Movie Review: The Last Airbender (2010)

Noah Ringer in The Last Airbender
Photo: Paramount Pictures

M. Night Shyamalan's approval rating as a director has decreased dramatically since the release of The Sixth Sense in 1999. The winds began shifting with 2004's The Village, Lady in the Water two years later was the director's biggest box-office disappointment to date and The Happening in 2008 did nothing to lift him anywhere near the heights he once enjoyed. Yet this hasn't changed his studio support, though it has once again found the director needing the support of a new studio after four films with Touchstone, one with Warner Bros. and another at Fox. Paramount is now the backer along with Nickelodeon Films as they hope to turn the Nickelodeon animated television series "Avatar: The Last Airbender" into a full-fledged franchise property with what is dubbed "Book One: Water" in Shyamalan's The Last Airbender.

The story is set in a fantasy world where unique individuals have the ability to manipulate or "bend" worldly elements -- earth, air, fire and water. These distinctions make up the four "nations" of this universe and those with the ability to bend the elements are referred to as "benders." First introduced as a world in turmoil, the Fire Nation has declared war on the three other nations, suppressing the bending of the other elements and either killing those that defy them or tossing them into concentration camps.

The Last Airbender
Grade: C-

The Last Airbender"The Last Airbender" is a Paramount Pictures release, directed by M. Night Shyamalan and is rated PG for fantasy action violence. The running time is .

The cast includes Noah Ringer, Dev Patel, Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone, Jessica Jade Andres and Aasif Mandvi.

Airbending is thought to have been completely wiped out following the Fire Nation's attack and the disappearance of the last Airbender, known to be the Avatar (a reincarnating monk that can bend all four elements and thus bring peace to the world), 100 years ago. Yet, the search continues for the Avatar, as only he can stand in the Fire Nation's way.

By the description I just gave you would think this is a far more serious film than it actually is. In fact, it's downright juvenile from the treatment of the material to the quality of actors hired to tell the story. It's a film best suited for audiences aged six and under. Shyamalan's script feels as if it was written in crayon as it hammers home every plot point one, two and sometimes even three times to makes sure you know exactly what's going on. Even the opening scroll setting up the story not only rolls up the screen, but is accompanied by voiceover reading the lines for those in the audience who can't read for themselves. The movie is dumbed down to the point I felt like I should be licking a giant rainbow lollipop and wearing an OshKosh B'gosh jumper.

"Can yoooooou bend air little boy?" one villainous Fire Nation soldier asks Aang, the Avatar the story refers to played by newcomer Noah Ringer. The question is accompanied by a "mu hu ha ha" kind of chuckle as well as snickers from the viewing audience. "My brother and the princess became friends right away," says Katara (Nicola Peltz) in childish voiceover referring to her Water Nation sibling Sokka played by Twilight star Jackson Rathbone. This film really is amateur hour.

I've been a defender of Shyamalan's for some time, even being one of the lone fans of Lady in the Water, but I saw that film as a children's bedtime story acted by professionals while this comes off as a coloring book brought to life by greenhorns. Rathbone and Peltz are novice at best. Ringer is out of his element if you'll excuse the pun. "Daily Show" correspondent Aasif Mandvi is woefully miscast as the evil Fire Nation Commander Zhao and Slumdog Millionaire break-out actor Dev Patel sneers at the camera for most of his time on screen playing the film's sort-of villain Zuko, the shamed prince of Fire Nation Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis).

The best performance of the lot comes from Shaun Toub as Zuko's Uncle Iroh. You may remember Toub as the man who helped Tony Stark build his first suit in Iron Man and here he gets a little more room to roam, but not even he can escape the elementary dialogue. Which begs the question, while the actors certainly aren't A-grade, doesn't a lot of blame has to fall on the script and director?

The Last Airbender is the first film Shyamalan has directed that wasn't from one of his original scripts, but, like his other films, he did write it. Lacking in depth, comedy, wit and intelligence, this is a script that needed serious punching up. The framework is there, but this is nothing more than an outline for a project in development. Perhaps that's why he went with unproven actors for Airbender, in hopes of making the script seem better in the face of second rate performances.

The lone compliments due this film concern ILM's visual effects and James Newton Howard's score. Both do their very best to bring the film out of the playground and into the classroom, but effects and score never seem any more superficial as when they accompany a rather low rent project.

Then comes the 3D. The last second 3D conversion doesn't look bad as much as it doesn't look like anything. The only part of the film that actually seemed like real 3D was the studio logo and for much of the film the glasses aren't even necessary.

Airbender is certain to find early success thanks to the large fan base supporting the original animated series, but even that has been confronted by a grassroots campaign upset with the "racebending" of the cast as certain heroes depicted as Asian in the series are now represented by white actors. I mention this only because it is a part of the conversation, but seeing how I have never seen the television show it did not have an effect on my opinion of the film. This issue, though, may be the only thing The Last Airbender is remembered for because at this point this very well could be the last of The Last Airbenders.


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More Reviews
  • Ben

    Good riddance Shyamalan. Made your best work up until 2002. Now you're finished.

  • Chris138

    Ebert just gave this thing .5/4 stars. Ouch!

    • AJ

      Ebert seems to have been an admirer of the original series, so between his and Brad's reviews, I think this one will fall safely into the "pass" category.

  • X

    "I mention this only because it is a part of the conversation, but seeing how I have never seen the television show it did not have an effect on my opinion of the film."

    You should be embarrassed for taking such a cowardly position on an obvious case of yellowface in 2010. It damn well should have an effect on your opinion.

  • Leandro Dubost

    Poor Shyamalan... He does have talent, Sixth Sense and Signs proove us that!! Why can't he make good movies anymore? Jesus...

  • aj

    ehh its doable for a certain amount but gets old too quick I give it a C
    ps: if your a fan of the original series you will be disappointed

  • AJAY

    yaayksss 7% at rotten tomatoes bar , this movie is the biggest crap of junk I have ever seen in my entire life. I gave it .5/10 just because they pushed it to nearly 105 mins of running time hahahahaha

  • goavs

    M. Night can't make a good movie anymore.

  • Oren Doron

    I gave up on M Night after "Lady in the Water" - will definately be passing up on this one based on this review, Ebert's review and it's abysmal RT rating.

  • zyzygy

    The twist ending gimmick got old after the village!


    Well im a fan of the original series i just left the midnight release, this movie is the Biggest load of shit i've ever seen, man they calling names wrong, haircut's arent the same hell even the characters dont look alike for instance uncle IRO was short, chubby and bald in the series here he's tall,thin and has a head full of braided hair horrible horrible movie i hate i wasted good money to see this shit i'd rather watch re-runs of the series over and over til i go blind than watch 1 min of the so-called movie 10 thumbs down.......

  • mrs.webb

    I thought this would be alot better being that he has done great movies in the pass but this was a dissappointment.....the special affect could have been alot better and more detailed to give it a little kick to keep my attention I just kept waiting for it to get good... will be surprised if he get the fund to finish the rest of the books....He had alot too stand up to and he just could get it.....he just rushed to much of the movie in an hour and a half..need more to start with than he gave

  • Tommy

    It was hard not to get annoyed by some of the acting, but the comedic parts of it sort of worked. The action, fight scenes and cgi was awesome though. I just wish they would've used "oriental" people instead of white/brown people. No offense, but it doesn't really look as cool to see a white guy doing martial arts... Reminds me of The Forbidden Kingdom... Anywho, I give this one a C+ for enjoyable entertainment and eye candy, but thats all this movie is for.

    • whytredneckking

      C+? this was an absolute F. Worst movie i have ever seen, and i've never said that about a movie! they had everything wrong. Sure it looked cool but the bending was all WRONG. You dont do your bending and then a minute later it starts to happen. The elements should move as soon as you do. and you didnt need fire to bend, fire benders can just create it... there were soo many things wrong with this film. Its like he didnt even watch the series...

      • Tommy

        Yeah, that REALLY bothered me too. The whole bending one second and the elements moving a second later, lol. Something like The Scorcerers Apprentice would be cool.

  • Bishop

    If you havent watch the tv show then your missing out, at first i was laughing at my sis when she was watching the show before, after a couple of episodes i saw some great story telling and alot of potential for the show being made into a movie. Then the ive heard of the movie being made i was pumped up till they change the race of the characters, that was bull, Im happy this movie is a flop...let another director do this movie right maybe john woo, his red cliff looks awesome, and this could be the movie he was born to do.

  • Gee

    Why anyone finances this guy is anybody's guess.

  • Wynded&theWolf

    This movie was absolutely dreadful. Fans of the series will find physical pain trying to watch this poorly acted and unorganized mess. If anything, this movie furthers the appreciation of the original show. This movie is like a 3 year-old kid trying to describe the original cartoon while having to pee.

  • pJ

    shyamalan could have paved the way for minority actors with this film, but like his lacking movies, he disappoints not only the film industry but the asian one as well.

  • toshia

    I fell in love with this show while watching with my son... and was excited to see an animated show that had so much emotion and entertainment all in one.... with deep lessons to be learned in it. I was excited to see the show be made into a movie...but what a great let down....HOW COULD NICKLEDEON LET THIS MOVIE GET PUT OUT...BEING SO INACCURATE ON CHARACTERS, AND CONTENT ALL TOGETHER, SHAMEFUL REALLY!!! M.SHYAMALAN DESTROYED THE BEST CARTOON SERIES EVER... I HOPE THIS SERVES AS A LESSON FOR NICK. IF YOU EVER DECIDE TO DO A MOVIE.... FROM A TV SERIES... STICK TO THE SCRIPT AND FIND BETTER DIRECTORS REALLY. WAISTED MY MONEY ON THE FOURTH OF JULY FOR THIS CRAP.... SHAME ON YOU SHYAMALAN....


  • More than 1 book

    Has it occurred to anyone complaining about race that the sequels -if made- take place almost entirely in Earth and Fire cities, populated by Earth and Fire people (played entirely by various Asians in TLA). So subsequent films will have a majority of non-white characters.

    As for the first film itself, the first half was painful but I enjoyed the Blue Spirit sequence and everything after they reached the North Water Kingdom. I could understand if those unacquainted with the cartoon found the content stale.

  • anne

    Took my kids to see this opening day, they were very excited. But when a 9 year old says the movie stinks, you know there's a problem. The live action characters are far less believable as real people than the animated ones. Lame dialogue, paper-thin characters, lousy casting (for the most part) and complete disregard for the animated version's storyline.
    The effects were ok.

  • darkknightfan12

    I am a HUGE fan of this site and I respect your reviews (because you can actually write). But this film is a solid 'F' if I have ever seen one.

  • darkknightfan12

    Oh and I also very much enjoyed Lady In The Water.

  • Yo

    In reponse to what "more than one book" wrote
    Well considering that Ang was Asian(how many caucasian Tibetan monk with an obvious Asian name do you know?) and Katara and Sokka were Inuits you would have though that their parts would've went to minorities but they didn't, so what makes you think things will be different IF sequels are made?
    The most retarded thing about all this was how M douche changed how the name are pronounced, which according to him was to make it sound more Asian. You whitewash the cast but you want them to sound more Asian?

  • hjjh

    i hate the tv show and i thoght it was better