“The Last Airbender” Blu-Ray Review

The Last Airbender

The Last Airbender

– for fantasy action violence.
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Noah Ringer, Dev Patel, Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone
Running Time: 1 hour, 26 minutes
Theatrical Release Date: July 2, 2010
DVD Release Date: November 16, 2010 (Amazon.com)
Website: thelastairbendermovie.com

Plot Summary
The Fire Nation is waging a ruthless, oppressive war against the other three nations. The film’s hero, the reluctant young Aang (Noah Ringer), is the “Last Airbender” — the Avatar who, according to prophecy, has the ability to manipulate all of the elements and bring all the nations together. Aided by a protective teenage Waterbender named Katara (Nicola Peltz) and her bull-headed brother Sokka, Aang proceeds on a perilous journey to restore balance to their war-torn world.

Jackson Rathbone plays Katara’s brother Sokka, and Dev Patel plays Prince Zuko, prince of the Fire Nation. Mandvi is set to play the role of Commander Zhao, an ambitious and hot-tempered Fire Nation commander. Toub is cast as Uncle Iroh, the retired Fire Nation general and devoted surrogate parent to Dev Patel’s character Zuko. Curtis is set to play the ruthless ruler Fire Lord Ozai. Keong Sim has been cast in the role of Earthbending Father. (from MovieWeb.com)

Film Review
In 2009, James Cameron planned to release an original storyline fueled by state-of-the-art visual effects under the title of Avatar. At the same time, director M. Night Shyamalan was adapting a 2005 Nickelodeon cartoon series called Avatar: The Last Airbender into a three-film epic. The end result? Well, the rest has become common knowledge as Cameron’s Avatar went on to be the highest grossing film in American movie history and Shyamalan was forced to shorten his film’s title to merely The Last Airbender. M. Night Shyamalan rose to fame with his sleeper hit The Sixth Sense in 1999, succeeding it with the less successful Unbreakable in 2000 and the hit Signs in 2002. Since then, every single film of Shyamalan’s has been a disappointment and sadly, he’s lost quite a bit of credibility as a director because of it all.

While The Sixth Sense, and even Signs to a degree, had earned Shyamalan comparisons to the legendary Alfred Hitchcock, The Last Airbender is much more likely to garner him comparisons to a modern day George Lucas. The Last Airbender has all the rigidness of his previous films but adds in the misfortune of poor storytelling into the mix. It doesn’t help either that M. Night casts mostly unknowns in the film, including first-time actor Noah Ringer in the title role. To make matters worse, the script is especially weak and frequently awkward (often not making much sense either) and the main characters seem much too self-aware in the delivery of their lines. It’s the kind of movie that makes other films with slightly weak or wooden acting seem near perfect. Next to Ringer’s over-the-top acting and goofy lines (it’s no wonder they didn’t show any of his dialog in the trailers), Nicola Peltz as Katara seldom has a moment without a distressed look on her face. Jackson Rathbone seems to fair only slightly better than them, but is just about a dead ringer for Hayden Christensen (of Star Wars prequel fame) and not much better of an actor than he is. I was also surprised to learn that Dev Patel was in the highly praised Slumdog Millionaire, since the young actor seems to go over-the-top plenty of times as well in Airbender. But thankfully the entire cast isn’t a loss. Shaun Toub, who has a great small (but vital) role in the first Iron Man film is wonderful here and almost unrecognizable with long hair and hidden behind facial hair. Character actors Aasif Mandvi (The Proposal) and Cliff Curtis (Die Hard 4) are also good in their respective villainous roles, but all three actors are limited by the flawed script and direction, so there’s really little they can do to save the movie.

So the real star of The Last Airbender is the first-rate special effects work in the film. While no movie should rely on effects alone (like 2012 or really any Roland Emmerich movie), The Last Airbender is visual candy for the eyes. The water effects are some of the best of its kind that I’ve seen on screen and the action can be pretty fun to watch. I didn’t see The Last Airbender in the theaters, so I waited to view it in HD on Blu-Ray and in 2D. The picture was colorful, adding to the fantastical feel of the film, despite its shortcomings holding it back. Morally, the film has some strong messages about sacrifice and loyalty (and forgiving oneself), but it roots these themes in a mystical setting where their “gods” are “spirits” who live in the “Spirit World.” While the characters look to The Avatar as a kind of savior, at one point, one of the other characters actually gives their life to save one of the “spirits.” It’s all sort of done in a mythical, fictional fashion (even touching on reincarnation), otherwise it might be worth heeding caution about when vieiwing the film with family.

The content for M. Night Shyamalan’s films have always been considerably light (of the PG-13 films I’ve seen of his) when it comes to language or sexual content and this film is completely void of any profanity or sexuality (save for one brief kiss that is entirely innocent). The violence is definitely toned down for a PG film, but there’s still quite a bit of action violence that involves people being thrown around, hit with water, frozen in place, hit with fire, or beaten in hand-to-hand martial arts fighting. There are a couple dark or creepy scenes, but again, it’s all done pretty mildly to fit within the film’s PG rating. The only instance of blood in the entire film is when a person is struck in the face with some kind of object from a long distance and their lips have a bloody cut on them (which is seen dried up in the next sequence).

When watching M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender, you can’t help but feel like there really is a fun, epic movie in the jumbled mess somewhere, but only a different director and a stronger script could have helped it take form. Several shots have a classic Shyamalan feel, while others seem like the film maker is taking cues from Peter Jackson. In the end, there are thinly developed characters leading the way through a convoluted plot that tries to make up for its underdevelopment by explaining in narration form that, for example, two people meet and instantly fall in love. It’s a simple plot point that could have been achieved better through good storytelling than having to spell it out for us. The Last Airbender is apparently the first in a proposed trilogy of films, but like the series of Unbreakable films that Shyamalan had planned that never came to be, the poor reception of The Last Airbender is likely to stop future films from coming to fruition (and The Last Airbender sets itself up very purposefully for a sequel). So until then, The Last Airbender was an entertaining first attempt at the epic adventure film from Shyamalan, and also one of the most poorly executed films you might see this year.
John DiBiase, (reviewed: 11/13/10)

Blu-Ray Special Features Review
As stated above, The Last Airbender looks pretty awesome on Blu-Ray with a crisp picture and beautiful effects. If you did enjoy this film, there’s no better way to watch it than in high definition.

Discovering The Last Airbender (58:15) – The first extra on the Last Airbender Blu-Ray disc is an hour-long feature called “Discovering The Last Airbender” that is broken down into a series of chapters with a handy “Play All” function. It begins by talking about M. Night’s inspiration for adapting the cartoon into a feature film and then explores the spirituality of the story, from it being influenced by Buddhism and Asian culture to M. Night expressing his enthusiasm for the story. Next, the feature breaks down our central trio of heroes and looks at their characteristics and status as role models. It’s interesting to hear the film makers and cast talk more deeply about these characters that didn’t quite translate on film as powerfully as they all make them sound here. One of the coolest parts of “Discovering…” is the segment about Greenland and how the team filmed the movie’s opening sequence on location there. It’s a great looking sequence and the on-location work definitely adds to the look of the movie. “World” explains how they decided to try to make the nationalities represented in Last Airbender very ambiguous, straying from its Asian influence to try to ground the story in a diverse universe. “Action” focuses on training Noah to play Aang and we see a wealth of behind the scenes footage as M. Night talks about Noah and directing him. The special effects are such a big part of the film that “Effects” is another cool section of “Discovering.” Shyamalan expresses his apprehension with working with CG effects and they reveal how they tried to use physical effects as much as possible to help ground the movie. “Music” takes us into the recording studio as James Newton Howard scores the epic adventure film. The “Finale” goes deeper into the last scene of the film, covering the emotions and the message about family that M. Night wanted to leave the audience with. It was cool to see the behind-the-scenes footage of this sequence and hear Noah talk about how he prepared for it.

Siege Of The North (18:32) explores how they built the water and ice city set from scratch to make it more tangible. This almost 20-minute segment breaks down several fight sequences, how they were filmed and what they looked like with finished effects. It’s a fun featurette and any fans of the film should check it out.

Origins Of The Avatar (7:18) – This short segment features the cartoon creators Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko talking about how they dreamed up the cartoon series Avatar: The Last Airbender. It’s a nice crash course on the show for those who don’t know anything about it. The duo give a lot of backstory to Avatar, so this one is a must-see as well.

Katara For A Day (5:37) – This is another short video that takes us through a typical day on the set with young actress Nicola Peltz. We see her in the makeup chair first, then hitting the set to do a scene as Katara, then off to do some school work in a trailer with Noah’s mom (so she doesn’t fall behind on her studies), and then back on the set before the day’s end.

Deleted Scenes (11:24) – There are four deleted scenes included on the Blu-Ray disc. The first is an easily disposable scene that starts out with a painfully cheesy tribal dance party, and then Aang wanders off to see a woman who claims to speak with the dead. Aang tries to get her to reach a deceased monk friend, but she’s clearly a fake. Suddenly, the dragon spirit takes hold of her and warns him about fighting the Fire Nation. When she snaps out of it, she doesn’t remember anything. It then cuts to Aang telling Sokka and Katara that if the Fire Nation attacks, the enemy would win. As they get ready to leave, there’s a strange moment where all the local women are just staring at Sokka. The next scene is an extended training sequence with Katara learning how to use water better in battle. Next is an extended fight sequence at the ice city where Sokka begs Aang for his help (the effects during the battle are noticibly unfinished). Lastly, a messenger delivers all the “bad” news to Fire Lord Ozai of Aang’s victory at the end. It’s more of a final ending than that which is shown in the movie (the one in the movie sets it up for a sequel).

Gag Reel (4:29) – The “Gag Reel” is really more a montage of b-roll film or people hamming it up on set than actual flubs or outtakes. The best, however, is the final one where they leave Dev Patel encased in fake ice and go on a lunch break. They hid behind him (where he couldn’t see) to make Dev think they left him alone. Too funny!

Avatar Annotations (4:29) – This is a feature length picture-in-picture feature-length commentary that you can view while watching the movie. Unfortunately, you can’t view it outside of the movie, but it’s a great additional feature to hear more from Shyamalan and the cast about the making of the film. It’s probably the most insightful of all the features on the disc and well worth watching if you’re a fan (for example, they tell the whole story of how Noah auditioned for Aang and we even hear from the producers on when they first watched his audition DVD, etc).

Overall, the Blu-Ray treatment of The Last Airbender is the ideal way to go for any fan of the movie. I was rather disappointed with the feature film, but watching the extras helped me appreciate the effort they put into the film a little more… but it also, at the same time, reinforces that The Last Airbender could have (and should have) been a stronger final product.
John DiBiase, (reviewed: 11/13/10)

Parental Guide: Content Summary
. Sex/Nudity: Two people kiss briefly, but that’s the extent of it.
. Vulgarity/Language: None.
. Alcohol/Drugs: None.
. Blood/Gore: We briefly see a bloody cut across the lips of a man who has been knocked unconscious from a flying object. We also see some light scarring on a young man’s face throughout the film; In a brief sequence, Aang goes back to his place of origin only to find the area littered with bones and skeletons (he accidentally steps on a bone and we see it break)
. Violence: There is quite a bit of action violence that involves people being thrown around, hit with water, frozen in place, hit with fire, or beaten in hand-to-hand martial arts fighting. At one point we also see a couple of soldiers hanging, but it is just by their hands and they appear to still be alive, just unconscious. A character drowns to death in a ball of water.

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