I just saw The Last Airbender at the local cinema, and I am amazed at how terrible the films was.

My gripes can be broken down into a few categories:

1.  Assumption that the audience is stupid.

I’ve reached a point where I can’t stomach characters explaining things to each other for the benefit of the audience.  In one scene, Aang comes across a necklace belonging to his old master.  When he finds it, he explains to Katara that it was his master’s, and that he made it for his master.  You are then shown a flashback of this very event taking place.  Why not just show the flashback, and accept that the audience is smart enough to realize what is happening?

I am remind of an article about David Mamet that one of my fellow writers posted on our discussion list last year.  M. Night Shamalayan would do well to take this article to heart, especially the following concepts:

“Any time two characters are talking about a third, the scene is a crock of shit.”
“Any time any character is saying ‘as you know,’ that is, telling another character what you, the writer, need the audience to know, the scene is a crock of shit.”
“Remember you are writing for a visual medium…the camera can do a lot of explaining for you.  Let it.”
“If you pretend the characters can’t speak, and write a silent movie, you will be writing great drama.  If you deprive yourself of the crutch of narration, exposition, indeed, of SPEECH, you will be forced to work in a new medium – telling story in pictures (also known as screenwriting).”

2.  There was no connection between the martial arts movements and the elemental bending.

If you watch the animated series, the bending felt like a martial art.  An earthbender hit a strong uppercut while stomping on the ground, and a pillar of earth erupted from the ground; a waterbender moved her hands in a long arch, and a wave followed her hands and crashed down on her enemy.  Every thing felt clear and decisive, and no movements were wasted or flourishes were added.

Here are two great examples from the series:

In The Last Airbender, it was as though characters were performing whole katas just to do the simplest act.  There were so many times where Aang was standing right next to one of the “bad guys,” going through a whole wushu form, while the “bad guy” just stood there confused and waiting for the wind to come blow him away.  All I could think as I watched this embarrassing convulsion was “he’s right there!  If you just punch him in the face, he’ll never finish his bending moves.”

3.  Characters?  We don’t need no stinking character!

Character emotions looked like they were acted, not felt.  With the shining exception of Shaun Toub who played an exceptional Iroh, it was as though every character was channeling Hayden Christensen.  I never thought “Saka is crying;” all I could think was “the actor playing Saka is trying to look like he is crying.”

Also, no time was given to the quiet moments of reflection and interaction that make characters real.  If you go back and watch films like The Neverending Story or the Forbidden Kingdom, you will see quiet moments where characters are permitted to be funny, quirky, and lovable.  Every director should remember this: if all of the scenes are epic, then NONE of the scenes are epic.  If you don’t give the audience a chance to feel affection for a character, then you shouldn’t be surprised when they never feel a sense of fear or loss for that character.

Aang is a happy-go-lucky character, and more important, a child.  In the series, there is a certain charm in the awkwardness as he comes of age.  This is in sharp contrast in the film; I don’t remember seeing a single moment of joy on Aang’s face.  Or mine, for that matter.

4.  Excruciating slow motion to ensure that you don’t miss anything.

As an amateur animator, I can feel a certain degree of sympathy for this one.  If I spend a lot of time animating a scene in detail, I may be tempted to slow it down enough to ensure that none of my animations are missed.  This is a horrible mistake.

One characteristic of a really good action director is the willingness to have something happen at full speed, even if it risks having the audience miss the little details.  For example:


In this scene from Star Wars Episode II, Jango Fett was trampled by some big beast.  Jango killed the beast, but you can see the sparks fly as his jet pack is damaged.  Immediately after, he is attacked by Mace Windu.  If you watch carefully, just before Mace Windu beheads him, you can see his jet pack attempt to fire and fail.

Now, to Lucas’ credit, he could have slowed down the action sequence, shown Jango trying to activate the pack, shown a look of horror as the pack failed, and then followed it with the decapitation.  Instead, he did the right thing and let the sequence occur at full speed.  The little detail of the jet pack firing was a throw away (which I believe was added after the fact) that many people probably didn’t even notice.  Nonetheless, it enhanced the scene.

Another example was in this scene from the series.  During the episode “The Earth King,” the following battle occurs (starts at about the 2:00 point).

There is a LOT going on in that battle, but they didn’t slow it down just to force you to watch.  They keep the sequence running at full speed, and allow the animations to be throw aways.


Ever since I received feedback from a game developer expressing his gratitude over a positive game review, I’ve been reluctant to wade into the developers during a review.  With this product, however, it can’t be helped.  The disappointment that I felt with the Avatar: the Last Airbender video game extends to this film.  Don’t waste your money.