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The Last Airbender

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The Avatar World is supposedly all about Balance. I wanted to post my balanced review of The Last Airbender movie adaptation, that I wrote a while ago, after my initial fan rage had cooled a bit. I started with what was bad and ended on what I liked.

Zuko's Scar, Appearances, and Name Pronunciations

Dev Patel would look so much better with an actual scar wouldn't he? Special effects for bending are expensive, but is face makeup? I think not. To be fair, the deepness of the coloration in the cartoon depiction is not typical of scar tissue. It actually looks more like a port wine birthmark than a burn scar. I actually liked Iroh's look. The dreadlocks are cool. His name change is a different story.

I went into this movie having read all about the whitewashing and the modified names. So I was past being really upset about either of those. In fact, Soh-ka and Ong were all right. It was annoying that Shyamalan justified the name changes with "trying for ethnic authenticity" when the races of all the characters were all mismatched! Hypocrite. But I was over it. Until I saw that the Southern Water Tribe had actual Inuit-looking people mixed in with the white main characters! The Quileute Wolf Pack can be required to be accurate race, Native American, for Twilight, but the Water Tribe siblings can't?

Characterization: Sokka and Katara

In the first scene, Katara accidentally soaks Sokka. Sounds familiar, right? But they replaced one of my favorite lines: "Why is it when you play with magic water, I'm the one who gets soaked?" with some dry and tasteless stand in. I knew from the trailer that Sokka was going to be different, but wow. Personally, I liked Jackson Rathbone as Jasper in Twilight- he was arguably the best character in the third movie- even though I'm not a fan of the series. But he did not cut it at all for Sokka. My roomate pointed out something very astutely: we can appreciate Sokka's serious times- the foremost being the Day of Black Sun- and his strategist mindset BECAUSE he is usually so goofy. It's the contrast that makes the character. After all, "you can't appreciate light without the dark." But we didn't get to see our witty, sarcastic tribesman. He was too stuck on "serious-vampire-former-nineteenth-century-Colonel mode." He even seemed to have the same stiff and refined postures that he used for Jasper, even when he was- failing at- cracking a joke to Yue.

Back to the first scene, they notice something under the ice. They loosen it with Sokka's boomarang. It took me a few moments to register that, no, I wasn't seeing things. Katara's waterbending, her moment of temper- a part of her character- is taken away. She was also denied her inspirational speech to Haru and the other earthbenders. "Ong" took over for that. AND her feminism shtick with Pakku- not that anyone watching the movie would know that was his name- was removed. I can hear cartoon Katara shrieking in protest already.

As this ten hour Season is compressed, I feel that especially Sokka and Katara have somehow been leeched of life, becoming one-dimensional, over-dramatized faces. In a cliche plot. This bothers me a lot more than their being Caucasian. I do not fault Shaymalan for making this movie cliche. The premise of Avatar is cliche. Overthrowing the evil overlord who's trying to take over the world has been done. Over and over. The show itself is rife with arcetypes and tropes. But what made Avatar stand out was its character development along the way. Where might more character development have happened? In the hour or more that was left off the movie, of course! I mean, King Kong was three hours long and all that happened was a lady and a gorilla staring into each others' eyes again and again. Oh, and he might have saved her from a couple of T-rexes.

Now, I've heard that the decision to make the 30 minute cut, that would have included the Kyoshi Warriors, was made not by Shyamalan himself, but forced upon him by Paramount. I don't know whether you want to actually buy the DVD and check out some of the deleted scenes- which still don't include the Kyoshi Warriors, but have some more of the lighthearted moments within the early Gaang. At the end of the review, I'm going give you an idea about some of the deleted scenes floating around YouTube.

Aang and Zuko

Anyway . . . we get the barest glimpse of the humorous tone of the cartoon when Zuko is trying to subdue Aang after he captures him at the North Pole- there is a part where Aang is standing behind him and leans out of the way as Zuko looks around. It's comedic . . . sort of. This is followed by a fight scene that has a conspicuous lack of firebending and airbending.

Since we are deprived of Aang's famous scene of, "Do you think we could have been friends, too?" to the Blue Spirit, it would have made sense for Ong to console Zuko briefly after he angsted about his sister at the North Pole- since he regained consciousness faster than Aang, not having to journey to Koh's lair and all. And, this is something I have to give Shyamalan: how could the Water Tribe NOT know that the Koi fish were the Moon and Ocean Spirits anyway?? The prince says about Ozai, and I quote, "He can't even look at me sometimes." Aang would have been all sympathy. But no. Ong fights him and then tosses over his shoulder, "We could have been friends, you know." To someone who has not seen the cartoon, watching these two boys fight, I think this line would seem totally non-sequitur without the beautiful "I used to always visit my friend Kuzon . . . He was one of the best friends I ever had- and he was from the Fire Nation, just like you. If we knew each other back then . . ." introduction.

And I could have done without the Zutara line "I have to bring him back to go home," or whatever the heck Zuko creepily whispered in Katara's ear. Just leave her there with her concussion, please, like your 2-dimensional counterpart.

Iroh

While we're talking about what cartoon versus movie characters would do, what about when "Ee-roh" is standing next to Zhao, who is obviously going to murder the Moon Spirit? All he does is say "Don't do it, Zhao." The real Iroh, if he had been that close to Zhao would have kicked his butt in three seconds flat the instant he scooped the fish out of the water. "Whatever you do to that Spirit, I will release on you tenfold! LET IT GO, NOW!"

But, I do have to give Shaymalan another point for inserting a scene with Eeroh trying to dissuade Zuko from chasing the Avatar. Which, if you watch the first season of the cartoon, never happened. At that time, Iroh would have been fine with Zuko capturing the Avatar and delivering him to the Fire Lord. When exactly did Iroh change sides? When did he ever talk to Zuko about the war being wrong? Nowhere in canon. Strange.

Meanwhile, Zhao seems to somehow instantaneously teleport from the Fire Nation Palace to his ships, robbing Ozai of his intense and mysterious "faceless" first season persona. I can also say without a doubt, that Shaymalan made Zhao even more of a jerk than he is in the cartoon. That is an amazing feat in itself. The way he rubbed Zuko's face in his banishment in front of his entire crew and then rubbed Iroh's nose in his son's- and nephew's- death. Wow. You deserve that watery death even more, now, Zhao. But guess what? You don't get the honor of being polished off by the Ocean Spirit. Oh no, because you are so cruel, you get a glory-devoid death by four anonymous waterbenders. I laughed, I really did, when one of them dodged your fireball. I had to take humor where I could get it in this adaptation.

Other Characters

Okay, on to minor characters. I expected Haru to get cut out, but he didn't. No, he just got to be a nameless, short kid. I also expected June to be cut out. She was. I had hopes for either Jet or Teo. But Teo was replaced by a surprise guest at the Northern Air Temple: it was the bitter, avatar-hating fisherman from Episode 12, The Storm, disguised as a monk!!!

I suppose Roku was a minor character in terms of "appearances" in the first-season cartoon. But wait just a spiritbending minute. He was also of the utmost importance! He's Aang's past life, and all we see is his animal guardian? To people who haven't seen the cartoon, he is just a random dragon spirit. I guess it's a small blessing that they never actually say Fang's name in the movie, because all non-cartoon-fans would be rolling their eyes at the insipid appellation. His whole "mysterious wyrvern" image would be ruined.

The Finale

The whole tension between Fang and Ong is like an exact reversal of the Season 3 finale where Aang is "aangsting" over having to kill and all his past lives are telling him to do it anyway. Ong is apparently barely containing his anger against the Fire Nation, and the Dragon tells him that it is the Avatar's duty not to harm anyone. At this point the general audience is nodding contemplatively, and the fandom is screaming in their heads, "What the- ???"

Something I did like, despite this majorly non-canonical development, was Ong's method of stopping the battle. Granted, I was at first very much looking forward to seeing a giant, CG anthropomorphic Koi fish whooping some Fire Nation tail. However, Ong's strategy of "Hey, look, I can kill you, but I'm holding back, so either turn around or face my wrath," is totally something the pacifist Aang would have done had he not been possessed by a grief-maddened-crazy-vengeful spirit. Another point for Shyamalan.

But this raises other questions. Does this mean Ong has mastered the Avatar State? One aspect prominently featured in the cartoon is mentioned, I think- The Avatar allegedly "cannot have a family" read, "attachments to the world." This supplants the knowledge that Roku got married in the cartoon, of course. I am interested both to hear your thoughts on this and how it will turn out later.

And, something else I liked, was Yue's line to Sohka as she went to sacrifice herself. "I'm scared. Don't make me any more scared." Something about that, courage mingled with fear, really struck a chord with me. It, to me, is the most human and genuine thing anyone in the entire movie said. How did Shaymalan manage to flatten all the main characters and puff up a almost one-shot character? I'm not awarding a point for that since it was sort of a counter-action.

More Positives

There were a few good shots of bending, despite the ridiculous amount of moves it took. The rest of the time, well. The earthbending was especially lacking, and the way the water "sloshed" was rather odd, though pleasant to look at, in a way. I did love Appa and Momo's animation. No point for that either, though, Shyamalan, Appa and Momo are kinda hard to screw up.

There were two scenes that were completely and totally unique to the movie that I think were good add-ins. When Gyatso made the leaf flutter onto the little kid's forehead, I died a little. With no words, in one short, fell swoop, it captured the lighthearted, whimsical nature of Aang's upbringing. Maybe it wasn't as fun as having cartoon Gyatso's messy fruit pie bits everywhere. But it was quite cute and effective. The second one is where Ong, after being freed by the Blue Spirit, inserts himself into a "training ring" and spins heavy tiles to fight the Fire Nation soldiers. It was a very cool and well executed concept, imo. And remember, these were before we had ever seen Korra and her training tiles, or Meelo's famous line.

One, not exactly "scene," but "theme" that I noted was Ong's time-shock: "I left here just a few days ago!" talking about the Southern Temple. Another point I must award to Shaymalan is Ong dealing with the grief of losing his people. It was almost non-existent in the first season, and was only really addressed in one episode of the second season where he goes to visit Guru Pathik. The Aangst makes sense in the context of this movie, even if we do like our childish little nomad. He lost his entire world. You don't just get over that.

My greenie, environmentalist, anti-industrialism self also drew a small bit of satisfaction from frequent mentionings of the Fire Nation and their evil "machines," plus including the ominous black snow. In the cartoon it was subtly implied that the Fire Nation was more "developed" than the rest of the world and that they had huge superiority complexes- quote Zhao "Fire, the superior element" in The Blue Spirit- and that they were doing environmental damage. Aang even said the phrase, "what these people did to the environment to make the spirits mad" in The Puppetmaster.

Deleted Scenes on Youtube

There is a scene that has Sokka chasing after a fleeing Fire Nation soldier, and, no joke, whacking him on the butt with his boomerang. I giggled, at least. It wasn't Zuko, but oh well. Then there was a celebration, with, of all things, African song and dance- but at least all the people were actually African- then an Aunt Wu-eque character channels Fang to talk to Aang. There is also a scene where Pakku teaches Katara one-on-one, but the water moves at a snail's pace. There's a gag reel that I think is worth watching . . . but it will make you wish forlornly that Aang and Sokka had actually acted that way in the movie . . . Finally, there is a scene where a soldier is reporting to Ozai, and Ozai sets a field afire. It sounds a lot more epic than it actually ended up being, though it was artful, in its own way.

NOTICE TO ALL AVATAR FANS

So basically, this movie has been bashed it to smithereens on Facebook, YouTube, DeviantART, and RottenTomatoes.com. It even won a "Worst Film" from "The Rasberry Awards." Overall, I was very disappointed, too. I'd give it a 4 out of 10. I simply tried to be fair in the details of my evaluation, though. My goal is to get the word out to non-fans about how much better the cartoon is than the movie- to get more people hooked on Avatar, because it is such a great series. So I say, more power to you all, if you want to add to the bashings. If a ruckus is raised, won't they wonder what all the fuss is about?

And let's pray to Hei Bai, Wan Shi Tong, Tui, La, Agni, Enma, and the Swamp that the sequel is better.


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