Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.
What's the Big Deal?
The Last Airbender is an action adventure film released in 2010 and is an adaptation of the popular animated TV series Avatar: The Last Airbender produced by Nickelodeon. Written and directed by M. Night Shyalaman, the film is set in a world where four warring factions—each one able to manipulate either fire, water, earth or air—are engaged in a struggle for supremacy when an all-powerful being is found who could tip the balance in the conflict. The film stars Noah Ringer, Dev Patel, Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone, Shaun Toub, Aasif Mandvi and Cliff Curtis. The film borrows heavily from the first season of the show and was intended to be the first in a trilogy. Unfortunately, the film received a hostile reception from critics, audiences and fans of the show with almost every aspect of the production being criticised in some capacity. Despite this, the film earned an impressive $319 million worldwide (although it didn't make much profit after production and marketing costs), but after the critical backlash, all plans for a sequel were cancelled before the series was remade again as a live-action TV series. The film almost ruined Shyalaman's career in Hollywood; he would only make one more big-budget film after this before returning to projects with more modest budgets.
What's It About?
The world is split into four factions, each one having complete control over one of the four elements—fire, water, earth and air. A hundred years earlier, the Fire Nation declared war on the others in an effort to rule the world and the conflict still rages to this day. In the southern polar regions, two members of the Water Tribe—Sokka and his younger sister Katara—encounter an unusually shaped iceberg which suddenly breaks apart with a beam of light. Inside is the small frozen form of a young boy named Aang and his very strange pet bison Appa. Together, the three of them head off towards the Southern Water Tribe to determine what to do with Aang.
Witnessing the beam of light that shone when Aang was freed, a prince of the Fire Nation named Zuko believes that this symbolises the return of the Avatar—a mystical hero who has control over all four elements. Realising the importance of this discovery and believing that this could grant him favour with the leader of the Fire Nation Fire Lord Ozai, Zuko sets off to intercept the three youngsters without realising just how powerful young Aang is or how angry he'll be when he learns what has happened to his people...
What's to Like?
OK. Difficult questions out of the way first.
In all seriousness, it's easy to see where Shyalaman went wrong - the project is far too ambitious to be encapsulated in one movie although there are plenty of hints that sequels were originally forthcoming. Not being familiar with the show, I can commend the film for its scope and set design which gives each elemental nation a distinct feel, certainly a lot more than the whitewashed cast do but more on them in a minute. The film certainly looks like it's had plenty of money spent on it with costumes looking sumptuous and many scenes using CG effects to help tell the story. They don't tell it very well but they try, at least.
It's a rare film that gets so much wrong. The Last Airbender manages to make a mess of almost everything. The person I feel most sorry for is young Ringer who certainly looks the part of Aang and had things panned out, would have become a star as further films fleshed out his part and finished telling the story. Imagine what would have happened to Daniel Radcliffe and the others in the unlikely situation of Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone bombing at the box office. Even though I wasn't familiar with the narrative, the film doesn't exactly clear things up with a confusing story that jumps from place to place with a minimal amount of exposition. And it simply doesn't engage with you... wait a minute, I'm supposed to be positive in this section! I think it's best if we just swiftly move on.
- The film was supposed to have the same title as the TV series but unfortunately, they were forced to change the name after James Cameron had registered Avatar as a film title for his own project which did much better at the box office than this did.
- In the UK, the word 'bender' is slang for a homosexual which helped make much of this film an unintentional comedy thanks to dialogue like "Look out, he's a bender!"
- Shyalaman's original script covered all twenty episodes of the show's first series, resulting in a film that would have lasted nearly seven hours. Obviously, he was forced into cutting much of this and was later forced to cut another 30 minutes of footage in order to speed up the process of converting the film into 3D which explains why the narrative is all over the place.
- The film also made multiple changes to the source material which angered many fans of the show. Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko (the show's creators), Dev Patel and even Shyalaman himself all expressed dissatisfaction with the film. Shyalaman publicly dismissed The Last Airbender in 2019 as a 'junk movie'.
What's Not to Like?
Frankly, it's hard to know where to start. The casting, for one, is all wrong. The film was heavily criticised at the time for whitewashing the cast in roles that were either Inuit or Japanese in most cases. The worst offender by far is the definitely not-Inuit Rathbone who isn't just racially insensitive but actively annoying on screen. Shyalaman may boast about how diverse his cast is but what point is there in a diverse cast when the ethnicities are all wrong to begin with? The cast aren't helped by a confusing story and horribly uninspired dialogue that feels and sounds like it came from a bad amateur dramatic society production. The cast are almost as unconvincing as the CG which looks crude and ill-thought-out—at no point in the movie does water get people wet or fire actually burn anything besides the odd hut.
Although I can't comment on the 3D effects because I never bother with the gimmick, I can say that due to the process, the film becomes a dim and murky watch with characters and even action scenes obscured on sets with insufficient lighting. For a film that cost $150 million to make (plus an estimated $130 million to market!), the very least I expect is to be able to see the damn thing! But even if I could, I'm not convinced that I would want to. The Last Airbender is a sad and bloated affair that's devoid of any real entertainment beyond laughing at it. It's a humbling experience for every cast and crew member involved and a shocking blot on Shyalaman's career, one which I fear he is still struggling to overcome. Remember when we got excited by the release of a new film from this dynamic and plot-twist-happy director? Where have those days gone?
Should I Watch It?
Somehow managing to upset fans of the show, the show's creators and even Paramount themselves, The Last Airbender is one film that should definitely live up to its title - there should never be another. Poorly made and about as much fun as a prison sentence, the film is a complete bust on every level and isn't even bad enough to warrant a viewing from those twisted souls who get a kick from bad movies. I can normally find something to recommend in most films but I'm really struggling to see the upside here. Sorry but this film will be a punchline for years to come.
Great For: cinema notoriety, upsetting everyone in its path, DIY commentaries, destroying careers
Not So Great For: fans of the show, fans of anything, fans of film in general, ethnic representation in Hollywood
What Else Should I Watch?
Butterflies on a summer's day. Babies laughing. Puppies.
Oh, you meant movies? Well, The Last Airbender was one of several fantasy films around that time that aimed for a younger audience and all of them were much better. Percy Jackson & The Lightning Thief was another attempt at creating a series that flopped, although not as much as this film. Much more fun was The Sorcerer's Apprentice which realised how daft it was and simply went with it with Nicolas Cage playing a wizard teaching Jay Baruchel all his magic tricks. The Golden Compass also has its faults but a stellar cast led by Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman at least make it interesting. And believe me, you can do much worse than quirky fantasy flick Stardust and the underrated Bridge To Terabithia.
Feature films based on animated source material don't appear to make a good job of their adaptations, at least if previous form is anything to go by. Probably the best of the bunch include Casper which brings the friendly ghost to life (not literally, obviously) alongside a young Christina Ricci and the recent spin-off from the increasingly laboured Transformers series, Bumblebee. The 2008 film Speed Racer by the Wachowskis has developed a cult following after initial reactions wasn't all that hot and the less said about the likes of Inspector Gadget, GI Joe: The Rise Of Cobra and Popeye, the better.
Fire Lord Ozai
|Director||M. Night Shyalaman|
M. Night Shyalaman
Release Date (UK)
13th August, 2010
Action, Adventure, Family, Fantasy
Worst Supporting Actor (Rathbone), Worst Director, Worst Eye-Gouging Mis-Use Of 3D, Worst Screenplay, Worst Picture
Razzie Award Nominations
Worst Supporting Actor (Patel), Worst Supporting Actress (Peltz), Worst Screen Couple (any two members of the cast), Worst Prequel, Remake, Rip-Off or Sequel
© 2021 Benjamin Cox
Benjamin Cox (author) from Norfolk, UK on June 04, 2021:
No argument here!
Noel Penaflor from California on June 01, 2021:
This movie was so, so bad. So bad.