James Cameron isn’t the only director who can make a splashy avatar movie.
The star of M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Last Airbender” is an avatar named Aang, a young boy with the power to bring peace to a war-torn planet. Only he can control Air, Water, Earth and Fire, the four classical elements each represented by a tribal nation in the fantasy world created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko.
The bald, tattooed boy, played by 13-year-old taekwondo champion Noah Ringer, is a combination of the Karate Kid and a young Kwai Chang Caine, the spiritual martial-arts master in the 1970s TV series “Kung Fu.”
After being frozen in ice for a century, he’s freed by siblings Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) and Katara (Nicola Peltz), members of the peaceful Water Nation who recruit him to join their battle against the warmongering Fire Nation -- a matchup comparable to Mahatma Gandhi trading haymakers with Mike Tyson.
It’s tempting to compare “The Last Airbender” to Cameron’s “Avatar.” Both are nature-centric parables set in make-believe worlds and both feature elaborate special effects heightened by 3-D. (Unlike “Avatar,” though, Shyamalan’s movie was converted after it was shot in 2-D -- a process that diminishes the impact of images flying off the screen.)
But that’s where the similarities end. While “Avatar” raised the bar for computer-enhanced movies to a new level with its ethereal images, “The Last Airbender” is a cartoonish film that can’t transcend its roots as a children’s TV series on Nickelodeon.
Shyamalan, best known for supernatural tales like “The Sixth Sense” and “Signs,” wrote, directed and co-produced the film, so he must shoulder the blame. Children may identify with the young heroes, but adults will quickly get bored with the pseudo-philosophizing, haphazard editing and inscrutable storytelling.
As the reincarnated avatar, Aang is the only one who can control -- or, in the parlance of the film, bend -- the four elements and stop the Fire Nation from wreaking havoc. When he went into the deep freeze, however, he was so young he had only mastered the art of airbending. He must therefore learn to manipulate the other elements to ward off the evil Fire forces led by Prince Zuko (Dev Patel of “Slumdog Millionaire”) and his uncle Iroh (Shaun Toub).
At first, it’s entrancing to watch Aang create huge waves, Zuko shoot flames into the sky and a giant lizard climb a fortress wall. But the special effects grow tiresome and we’re left with a bunch of one-dimensional characters engaged in a cliched good versus evil showdown.
Production designer Philip Messina does a commendable job of creating distinct looks for the four nations, especially the ice fortress of the Water tribe. (The movie was shot primarily in Greenland.) As for the look of Aang, Katara and Sokka, Shyamalan has been criticized for using white actors to portray characters that were Asian or Inuit in the TV series.
I doubt changing the color of the actors would have improved the film. What “The Last Airbender” needed was a different director.
“The Last Airbender,” from Paramount Pictures, opens today across the U.S. Rating: *1/2
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(Rick Warner is the movie critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)