James Newton Howard’s generic score.
Then there’s the physical training material—plenty of “Karate Kid”-style scenes of eastern calisthenics, often in group shots that are beginning to have all the appeal of synchronized swimming, and, for good measure, one big hand-to-hand, samurai-style fight sequence that frankly seems totally extraneous, and is rather chaotically choreographed.
But the messiness of that scene (and others in which masses of warriors are involved—an apparent Shyamalan weakness), or the ho-hum effects, aren’t what keep “Airbender” from taking flight. It’s the overall predictability of the story, the ultimate resolution of which—even in the absence of the hoped-for sequels—is obvious. (You’ll probably also feel cheated by the fact that this episode ends virtually without a resolution; it just leaves you hanging. Peter Jackson could get away with this in “Lord of the Rings,” by Shyamalan can’t.) And Shyamalan’s overly serious approach, which treats what’s really quite nonsensical as profound.
As for the young cast, they do what’s expected of them but are about as vivid as their cartoon originals. Ringer seems a likable kid, and handles the physical demands of the part, but playing what amounts to a young Dalai Lama with a penchant for fighting as well as spirituality would tax anybody. Peltz seems eager and enthusiastic but of Disney Channel caliber, while Rathbone doesn’t quite register as her naïve, eager-beaver brother; maybe it’s the ponytail, but he appeared much more comfortable as the strong, confident Jasper Hale of “Twilight: Eclipse” (or as the film student in the recent DVD release “Dread”).
On the other hand, Soub has an assured manner as Iroh, and Patel, of “Slumdog Millionaire,” actually brings a bit of uncommon depth to the conflicted Zuko, who’s obviously in for eventual reformation. Curtis, however, is a bust as Ozai, and it was definitely a mistake to cast Mandvi as Zhao. For anybody who’s ever seen him on “The Daily Show,” his preening villainy will immediately come across as comic, destroying the mood. Given Shyamalan’s approach, there’s something to be said for that, but it’s still disruptive.
Perhaps fans of the TV show will embrace “The Last Airbender.” How large a base that might be seems doubtful, though. And the uninitiated will find the picture an odd, strangely chilly and frequently confounding experience. They won’t care that this first “Airbender” will likely be the last too.