As I always do when I make a bad decision like the one I am about to make, I am going to start this with a disclaimer: I really dislike reading movie reviews as a guide for whether a person should or should not go see a movie. So if you are reading this hoping to find out if you should or should not spend money on THE LAST AIRBENDER, please stop reading right now lest I become the very thing I hate in all the universe.
Also, if you don't want spoilers, you might not want to read this. If you have watched the series, you already know what happens.
With that out of the way, I want to say that I am a huge fan of the AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER television cartoon. I had the privilege of watching the entire thing on DVD in a condensed amount of time (several episodes per sitting) and I think I have actually been quoted as saying that its story is as good as the original Star Wars films. A bunch of people just read what I just said and think I am stupid, but I don't care.
I've been talking about how excited I have been for the movie adaptation ever since I read the first interview with Shyamalan. (Who many people are surprised to find is a director that I do not reflexively hate in the way that group-think would prefer that I do) I was very excited about his love for the series and his enthusiasm and have expressed this pretty emphatically. Its for that reason that I feel compelled to write this in order that I might be specific about what I liked and what I did not as I am not very good at saying outright that I just liked or disliked a movie. Its more complicated than that. It always is.
The story is alarmingly faithful to its source material, which is a fact that, in the opinion of many, seems to work against the pacing of the movie because 'so much material is jammed into one movie'. I disagree with that particular opinion. I don't feel like the movie was paced badly. Rather, I feel like an hour's worth of important material that would have made it into an actual movie was shot and edited into a comfortably longer and more enjoyable cut and then arbitrarily cut out of it by someone. You can feel this in the editing and the performances. There are evolutions in plot and individual performances that are literally missing from the narrative. . . not because someone forgot to put it there, but because someone else got rid of it after it was done.
I'm gonna dig the hole the reader has put me in at this point even deeper by saying that I don't believe Shyamalan was responsible for this. There is a load of evidence that suggests that the film we saw in the theater is not the film that Mister Shyamalan made. That someone else that had final edit authority did a chop job on his vision after it was finished and not a very thoughtful chop job at that. I'm only going to go through a few of these points.
The first, I have already mentioned. You can just feel huge chunks of the film missing. You can see the scars from the scalpel. Just for instance, anytime you hear Katara narrating the film, I can almost guarantee you that three or four fully fleshed out and important scenes were cut out of the film. The narration device was a post production fix for the fact that someone felt the need to get rid of plot information that actually drove the story. Take, for example, the scene in which Sokka and Katara and Aang ride into the Northern Water Kingdom, introduce themselves to the royal court and Sokka falls in love with Princess Yue. All of this information is jammed into about one minute of spectacular footage that is clearly collected from at least three different fully produced scenes for which incredibly elaborate sets were built in which full dialogue sequences had been shot. Scenes in which you would have gotten to know characters and developed an attachment to them. Does anyone really expect me to believe that all of that was built and shot to accompany a minute of conventionally out-of-place narration?
The second is that big moments that we remember from the tv series are in the Trailer, but not in the movie. For instance, the scene where Katara embraces Aang after his ordeal in the Avatar state at the end of the first season. This important moment is depicted in this spectacular revolving Steadicam shot in one of the trailers and is nowhere to be found in the movie. Other important character moments are missing, but are evidenced by scenes that connect with them in a linear way. For instance, the moment in which Iroh is acting almost motherly toward Zuko as he leaves the ship in his little boat to sneak into the Northern Water Kingdom, telling him how to keep warm and whispering at him to stay safe when he is out of earshot. Its hard to make sense of this scene in the movie without realizing that its only half the scene. That literally a second before that, Iroh told Zuko, embracing him on the verge of tears, "ever since my son died at Ba Sing Se, I've thought of you as my own," Do you honestly expect me to believe that M. Night Shyamalan thought it made sense to cut that out of the movie? Why? For time? Did he think it was too sappy? After writing and directing scenes like this?
Then there's the things that we didn't even get a hint of in trailers or the film, but that we know were shot like the Kyoshi Warriors.
There are no Kyoshi warriors in the film. We know scenes were shot with them, but someone somewhere decided they shouldn't be in the final cut of the movie. How many other pieces of the pacing puzzle are lying on a cutting room floor somewhere for no good reason?
Then there is the whole issue of the spirit world.
When I watched the climax of the first season on the TV series (on which the movie is based very faithfully) I expected Aang's journey into the spirit world to be downplayed quite a bit when it was translated to movie form. That maybe he would just talk to Roku twice in the course of the film and a lot of the spirit world imagery could be condensed and would have to be since it is introduced later on in the story and wouldn't have played well in a movie. When I watched the film, though, I was really excited when I started to hear Grandmother give a really compelling introduction to the Avatar's relationship the the Spirit World during the first act of the film. When I watched this scene, I started thinking to myself, 'this movie is going to be amazing.' That scene was not something I expected and ended up being a perfect way of getting the audience started down the path they'd need to be on in order to accept the things I thought would need to be cut out of this movie. I realized, however, that something had gone awry when every one of Aang's forray's into the spirit world had been simplified from their spectacular surrealist landscapes of the cartoon to a simplistic cave in which Aang talks to Roku's dragon. . . And he never meets Roku. . . and there is never a connection made between the dragon and Roku. . . There is just something seriously wrong with this. That scene with Gran Gran opened the door for something that never stepped through. I just can't believe that the same person who wrote that scene in the first act would find these grossly muted abstractions as a fulfillment of the vision that the scene was preparing us for. What I am saying is, don't blame Shyamalan for this. The evidence points to a disconnected culprit.
Now, jump past all of these points and you are left with a collection of things that I don't hate. I loved every single thing about the first half hour or so of this movie. Seeing Appa lying in the ice as Sokka and Katara climbed over the ridge was a magical moment for me particularly. Of everything I saw in this film, the revelatory moments of that creature generated some of the most emotional reactions in me. I would have accepted it if someone had just told me they went out and filmed the real Appa. Zuko's demand that the village's elderly be brought before him lended a dignity to the concept of Aang's disapearance without changing a single thing in the overall adaptation. Little things like this and seeing Sokka lead the line of little boys across the village during the approach of Zuko's ship were all subtle winks that made me feel assured that this film was very carefully thought out.
Unlike what I am hearing a lot of people say, I really liked the cast and their performances. Zuko and Iroh specifically. Sokka and Katara are pretty much perfect, Aang is the weird combination of wise and irresponsible without going overboard. His distractible childish side is well illustrated subtly in his interactions with Monk Iatso. (Iatso was taken in a completely new direction, but still captured the essense and purpose of the character, which is all I ever really hope will happen in an adaptation.) I would dare to say that Azula's single line in the film was inspired.
I loved the way the movie looked. Loved the design, loved the music. I think I liked just about every scene that I actually saw. The real problem I have with the film is what ISN'T in it rather than what actually is.
In the end, the only point I can really make is that I hope there is an extended cut of the movie when it comes out on DVD and that it does well enough to justify the two sequels.
UPDATE: I just read that there was a studio mandate that this film be shortened to under 2 hours. I guess that is the explanation for everything I just complained about.