Bend it like Shyamalan
Director’s action/fantasy foray makes for fun children’s matinee
At first glance, M. Night Shyamalan seems an odd choice to take the reins of an epic children’s movie. Especially considering that he’s increasingly become the butt of pop-culture jokes as each successive film since The Sixth Sense has become sillier and more self-absorbed—though his interminable Lady in the Water was at heart a fairy tale. With that said, it comes as sort of a surprise that his adaptation of the cult animé TV show Avatar: The Last Airbender isn’t half bad (though I should also point out that I’ve never seen the TV series).
The world of the film is separated into four tribes, each one governed by the elements of Earth, Wind, Fire or Water, wherein certain clan members are able to manipulate, to bend the element they favor. And for a time these clans existed in harmony, kept in balance by the Avatar, a human with preternatural mastery over all four elements. But then, the dude had to go and disappear, letting the Fire folks get all steampunk fascist and start pushing the other tribes around. One hundred years later, a couple of kids from the Water tribe witness the return of the Avatar, a tattooed monk-looking kid named Aang, and his mount (which looks like the floating result of a cross-breeding of Falkore from The Neverending Story, Carol from Where the Wild Things Are, and a beaver).
So, they hook up with Aang (Noah Ringer), the Last Airbender (so called because the evil Fire folks killed off every other member of the Air tribe while Aang was off playing hooky) and set off to restore balance to their world. Problem is, Aang ran from his responsibility before he learned to do anything but airbend, so he has to pick up the learning process right as they kick off the resistance.
The Last Airbender isn’t great, but as a children’s film it isn’t intolerable. The on-the-nose dialogue gets a little cramped at times as Shyamalan tries to pack a couple of seasons of backstory and upcoming conflicts (there is a trilogy of films in the works—this one being based on “Book One: Water”) into a 100-minute running time. While the effects are occasionally dodgy, they’re effective enough to drive the story, and the battles between the benders are handled well. After The Village, Lady in the Water and The Happening, it’s nice to see Shyamalan pull out of his creative downward spiral and perhaps find his niche.