The Last Airbender (2010)

M. Night Shyamalan's The Last Airbender, based upon the Nickelodeon cartoon series "Avatar: The Last Airbender" (which I have never seen), is an amazing, absorbing, beautiful, fun tai chi/kung fu action fantasy adventure for kids of all ages. It's an effective, rousing, gorgeous and satisfying story of the post-post-apocalyptic elemental telekinetic Dalai Lama and the beginning of his war against the evil Fire Nation.

The film is indebted to several Asian, Scandinavian, Inuit and other Native and aboriginal sources, most especially in the writing system used and its adaptation of Asian health, meditation, fitness and martial arts techniques, though all the characters speak English. This could be a recipe for a mishmash, but instead the film is a wonderful visual, emotional, special-effects and character success.

Thousands or millions of years in Earth's future, or perhaps another planet's future, with rules of physics, magic and spirituality different from our own, a young girl, Katara (Nicola Peltz, excellent), and her brother Sokka (Jackson Rathbone, very good) leave their snowy village in the Southern Water Nation on a hunt. Their mother is dead, and father long missing in a conquering war upon the world--specifically the Water, Air and Earth Nations--by the technologically advanced, and rapacious Fire Nation.

During their travels, they unwisely investigate something seemingly frozen in the ice, which begins to move after a couple of taps, then pops up as a huge ice sphere. Not dead yet, but still unwise, Katara rushes forward and taps the sphere, which again begins to move and melt magically, revealing a huge bison-with-a-tail creature we later learn can float in the air, and a young boy, Aang (Noah Ringer), with a mysterious arrow tattoo on his forehead associated with Airbenders from the Air Nation. Aang indeed turns out to be the last Airbender of the title.

Airbenders are magical, elemental wizards/monks/priests who can psychically command air molecules to produce physical effects, so they can command winds and clouds, sometimes other elements in contact with the air, and sometimes perform feats of speed and agility which resemble magic tricks or near-physically impossible acts. In this world, there are also Waterbenders, of which Katara is an apprentice, Earthbenders and Firebenders, who can command their respective elements and who are mostly separated into their respective nations, three under attack from the forces of Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis, very good) and his general Commander Zhao (Aasif Mandvi, odd, good), and their dastardly ships of death and hands of fire.

Then there's the Avatar, the long-missing sole human representative of nature and the spirits who can bend all the elements to his will and who brings balance to the world, like a telekinetic Dalai Lama. Could Aang be the Avatar? The Last Airbender is a quest and rebellion movie, like the first Star Wars movies, The Last Temptation of Christ, Harry Potter, Little Buddha or Gandhi. And it is of a high quality.

The fantasy world is beautifully created and lovingly detailed, elemental, a world at least one dimension and many millions of years away from ours. We get to see it in all its amazing splendor, from the flying lemur-bats and decimated monastery of the Air Nation to the plains of the increasingly enslaved Earth Nation to the sacred pool of the Ocean and Moon Spirits in the Northern Water Nation stronghold. Unlike in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, and more like in the recent Narnia adventures, the characters as well as the larger conflicts are well realized very much because of and along with the effects. I want to see more of this world.

The acting is very good, too. Lead Noah Ringer carries the film with his charisma and martial arts chops. Three lead villains, Fire Lord Ozai, Commander Zhao and Prince Zuko (the brilliant Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire) create interest and conflict amongst each other as well as against the forces of balance and nonviolence. Shaun Toub especially stands out as General Iroh, the wise uncle of Zuko and powerful Firebender elder.

I have to love a movie where the star, in the middle of the big action finish, says, "Some great monks can meditate for four days!" and promptly drops into coma-like trance. If you're not going to be obsessed with little details from the Nickelodeon cartoon, I think you'll like it. If you're not too embittered at the lousy movies Shyamalan has inflicted between Signs and this, keep an open mind, and I think you will enjoy it very much. Deep in my heart, without quite knowing it, I have always wanted to see a great movie exactly like The Last Airbender. I have now seen it twice, in 3-D and not, and would go again, it's fantastic, one of the best movies of the year so far.

7-2-10


Links for The Last Airbender

Internet Movie Database Entry

Roger Ebert Review

Official Site

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