I’m an avid fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender (ALTA) and could easily write nearly 1,200 words on why you should watch it. I’m even a heretical fan of Legend of Korra, a show that many ATLA fans despise. So it shouldn’t be surprising that Netflix keeps recommending The Last Airbender movie to me. But no, I will not watch that pile of trash again, and neither should you.
If you’ve heard of it or managed to purge its existence from your mind, The Last Airbender is a live-action remake of the similarly named cartoon. The idea started sound: take a beloved cartoon, get a well-known director (M. Night Shyamalan, yes, that one), find some actors, and remake the story for the big screen with big-budget effects.
Everyone involved was so confident in the concept that they thought it’d lead to two more movies and a fourth unannounced season for the ATLA cartoon. None of that happened. The movie bombed. Epically.
What went wrong? Well, I had the unfortunate pleasure of seeing this schlock in theaters, in terrible converted 3D no less, and I can tell you precisely what went wrong. Everything.
Too Much Plot For One Movie
The first mistake the movie made was trying to cram too much plot into one film. Rather than take things slowly, The Last Airbender tried to cover all the same ground the cartoon did in its first season. The first season of ATLA consisted of 20 episodes at an average of 24 minutes. Just let that sink in for a minute.
Naturally, with any show, there are episodes you can skip and you won’t miss too much (I’m looking at you, The Great Divide). But eventually, when you try to cram eight hours of content into a little over an hour and a half, shortcuts are taken, and essential things get cut.
The worst shortcut is narration. Lots and lots and lots of narration. Every time essential things need to happen, but there isn’t time to show it, Katara narrates the plot. The movie opens with a text crawl that Katara also reads aloud for us, and then five minutes later, we get more narration from her. The film has more narration than action scenes, and it’s an action movie. The narration gives us backstory, in between scenes story, and sometimes upcoming story.
And the many cuts to the plot lead to confusing changes to the overarching story. The movie skips Kyoshi Island entirely, which introduces a pivotal previous avatar and a pivotal character that plays a key role later in the series. Speaking of previous avatars, the movie wipes Roku, cartoon Aang’s predecessor, and mentor, from the plot and replaces him with a talking spirit dragon.
This list goes of terrible choices go on, but can be boiled down to “too much plot crammed into 104 minutes.” Unfortunately, it means we never see Aang, Katara, and Sokka grow as friends and adopted family. The narration just tells us that’s what happened, but it’s unearned.
No Respect for the Heart of the Story
The Last Airbender doesn’t respect the heart of its source material. That’s partly related to the complaint that there’s too much plot, not enough time, but it’s not quite the same. Some choices are time constraints; some show a clear lack of understanding the source material.
Let’s start with the petty complaints. Namely, the movie doesn’t even pronounce its character’s names correctly. Aang (with a long Aaaaang) becomes Aang (Onnnng), Sokka (Sawka) becomes Sokka (Soh-ka). Iroh (EYE-roh) becomes Iron (EEE-roh). The list goes on, and as a fan who spent three years hearing the “correct” way, it’s infuriating to hear it wrong.
Worse still, the film is nearly devoid of humor. What few laughs we get are usually unintentional. Aang, a lovable carefree soul who often tells jokes in the cartoon, is a morose fop in the movie. Sokka, the other main source of humor, doesn’t even smile through most of the movie. He comes off more stoic jerk than a loving brother with a sense of humor.
Katara may get the shortest end of the stick, though, as the movie relegates her to a mere love interest. Gone is her strength when the stakes are high; she mostly stands off to the side and let others lead and act. And her best speech in the cartoon series, one that inspires earth benders to fight back against oppression, goes to Aang. In ALTA, she has to fight against a patriarchal society to get waterbending training; her training is a blink and miss moment in the movie. You get the point.
No wait, Iroh gets the shortest end of the stick. Because in the cartoon, he’s a crucial character providing mentorship and guidance to nearly all the other main characters. And in the movie, he’s barely there and serves as little more than a vocal punching bag for Zuko.
Horrible Horrible Horrible Effects
It’s always dangerous, turning a fantasy-based world into a live-action movie. With proper care to story and special effects, you can get something wonderful like The Lord of the Rings. Without it, you get something horrendous to look at, like The Last Airbender.
Let’s start with bending, for instance. In the ATLA, bending movements find their inspiration from real-life martial arts. Earthbending looks like Hung Gar, a style known for strong stances and rooting to the ground. And the results look powerful.
Let’s take a look:
In the movie, that’s not the case at all. Everyone waves their hands around for what feels like ages before the subtlest smallest thing happens. Let’s take another look:
That second clip is laughable, and a pretty good preview of all the bending you’ll see. Part of it is bad choreographing, but most of it is bad special effects. Like that tiny rock. Or the time a giant ball of water fell on Sokka, and he’s left completely dry. But the worst offense is Appa.
Appa is Aang’s sky bison, a huge beast of a monster with six beefy legs. Check him out:
Now let’s look at what the movie gave us:
What in the great names of Kyoshi and Roku is that thing? How does it even stand on those emaciated legs? Who thought that was a good idea or even a close approximation of Appa?
And if you’re thinking Appa looks blurry, well you’re not wrong. But that’s because the movie looks that way. Throughout the film when the special effects budget ran thin, things get blurry to cover up how bad they look. And no, that doesn’t work, it still looks terrible.
It also led to more changes in the plot (like the firebending mentioned above). When the gang finds imprisoned earthbenders in ATLA, the benders are sensibly locked far away from earth and surrounded by metal. In the movie? The prisoners are completely surrounded by mounds and mounds of dirt and rocks—probably because a metal prison boat would have been expensive.
The end of season one in the cartoon culminates in Aang merging with the ocean spirit, turning into a giant ocean monster, and ripping apart a fleet of ships. The end of the film culminates in Aang making a really big wave… and doing nothing with it. It’s scary or something, so the other side surrenders.
That, in a nutshell, is why The Last Airbender doesn’t work. A few small but bad choices, like covering an entire season in one movie, led to shortcut after shortcut and compounding bad decisions. And to cover up some bad choices, the director made more bad decisions. ALTA is well regarded for a diverse cast, and despite the setting of another world, you can immediately recognize Asian, Inuit, and Tibetian cultures.
In the movie, however, all the good guys are white, and all the bad guys are Asian. Not a great look and made worse by the director insisting that the reason for the mispronounced names was in the name of accuracy to ethnics origins.
The Last Airbender is the kind of garbage you get when you rush into a concept and don’t spend enough time understanding what made original material good. It has no heart, no humor, and realistically no redeeming qualities. Except maybe the credits, because it’s finally over.
The Last Airbender is on Netflix, but we don’t recommend you watch it.