Once there was an animated series called Avatar: The Last Airbender. Thanks to James Cameron, no one can use the name Avatar anymore, so we’re stuck with the subtitle. I haven’t had cable in years, so I didn’t know the series existed myself until I started seeing all this buzz. M. Night Shyamalan likes to keep us all on our toes with his choices of subject, apparently. His last name, in case you’re wondering, is pronounced “sir”, because on the billion to one chance I ever meet him, that’s what I’m going to call him. I hear he gets mad if you mispronounce his name.
So there’s this kid with tattoos all over him. Wait, I have to start further back. There’s this world where everyone belongs to one of four groups: Air, Water, Earth, and Fire. Some people can also ‘bend’ their native element, as in make walls of earth spring up and send blobs of water flying. This bending is a lot like Tai Chi, requiring various stances and movements to get the really big and cool things to happen. It’s visually very cool, but it gets a little silly in the battle scenes. I mean, why do people just stand there and watch their opponent do the long, slow dance that means death at the end of it? Break their concentration! Knock them over! But it’s tradition, I guess, so what can you do? Each generation also has one person, a spiritual leader who can bend all four elements and who is called the Avatar — I mean the A word — and the kid with the tattoos is the latest reincarnation. Imagine the Dalai Lama with super powers.
Thanks to a freak accident, this reincarnation — a boy named Aang — ends up out of commission for a long time. Without the A word person around, things turn bad pretty quickly. The Fire Nation, under Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis, and I’m so sad that he’s playing a bad guy this time after Sunshine and Live Free and Die Hard), has gotten all uppity and wants to take over the world. And they’re off to a good start, because they use their fire to make Machines. Most others seem to live at about a medieval level of technology, but they have battleships with flamethrowers. Actually, they’d love the Really Big Gun from Jonah Hex.
The takeover is going pretty well so far, but once Aang is back in action, he’s ready to stop it. He’s rescued by Katara (Nicola Peltz) and her brother Sokka (Jackson Rathbone, who’s also in those Twilight movies and is therefore probably being mobbed by teenage girls even as you read this), members of the Southern Water Clan. Water Clan also means ice — the southern group dresses and lives somewhat like Eskimos or some other Inuit tribe, whereas their nothern counterparts remind me of Lapps or Finns, or possibly Russians. The Air clan looks mainly Tibetan, the Earth tribes seemed more Chinese, and the Fire Nation more like Indians — India Indians, that is — though everyone uses something that looks a lot like a Chinese alphabet. There’s a pretty rich background here, thanks to the series, and you get a good sense of it.
The three kids join forces and head out on Appa, Aang’s pet flying carpet. He was a flying bison in the series, but here, at least, he looks like a cross between a bearskin rug and the horned monster from Where the Wild Things Are. They are kids, by the way — at 25, Jackson as Sokka is the grandfather of the four main characters (though I’m sure the character is meant to be younger), all the way down to twelve for Aang — which is normally a scary thing, but that didn’t bother me at all going in, and I was right not to worry. Whatever else you might say about M. Night, he can get kids to act. I don’t know how he does it.
Anyway, the quest to save the world begins, and our heroes rack up a lot of frequent flier miles. Everywhere they stop, they start up a rebellion against the Fire Nation. But Aang, being brand-new to his job, still needs to learn a few things, and that has to take priority. Except at any given moment, it’s kind of hard to tell exactly what their priorities are. First they want to keep Aang’s identity secret. Two seconds and one scene change later, they’re telling everyone who he is. Once Katara asks Aang if he knows what to do. He says yes, but instead of asking what that is, or better yet just letting him do it, she tells him that they have to go. They repeat each major plot point until you want to throw things at the screen, but leave you to flounder in figuring out things like the mysterious dragon that appears from time to time. The repetition reminds me of 300 syndrome — a couple of times the narrator says something, and the next thing you know, that something is being acted out on screen. I’ll never understand why filmmakers do that. Show, don’t tell!
Maybe they assumed the audience already knew the mythology, and that’s one reason why it’s so jumpy and twitchy and generally confusing. It’s a bad idea to assume that everyone knows even Batman’s backstory; so it’s really off-base to presume that everyone watching this flick will have seen even one episode of the Nickelodeon series. Maybe they were trying to be artsy and got carried away. Maybe the original episodes were like that. Or maybe the editor just needed a vacation.
Just choose your favorite maybe. Whatever the reason for the way it leaps almost randomly from scene to scene, it loses half an idol just for that, knocking it down to two and three-quarters out of five. The effects are seamless. The acting is solid, and a special shout-out to Dev Patel as the exiled Fire Prince Zuko, fighting to reclaim his honor; and his uncle Iroh (Shaun Toub, Yinsen of Iron Man), who both do an excellent job as the antagonists — I hate to call them villains because they end up just so likable. And I suspect the sides will shift a lot for the next flick — yes, it’s meant for a sequel, even down to starting out with calling it “Chapter One: The Book of Water”, thus setting things up nicely for books two and three, as in the series. I don’t know yet if it will happen, but as long as they get a different set of editors in the booth, it might even be one of those rare cases where the sequel is better than the original.