“You must go to the Northern Water Kingdom”, instructs a mentor-like dragon spirit, not unlike the ethereal guidance of an old green Jedi. Other than the rather obvious comparisons to Star Wars, The Last Airbender incorporates several unique and creative components into its setting and lore to result in a sufficiently original fantasy adventure. While certain aspects of the film definitely benefit from a big budget, much of the action and elemental effects feel overly processed with an abundance in slow motion and swirling colors. A forced grandeur also settles over the climactic moments from manipulative musical cues and close-ups rather than genuine heart. The epic feel is oftentimes rightly deserved, though the plot does feel hurried, as if twenty 30-minutes episodes’ worth of story were crammed into a 100-minute movie. It’s a step in the right direction as director M. Night Shyamalan takes the source material seriously and remains faithful to the events, though perhaps not the ethnicity of the characters.
The world is divided into four kingdoms, each represented by the element they harness, and peace has lasted throughout the realms of Water, Air, Earth, and Fire under the supervision of the Avatar, a link to the spirit world and the only being capable of mastering the use of all four elements. When young Avatar Aang (Noah Ringer) disappears, the Fire Nation launches an attack to eradicate all members of the Air Nomads to prevent interference in their future plans for world domination. 100 years pass and current Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis) continues to conquer and imprison anyone with elemental “bending” abilities in the Earth and Water Kingdoms, while siblings Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) from a Southern Water Tribe, find a mysterious boy trapped beneath the ice outside their village. Upon rescuing him, he reveals himself to be Aang, Avatar and last of the Air Nomads. Swearing to protect the Avatar, Katara and Sokka journey with him to the Northern Water Kingdom in his quest to master “Waterbending” and eventually fulfill his destiny of once again restoring peace to the world. But as they inch nearer to their goal, the group must evade Prince Zuko (Dev Patel), the exiled son of Lord Ozai, Commander Zhao, the Fire Nation’s military leader, and the tyrannical onslaught of the evil Fire Lord himself.
The Last Airbender is yet another part one of a series, an expensive, monumental step toward starting a new franchise that may never see fruition. This first chapter crams an immense amount of story into less than two hours, establishing an entirely new world of spirits, warriors, factions, and kingdoms, each brimming with characters, warships and monsters. The film feels rushed due to the inclusion of so much information that must be established in order for this foreign empire to make sense, and many scenes are pushed forward by hasty narration, otherworldly visions and patchwork montages. Unfortunately, instead of allowing the voiceovers to add details and backstory, it bridges huge gaps, moving things along speedily while also failing to show audiences many elements that could have smoothed out the progression of the plot.
For all of the impressive visuals presented in The Last Airbender, almost nothing is entirely unique. The Fire Nation has enormous, mechanical monstrosities that overpower the weaker clans, the use of “bending” powers has been illegalized, territories are governed by fear and oppression, a band of rebels strike up a revolution, and a young boy is “the one”, a savior and hero who must recognize his great potential and vast responsibility to reunite the people. There are sidekicks, dragons, battles, varying groups of villains, sorcery, magic, destinies, prophecies, an epic journey and forces of good and evil – all pieces of fantasy fiction that have been grouped together before successfully, countless times.
The set designs are spectacular, with wondrous detail to spiritual, underground caverns, luxurious ice palaces, forest villages, lofty stone temples and polished metal castles. The CG used for the climactic final onslaught and for various creatures is adequate, but the most disappointing aspect of the computer animation is the employment in every martial arts sequence. In an attempt to enhance the fighting, CG unintentionally masks every naturally exciting move and hides the beauty of the skill. It’s a misguided gimmick that is only outdone by the utterly pointless 3D tacked on at the last minute – something viewers will hopefully be intelligent enough to steer clear of and save a few bucks.
– The Massie Twins (GoneWithTheTwins.com)