“The Last Airbender” critique

July 1, 2010

I call this a critique rather than a review because, honestly, most of my thoughts are more critical than complimentary, but I’ll try to as fair as I can.


-One of the primary things that fans of the show are not going to like is that, in the movie, the story feels very very rushed.  Major plot points are hit, and then blown past without even giving the viewer much time to soak in the moment, and a considerable number of plot points are just left out entirely.  It’s somewhat frustrating for those who know the full story, because plenty of important details get overlooked.  But this is what happens when you try to make six-and-a-half hours worth of episodes into a two hour movie–you gotta expect stuff to get left out, and rightfully so.  But I think it could’ve perhaps been done more delicately–it felt like we were trying to move as fast as we could to get as much in as possible in the short amount of time, rather than taking things more slowly and enjoying the ride (of course, this would’ve meant making the movie longer, which would’ve meant spending more money on it, which would’ve been a difficult task in and of itself).

-One of the key issues of the rushed story mentioned above is the resulting lack of character development.  And, unfortunately for the creators of the movie, character development is the core foundation of the story as it was originally written.  In the movie, the story is rushed through at such a pace, that we almost can’t process it:  one minute, we’re being introduced to a major character for the first time, and next thing we know we’re in the heat of some emotionally charged scene, and don’t know how to respond.  We’re not given any significant opportunities to connect to the characters emotionally at all, and suddenly we’re expected to be able to experience their innermost feelings at this core, critical moment, and the connection’s just simply not there.  As I said, character development is the key to the original story, and the movie suffers greatly for not having it.

-Thirdly, the acting.  Not particularly great.  To be truthful, there were parts where I thought it was actually a lot like the cartoon…but that’s problematic.  You see, in a cartoon, there’s a certain level of goofiness and “unrealisticness” that you can get away with that you just can’t with live action.  In a cartoon, people tend to be more forgiving when a character speaks in a way nobody actually does, or when there’s a moment of just really lousy acting.  Live action doesn’t have those luxuries:  if somebody says a line that nobody would ever actually say, it just sounds lame and corny; when there’s a moment of bad acting, not only is it completely unconvincing, but it actually draws you out of the story.  And, unfortunately, there are several such moments in the movie.  Now, to be fair, I should point out that there are some parts where the acting is actually spot on and believable, but it was pretty inconsistent through the film.

-The last major issue that I can think of right now (at least, that anyone’s going to care about) is the special effects.  Let’s be honest:  we all know that good, relatively believably realistic special effects are doable.  So why is it that Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park (both made in the early ’90s) still own that department?  Beats me.  Anyway, Airbender was really no exception.  More often than not, I could tell when a shot was greenscreened–they had that “just not quite right” look that greenscreen shots can have.  And almost all of the the 3D rendered images (I refer to real 3D, as in computer generated images rendered via software programs like Maya, not the kind of ‘3D’ where stuff pops out at you because of some silly glasses.  I don’t give two rips about that kind of 3D and honestly couldn’t care less if I never had to see another trailer advertising it)…anyway, all the 3D rendered images looked like exactly that:  3D rendered images–they didn’t look like they were actually part of the world.  Especially Appa and Momo:  it just doesn’t quite fit–you know that they’re not actually there, even though you also know that you’re being asked to believe that they actually are, and it just doesn’t quite work.  As for the bending, the filmmakers kinda seemed like they couldn’t make up their minds.  Some of it looked really crappy, and some of it looked really good.  I suspect that’s just a matter of really investing in the shots they wanted to look good, and kinda breezing by the rest.


The minor things, obviously, aren’t necessarily as big a deal as the others.  They’re more just my own personal feelings on particular things (as if the above opinions aren’t…)

-The ethnicity of many of the characters is wrong.  In the cartoon, the Water Tribe is made up of a people that is based mostly on Inuit culture; this is still mostly true for the movie.  Except for Sokka and Katara, and a few more from the northern water tribe–they’re white.  Whatever.  And in the cartoon, the Fire Nation is probably more based on East Asian cultures than any of the rest of the peoples–in the movie, they’re not.  They’re South Asian.  The skin-tone change doesn’t really make too big a difference, other than a bit of discontinuity or confusion for the those of who’ve seen the show, because the Fire Nation characters in the movie just don’t quite look right–and you know exactly what it is.  But that’s not too big a deal.  The difficulty arises more with the fact that there are certain cultural differences between East Asian (say, Japan) and South Asian (say, Indian) cultures–and the way the Fire Nation is created to be, it just makes more sense to portray them as the cartoon did.  As for the Earth Kingdom, I’d say the filmmakers actually pretty much did a good job with them.

-This one really is a pretty minor thing, but I think I found it to be the most frustrating of all:  things were pronounced wrongly.  The word “Avatar” became “Ahvatar.”  The names “Sokka” and “Iroh” and “Aang” become “Soak-a” and “Ee-roh” and “Ahng.”  Granted, I understand that this is how these words probably would actually be pronounced by peoples who are from the cultures that the cartoon is based on, but nonetheless it still bothered me.

To sum it all up, here’s what I say:  I probably wouldn’t have been too upset to pay 5 bucks to see Airbender at the Huntington 7, but I surely am glad I didn’t pay the 10 or 12 dollars it costs to see it at most theaters.  It might be enjoyable for people who’ve never seen the cartoon, and who are more forgiving than I am about all the above issues; but for those of us who love the show, I’d say we’re better off just sticking with it.


5 Responses to ““The Last Airbender” critique”

  1. colin Says:

    Couldn’t agree with you more and then some.
    I will be blunt…It sucked. They messed up big time… It is seemingly a cheap hollywood way to cash in a a show with a cult following.

    Anyways…I’m still a little upset about it…I enjoyed your anaylis Cole. brillant.

    Also I suppose I should say one nice thing…
    THe sets were awesome with the exclusion of the firelords throne. The air temples were totally sweet!
    The Fire Lord wasn’t sitting behind fire…that could have been awesome!

  2. colephillips Says:

    That’s true, I did forget to address that. There were a few times here and there at the Northern Water Temple that I thought the scenery looked too computer generated. Obviously, it was, but there are ways to make it more believable. But the Air Temples were stellar.

  3. Marty W Says:

    Man, I almost saw a midnight showing last night, but didn’t because it’s 3D. I’m glad I saved the $15. I laughed a little to myself while reading this because a lot of those things I saw coming from the trailer. Mainly how badly they did Appa (well, I didn’t see the acting…but I did notice that the actors weren’t very attractive…).

    Anyway, as far as your special effects question goes, I’ve been developing a theory lately that the realism in your FX (as far as live action goes) doesn’t seem to matter at all. No matter how far we go, the effects will never be any more believable than Jurassic Park or the Labyrinth. No matter how hyper-realistically they render that giant scorpion I’m never going to say to myself, “Woah, where’d they get that giant scorpion!” In fact, using CG for special effects often leads to them being even worse because the actors are acting to nothing, and only the best of the best can pull that off. It’s amazing what a difference it makes. I was reading this article where they did some mocap of a guy throwing a ball. One time he mimed it, one time he actually threw a ball. Everyone they showed it to could spot the fake. Back in the days of animatronics and stop motion, some of the monsters may have looked stupid, but they always fit into the world believably, and thats enough to sell an audience. Everyone knows it’s fake, but I’d take the clunkiness of animatronics over the sterility of CG.

    That race thing is actually a way bigger deal than you think (http://www.racebending.com/v3/). People took that pretty seriously and compare it to when in the 30’s they’d have an asian supporting cast, but the main character was a white guy in yellowface. They also changed a lot of the eastern religious symbols throughout the movie to more westernized judeochristian symbols from what I hear (namely, Aang’s tattoos originally represented the flow of his chi and they changed to to a sort of cross motif). I know. I thought it was an overreaction too until I saw the water tribe.

    Katara: Uh…are we adopted?

    But yeah, I feel like the pronunciation problem would have been wold better if they had stuck with the proper cultures. They sound more mystical and stuff.

    That’s all I have to say on the subject…

  4. colephillips Says:

    Marty, great thoughts! Thanks for the articles, too; I’m bout to check them out.
    I think for the most part, I agree with you about the sfx. I don’t need the giant scorpion to actually look like a real giant scorpion; I just need it to fit in the world of the film. Jurassic Park did this perfectly–the animatronic dinosaurs are just really freaking good, and even the 3D rendered dinosaurs look like the actually belong. I think what frustrates me is that, with the release of Jurassic Park and Terminator 2 in the early 90s, we know that the effects can be done better than they typically are now. Perhaps the key difference is, back in ’93, the people making Jurassic Park weren’t even sure it was possible to do what they did. Now, everybody and their mother is using 3D software for sfx, and so the stakes for making it look both believable and good aren’t quite as high. But, yeah–I’d rather see a silly looking animatron that’s actually on set, than an average looking 3D image that’s not even there to begin with.

  5. colephillips Says:

    Racebending: wow. I wasn’t aware that it was such a hot issue. I guess that makes sense, but I just hadn’t thought about it, other than just Sokka and Katara look goofy as the only white kids in the south pole.

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