Synopsis: Aang (Ringer), a young successor to a long line of Avatars, learns that he possesses the power to engage the Fire Nation and hopefully end their century-long war against the Water, Earth, and Air nations.
Why We're Excited: The first trailer has one of the best "whoa" moments since 2012; the Fire Nations' fleet of warships launching Hell at Aang's fortress? So good. Equally good is M. Night Shyamalan's decision to step away from his adult fare, which had become formulaic and cliché, to try his hand at this adaptation of the wildly popular TV show. Shyamalan has a deal to handle the potential trilogy, and while he might not have embraced Asian actors for his principal cast members, he's definitely making a film for audiences worldwide.
Why We're Not: Hype, a general fear of "Shyamalanness" and the inevitable line of toys, manga, and corporate tie-ins.
As it stands, the Signs and Sixth Sense director turns Nickelodeon's beloved animated series into The Last Snore-bender. With heaping helpings of religion, science, history, and physical education (offered through some of the dullest martial arts sequences in recent memory), Shyamalan's Airbender feels like school in the summertime. Is he trying to attract or alienate young audiences?
I'll admit to not having seen the short-lived anime series, which ran for three seasons as it recounted the story of Aang (Noah Ringer), an adolescent monk with the rare ability to manipulate the four key elements of fire, air, earth, and water. Because of that, I'll leave the nitpicking of minute details to the devoted Airbender followers, who already have expressed anger at the director's decision to avoid Asian actors, even though the series drew heavily on traditional Asian cultures.
But I have seen more than enough summer popcorn blockbusters to know what key elements should be included to ensure a film's success. Likable heroes, light comedy, stirring cliffhangers, authentic 3-D, and strong special effects are but a few of the things on moviegoers' summer wish lists. Shyamalan's drab Airbender avoids almost all of these.
As the story begins, water bender Katara (Nicola Peltz) accidentally releases 12-year-old savior Aang from a frozen wedge that has imprisoned him for 100 years. In Aang's absence, the fire nation -- led by Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis) and his evil minion, Zhao (Aasif Mandvi) -- has overpowered the earth, air, and water peasants who occupy the northern and southern territories.
Airbender proceeds to clobber us over the head with its blatant Christ metaphor that may or may not be part of the original series. The resurrected Aang, reminded that he is a chosen warrior, travels to remote villages to spread his gospel, restore destroyed temples, pray to spirit dragons, and convert needy followers for a CGI-heavy confrontation with the fire fighters.
Aang isn't the only man on a mission, though. Dev Patel of Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire sleepwalks through the part of Ozai's prodigal son, Prince Zuko, who was cast out of the fire kingdom and told he can only return when he has Aang in hand. His is a small crime stretched to fit an epic scale, and like most of Airbender, it's hardly compelling enough to justify our time.
It's possible Airbender fans will support Shyamalan's corny story, where supposedly powerful spirit gods take the benevolent form of glowing fish (which can be captured and killed in seconds) and Aang consults with dragons when he's uncertain what to do next. If these elements are part of the original source material, then he is correct for including them. But there's no chance anyone who sees Airbender will defend the studio's decision to apply half-baked 3-D technology to Shyamalan's already completed 2-D images. As demonstrated in films like the remade Clash of the Titans, the post-production 3-D conversion turns images muddy, blurry and dark. In the discouraging case of Airbender, the 3-D makes an already impenetrable fantasy film unwatchable.
Maybe I wasn't in the mood for Shyamalan's "deep" spiritual lessons. If that's the case, however, I wasn't alone. My 6-year-old son has mimicked Aang's fluid, element-bending motions since seeing a string of commercials on Cartoon Network. He asked if we could get up and walk around in the middle of the movie. Trust me, he's not a wanderer. Last winter's Toy Story double-feature kept him riveted, and he has sat through Pixar's spectacular third installment twice already. Airbender couldn't hold his interest.
The same goes for the man sitting behind us in our screening, who fell asleep an hour into the film and began snoring. Loudly. The people he was with eventually woke him up with their snickering. At least they found something worth smiling at.