Rated PG for fantasy action violence, 103 minutes
Hokey, entertaining and with splashy special effects, “The Last Airbender” is a solid family film
Poor M. Night Shyamalan. He makes his first decent movie in nearly 10 years and it opens the same week as that teenage vampire film, which may certainly “eclipse” this at the box-office. OK, bad puns aside but "The Last Airbender," the new children’s action-fantasy film based on the popular Nickelodeon’s animated series, is entertaining, fun and peppered with sublime visual effects. The flaws are obvious: it’s a little hokey and some the acting is wooden, but it works great as a summer family film.
Air, Water, Earth, Fire. Four nations tied by destiny when the Fire Nation launches a brutal war against the others. A century has passed with no hope in sight to change the path of this destruction. Caught between combat and courage, young Aang (Texan Noah Ringer in his feature film debut) discovers he is actually the reincarnated Avatar with the power to manipulate all four elements. Aang teams with Katara (Nicola Peltz), a Waterbender, and her brother Sokka (Jackson Rathbone, who also appears in "Twilight") to restore balance to their war-torn world, but not before the weary Prince Zuko ("Slumdog Millionaire’s" Dev Patel) can capture Aang and restore his prominence within the Fire Nation.
"The Last Airbender" is an enjoyable, far more earnest live-action version of the animated, comedic 2005-2008 Nickelodeon series. Fans will surely notice the slapstick tone of the series has been toned down in favor of big-budget action and special effects, but most of it works modestly well. The expensive production - estimates put the cost at the film anywhere from $150-$300 million – should still please fans though every bit of its huge budget shows on screen with its lush sets, photography and nifty special effects that highlight the film (and once again the 3D here is OK but unnecessary). Earth, air, water and fire are all well represented, though the more memorable effects come with the water-soaked climax that kids in particular will get a kick out of.
Shyamalan helms the action, special effects and overall production elements very impressively, and is a departure for the horror-themed director, and he could make you forget that his last two films, "The Happening" and "Lady in the Water," stunk, and his one before that, "The Village," was subpar. Thankfully, "The Last Airbender" marks the director’s return to quality projects and his best film since 2002’s "Signs."
Shyamalan’s decent direction is slightly hampered by his choppy, too-hokey screenplay (talking dragons, waterballs and flying creatures just to name a few) and the stiff performances of some his young cast. Ringer, in his motion picture debut, is a little awkward in his initial scenes but he becomes a nimble presence and his young hero is the heart of the film. The rest of the cast is a mixed bag; the underused Peltz an intriguing Katara while Patel is a game (but maybe miscast) Zuko; however, it’s truly unfortunate that "Airbender’s" worst performance comes from the wooden Rathbone, who’s actually more memorable in "Eclipse" than his emotionless turn here.
After a slow start, "Airbender" picks up considerably about halfway through and shows great stamina until its water-drenched ending, which obviously leaves it open for more "Airbender" installments (a trilogy is planned). The first-rate CG visual effects and some of the fight scenes are memorable, just don’t expect much bloodletting with its PG rating.
Imperfections aside, "Airbender" still manages to entertain. The snow and talking dragons may remind of "The Golden Compass" and "Aragon" movie failures, but unlike those films, "The Last Airbender" is enjoyable enough to come recommended and is something the whole family might enjoy.