It might seem like a waste of time to bother writing a review of Shyamalan's latest. The reviews were bound to be horrible from the start: It's a film by one of the most hated (or at best, polarizing) directors in Hollywood, and it's an adaptation of a popular cartoon. I don't want to just write an essay defending it, but given the "critical consensus," I do intend to argue why this film's merits make it worthwhile for some viewers, despite some serious flaws.
Let's get this out of the way. This movie is for fans of the TV series, and for people who probably would like the show if they took the time to watch it. Avatar: The Last Airbender is an attempt to Westernize Japanese storytelling methods. It uses an art style similar to popular anime cartoons and contains elements of Eastern philosophy and religion. The fantasy setting allows for a great sense of magic and wonder, with equal parts action, humor, and melodrama in the story. If you like the series for all these things, then you are set up to like the movie, as it is designed to be very much the same in these regards. Many moviegoers and critics will see The Last Airbender expecting something different, and to them, it can easily appear to be just a hot mess.
That said, some aspects of this movie are a hot mess. For starters, there's the plot. The first half of the movie is a poor attempt at giving a Cliffnote rundown of the series. Shyamalan still tries to combine family-friendly action with the wondrous, artistic approach he's known for. But here, it just feels disjointed and incoherent. In the second half, the script is just as bad as in the first, but the plot brings its focus to a much more manageable sequence of events.
Many people have noted the bad acting in the movie. To a point, I strongly disagree. I think the real problem is in the script, which frequently does not allow for coherent storytelling or realistic character interaction. The actors, however, do a good job of filling the shoes of characters in a fantasy world. While the way they act might seem very unrealistic to us, it actually is fitting for a world unlike our own. Shyamalan has done well with this previously in The Village, and it is just as noticeable here, if you can suspend your disbelief that far.
I briefly mentioned earlier that the series was successful in creating a sense of wonder with its fantasy action and attractive artwork. Replicating this feeling is the one place where the film shines, and it is a huge selling point. You don't need to see it in 3-D to be blown away by the floating water, the dance-like magic, and the spirit world. This film is visually and aurally beautiful, and I think it's the best argument in recent years for why the otherwise incompetent M. Night should still be allowed to make movies. At the very least, let him finish this trilogy.
Yes, if you go to see this film, one part of you will have to acknowledge that it's a special effects movie. At the same time, you will have to take it for what it is and allow yourself to be sucked into another world, not to mention that you will have to get used to a style of storytelling that is largely unfamiliar to American audiences. As if that's not enough, it seems to awkwardly straddle the line between a kids' movie and a PG-13 fantasy epic. But despite some substantial flaws, The Last Airbender is just effective enough to suck you in and--dare I say--move you like few films can... if you let it. I don't think I need to say at this point that it's not for everyone. Most typical moviegoers will have every reason to dislike it. But for those that can appreciate it for its merits, there is a surprising amount to appreciate.
Caius's rating: 3 stars