Friday, July 2, 2010

The Last Airbender: to bend or not to bend (to popular critical opinion), that is the question

Okay, I've seen episodes of the series. But it's not a show you can just pick up in the middle, and I didn't care to keep watching it. So I went in with some familiarity, but no fanboy drooling (that was why my sister came).

I know everyone wants to compare every movie Shyamalan ever makes again to Sixth Sense. Well, this ain't Sixth Sense. But it's better than The Happening. It's probably better than The Village. And though I'm one o the few who kind of appreciates elements of Lady in the Water, Last Airbender is the sort of storybook for kids movie that he tried to make then and failed. It's his best movie in a long time. That may be a minor achievement, but it bears pointing out.

Yes, Katara and Sokka are a bit darker in the cartoon. Could he have cast them darker? Yup. Did I care terribly? Nope. Because in the universe as put on film, we are dealing with very Asian ideas and such, but not necessarily "ancient Asia". While Nicole wasn't exactly Katara to me, I could sort of see it. It's difficult casting actors to play cartoons because they require a certain "look". As to the racial thing, it seemed to me that each "nation" had a kind of homogeny to it. The Water Kingdom was mostly white (and since they all lived in ice castles this was believable, unless he had made them Inuit or something). The Fire Nation was Indian, with a bit of Arab-looking types thrown in. The Earth Kingdom was all Asian. And the flashbacks to the Airbenders seemed to be mixed.

I'm probably in the minority again, but I really like the kid who played Aang. I thought he was very well realized. His bending was believable. And I never thought of him as particularly "white". I also liked Dev Patel as Zuko, even though his look didn't exactly match the cartoon. My sister felt his disfiguring burns should have been more hideous and pronounced. I suspect Nickelodeon may have insisted it stay PG.

Many whine about the pronunciations. It didn't bother me much, though I'm a non-viewer (it bothers the heck out of me when people mispronounce Tolkien names). To me, Shyamalan was trying to ensure they sounded more Asian and authentic (for all the "racebending" flack he's taken).

The cinematography was beautiful, and I loved all the location shooting. This didn't surprise me, since Andrew Lesnie (Lord of the Rings) shot it. The bending effects were good. I liked the fight choreography, there there were a few places where we see things defended that we barely saw start as attacks. Like the camera was TOO close on our heroes sometimes. And a few moments the bending seemed delayed or off from the movements.

There's a lot of narration in this movie. This is part of the show, and I understand it. I had no problem with most of it, but there were a few times that it told us everything before the visual was even finished. Then we watched something play out for no reason, since it had been narrated for us. One or two of those narrations could have been dropped and helped the movie immensely. Maybe someday there will be a Blade Runner-style director's cut where some of this is taken out.

The opening was perfect. It was an exact live action replication of the show's opening. That's good. While the movie had to condense a season's worth of story into 1 hour and 45 minutes, I thought it felt very faithful as an adaptation. Yes, there were images and events that changed, not all for the better. But Lord of the Rings suffered the same fate. It's the nature of the beast, and I understood it in the context. It could have been worse; they could have tried to tell the entire story in one movie. At first, I was waiting for "Book Two: Earth" to show up onscreen at some point. I did not know this was going to be a trilogy, and I hope it gets completed, not suffering the same fate as Golden Compass.

Another argument is that there's no character development in the film. While the movie is rushed do to its plot constraints, I don't think there's NO character. I totally got a big sister vibe from Katara to Aang. I understood Aang's pain over his sudden loss of family and everyone he's known. That character DOES have an arc; before he was frozen he was faced with a bowing crowd and he ran away. At the film's end, he no longer runs away and has begun to accept his role as Avatar. Remember he has to develop over three films. This movie is introduction; there's room to play with character later. There could have been a bit more between Katara and Sokka. Still, I like that the film had a certain gravity to it. While some wisecracking is missed, I understand that. I also understood Zuko's arc. I get his motivations. I like that he's not one-dimensional. I definitely felt more character than I did from Dragonball Evolution. That movie was slightly clever here and there, but primarily a fun movie if I were 6 years old. Last Airbender I enjoyed as my present self.

Maybe it's not as good as the series. I wouldn't know. But I think it's pretty likely that the movie will at least become a gateway for people to discover or rediscover the cartoon. That's good, right? I felt like Shyamalan respected the material, even if he altered or veered from it. So I honestly wouldn't discourage anyone from seeing it. Oh, but do not waste your money on the shoddy 3D. It makes green-screen stuff more obvious, and doesn't add much depth anyway. It's mostly just for bending effects. I'd say at least half of the movie doesn't feel like it has any added depth at all; don't waste the extra money if you can help it.

No comments:

Post a Comment