I just watched 2010’s The Last Airbender on Netflix, and then spent 45 minutes or so researching and writing this review of the movie on Flixster. Since I spent so much time on it, I thought I’d post it here. To add some context, I became more and more frustrated the more research I did. Also, Avatar: The Last Airbender (the original animated series the movie is based on) and the new follow-up series that premiered last month, The Legend of Korra, are great and should be watched. So here’s the review:
To be fair, I’m a big fan of the source material, so it is next to impossible for me to fairly judge this movie without being influenced by the vastly superior source material.
The thing that is bewildering to me is how this movie can be as bad as it is. By all accounts, it should be great from looking at the talented people involved. While M. Night Shyamalan’s movies have gone downhill in recent years, he has made some very enjoyable films in the past. I don’t know if he would necessarily be the best choice for an action-heavy film like this, but it’s not like he’s a terrible director. However, the movie is awkwardly paced. I can understand some of that: it’s clear they were setting this up to be a trilogy, and it always takes time to do an origin story, but the movie just felt like it dragged on.
Another major complaint of mine is the cinematography. It just felt uninspired. Even though this is a tale that is clearly trying to be an epic story in a large and expansive world, nothing about the settings felt epic. In fact, every shot felt ordinary, predictable, and small-scale. The scale even felt smaller than the six-year-old cartoon. This astonishes me since the cinematographer has plenty of experience with epic movies: his name is Andrew Lesnie and he won an Oscar for being the director of photography for The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. (To be fair, plenty of blame for this also lies with the art directors who also inexplicably failed on this movie despite all having worked on very good movies in the past.)
The acting was all mediocre. I would say any of it was particularly terrible, but none of it was very good, and many had odd looks on their faces at times. I’m not sure who’s to blame here: the actors or the director.
However, probably the biggest disappointment in the movie was the bending. In the world of this movie, some people can “bend,” or control the elements around them (the elements being water, fire, earth, and air). However, it all felt TERRIBLE. Just watch one episode of the original animated series and you’ll see how this was supposed to be: fluid and beautiful with the elements moving with their movements. However, every single bender in this movie looked like they had lead shoes on. Their movements were jerky, they waved their arms around like crazy and *then* something happened, and it wasn’t even exciting when it did. By all accounts, the action sequences in this movie should have been great. The effects were done by Industrial Light & Magic, one of the largest and most famous effects houses in the industry, but they seem to have phoned it in (admittedly the water wasn’t too bad). I think the problem with the choreography is that neither of the stunt coordinators, Ben Cooke & Mark Rounthwaite, have much experience with being stunt coordinators. However, they both come from a long background of stunt performing. Ben Cooke is one of Daniel Craig’s stunt doubles for the current Bond films, and Mark Rounthwaite has been doing stunts for TV & films for decades. And Mark basically has no excuse: he has been a stunt coordinator for The Bourne Ultimatum, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.
To summarize: Avatar: The Last Airbender is on Netflix instant. Go watch it. And how this many people with this much talent messed up so badly bewilders me.