Note: No real spoilers contained
As a person of mixed racial descent, I have this to say: Don’t let ignorant race baiting prevent you from going to see The Last Airbender or overshadow your enjoyment of the film. It’s a magical fable of balance and imbalance, harmony and disharmony, action and consequence, power and loss, innocence and character growth. It transcends racial and gender stereotypes, but only if you let it. If you can’t recapture your youth and suspend your disbelief, borrow a kid and see it through new eyes.
I recently did a review of the soundtrack for The Last Airbender. I was inspired by it to attend the first opening day showing in my area on July 1st. It was even too early to buy popcorn. Our local multiplex was packed with little kids, parents, tweens and teens.
We were one almost 8 year-old boy, one each – middle aged man & woman, and one 20-something young woman. I was concerned with how M. Knight Shyamalan would handle the transition from our beloved Nickelodeon animated series (Avatar, the Last Airbender) to live action. Hands down, we all loved The Last Airbender film. Theatergoers seemed happy as well.
The soundtrack did not disappoint. It complemented the film’s evocative style.
There were movie moments where the dialogue felt stiff, and/or didn’t translate well from the cartoon. Notably, “Is there a spiritual place where I can mediate?” I’ve rolled that line around repeatedly since opening day, and eventually concluded that, considering the target audience of kids of all religious and ethnic persuasions, there weren’t many substitute lines that wouldn’t either a) assume knowledge of certain religious disciplines or b) require education in same.
It sometimes seemed they could have shown a little more and told a little less. In fairness, the animated series does a lot of telling as well. There were series characters missing from the film. Some will make their appearance in subsequent trilogy film chapters. Sadly, others may forever remain on the cutting room floor. Aapa and Momo lacked some warmth, but were strikingly translated into the physical.
The film world was very blue in color, but beautiful; as seemed fitting with Book 1 in the series titled, “Water.”
Next: It’s a kid’s movie. Let’s say that together. It’s a kid’s movie. This film is NOT for you if:
- You want gratuitous gore; i.e., decapitating, blood spurting, disemboweling action.
- You can’t be a kid again.
- You are too cool (see 2.)
- You are a reviewer who has never seen the original animated series, and thus are ignorant of the premise/storyline.
- You go to films searching for racism, thus always finding it.
- You want sex, drugs, and rock and roll on the screen.
We saw Airbender in 2-D, not 3-D. I’ve read that the 3-D appears darker and murkier than the 2-D, but then I’ve read a lot about The Last Airbender. It’s not my normal practice when reviewing anything, but I was warned about the firestorm, so to speak.
Some reviews remind me of the old restaurant joke: “Waiter, the food is terrible, and there’s not enough of it.”
This Avatar (The Last Airbender) has one thing in common with the OTHER Avatar, which commandeered the extant animated series name (legally, as there are no copyrights for titles that aren’t trademarked/brands). There were accusations of racism.
The primary gripe in The Last Airbender is that Noah Ringer, Caucasian twelve year-old, plays Aang. Ringer has a 1st degree black belt in Taekwondo. He heard about Airbender auditions through his Taekwondo club and sent the casting folks a video. It’s fortunate that the casting call sheet apparently welcomed “Caucasians and all other races” to apply. Otherwise, we might have missed the debut of a most promising performer, as white actors would have been reluctant to try. He does a great job. I believe him as Aang. More importantly, kids believe him as Aang.
Nicola Peltz plays Katara. She is apparently whitey whitersons as well. She exuded Katara. Her performance was outstanding.
Monroe Jackson Rathbone, of Twilight fame, plays Sokka. And yes (ba-da-dum), he’s Caucasian, and he’s reportedly not related to Basil Rathbone, but descended from a Standard Oil magnate. I particularly liked his assumption of animated Sokka’s crooked smile. Well done.
The other principal in this film is not Caucasian, and is arguably the most important, pivotal character of the entire series.
Zuko’s plight with his father, Ozai is not so dissimilar from Arthur’s with (an albeit kinder) Uther in the SyFy channel series, Merlin. This is where ignorance and willfully determined pissivity come into play. To all of you who think that Zuko and the Fire Nation are cast as dark, swarthy skinned people because they are the villains: Hello, your own racial prejudices are showing. Guess why?
Little bitty spoiler for one of the later series films, but only if you never watched the animated series:
Because ZUKO is not only a reluctant villain early on in the series, but becomes a big HERO in the series storyline. In fact, he could arguably be the biggest actual hero in the story, leaving all the white folks in his dust! This is where many reviewers ignorance shows. Patel does a fine job as the (ahem) fiery Zuko.
Shaun Toub, an Iranian-American actor, best known for his roles in Crash, and Iron Man, plays a svelte Uncle Iroh. He is the voice of reason, the traveling Wiseman.
Cliff Curtis, Ozai, Zuko’s dad, is of Maori descent, and best known for Whale Rider.
Aasif Mandvi, an Indian-born actor and comedian seen on the Daily Show, plays Commander Zhao.
Suzanne Gabriel, who is of Mexican descent, plays Princess Yue.
Keong Sim, the Earthbender Father, is Korean American (signaling the Earthbending Tribe will be Asian people. Damon Gupton, who is African American, plays Monk Gyatso, Aang’s mentor and father figure.
Dam*ed if you Do, So to Speak
There also seem to be a few who haven’t forgiven Shyamalan for not being the “next Spielberg,” as declared on the cover of Newsweek in 2000.
Finally, let’s have a word from our target audience: 7-¾ year old boy quote: “My favorite part was when Aang told the Earthbenders to have courage. I’ts awesome. It’s a great movie, and everyone in the world should go to see it. I would give it 5 stars.”
What explains the ticket sales? from the Washington Post
(Answer? It’s a good family movie. )