In 2010 I saw 100 different movies in 100 different theaters. Here are the details.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Last Airbender (2nd viewing)

Upon completing my second time through Avatar: The Last Airbender (the television show, not the terrible movie reviewed here), I've concluded that I enjoy this show more than any other, animated or not. It has risen above my other favorites: Star Trek: Voyager, Foyle's War, Justice League, and Buffy: the Vampire Slayer. I enjoy the show so much, I've already started back through for a third time, and have been second guessing my review of the movie. The trailers for The Last Airbender are so good, and the show is so good, I must have been delusional when I trashed the movie. Right? It couldn't be as bad as I wrote. So, in honor of Team Avatar, who are forever hopeful, I have given the movie a second chance.

Let me tell you: my previous review was too kind. This movie is trash, trash, trash.

I mentioned that Shyamalan was faithful to the Season 1 arc to a fault. Well, he wasn't. The movie spends ten minutes re-creating the first episode, and nearly an hour hammering out the final three, leaving just forty minutes for the other sixteen (2.5 minutes per episode). Avatar: The Last Airbender is not, like most serials, a show bloated with fillers. With just one exception, each episode advances the plot and character development. Minor characters who Shyamalan omits for brevity play crucial roles later in the series: Roku, Suki, Haru, King Bumi, Bato, the Freedom Fighters, June, Jeong Jeong, the Mechanist, and Teo (Haru is shown, but at too young an age to be of use to us). Avatar isn't supposed to be like The Incredible Hulk, with the team just wandering from town to town helping strangers they will never seen again. Avatar's first season is about showing the world that the Avatar has returned, and building up an army of allies (they will need that army later on).

The show, in its twenty-episode first season, has seven hours to tell its story. Shyamalan has under two hours. So clearly he needed to cut. I disagree with the choice to cut so many recurring characters, but let's move on. Shyamalan doesn't just cut, he jumbles and compresses. He takes a hall of statues from episode 1,  a traitorous steward from episode 8, has him speak a line similar to that of a fisherman in episode 12, and sets the whole thing in the temple from episode 17 so that Aang can be captured by the archers from episode 13. Wow. That's some serious plotbending. He removes more than half of Aang's transitions into the Avatar state, including the one that showed his true power to Zuko, and the one that allowed him to work through his shame at having abandoned the world. Aang's speech to Zuko about being friends? Aang had plenty of time to say it, as he crouched over Zuko's unconscious body; but instead he waits until their final fight scene. (In season 1, Zuko is a constant nemesis to the team, such that in season 3 the team fondly refers to all that time that Zuko spent chasing Aang; in the movie, when Zuko and the team have another run in, Katara says something like, "Oh, you're that character from the first scene in the movie; I think I can vaguely remember you." What kind of villain never shares screen time with the heroes?)

In the show, Zhao verbally spars with Zuko when he suddenly notices the twin Katana blades on Zuko's wall, rousing Zhao's suspicion that Zuko is the Blue Spirit. In the movie, Zhao either uses x-ray vision to see through the Blue Spirit's mask, or telescopic vision to read ahead in the script, but either way he knows immediately that it's Zuko. Afterall, he's quite winded from all his frequent trips back to the Fire Nation capital, so he doesn't have a lot of time to mess around here.

It's bad. Really bad. The voiceovers are bad (even the opening monologue, which could have been lifted directly from the show, is bad). The ADR is bad (we hear Zuko shouting, but his jaw isn't moving). Opening lines don't make sense (Sokka approaches Aang, Katara, and Yue, and says, "Aang needs to tell you something". So, um, if Aang had something to say, why did he wait for the entry of and formal introduction by another character?). Closing lines are non-sequiters (Aang says he knows how to defeat the invaders, which should be pretty good news to anyone listening; Katara replies, as if she's reading from a different page of the script, "We have to get out of here.").

I mentioned in my previous review that the pronunciations are off. It's not enough that Shyamalan decided to overhaul the ethnicities of the characters and uproot it from east Asia; but he also thinks he knows better how to pronounce everything. Iroh (EYE-roh) is changed to EE-roh. Sokka (SOCK-uh) becomes SOOK-uh. Zuko's challenge of Agni Ki (AG-nee KAI) is instead AG-nee KEY. It makes sense to read The Lord of the Rings and screw up some pronunciations; but Shyamalan had an audio track as part of his primary source! That these errors didn't grate on his ears is further evidence to me that he watched the series with the sound off while running on the treadmill listening to a podcast about How to Lose Fans and Alienate People.

Then there's the misattribution. Sometimes, it's just economical to transfer a line from one character to another, especially when the line needs to be spoken, but the original character is no longer in the scene. Shyamalan doesn't stop there, though. He cut up Katara's lines onto strips of paper and handed them out to everyone else while she was in taking a nap one day. Sokka pocketed a handful; Aang took a juicy one; even Ozai, Momo, and a key grip grabbed a few zingers. What, did Jackson Rathbone's role as Twilight's ever-constipated Jasper entitle Sokka to some additional dialog? Or was it that after Shyamalan purged every modicum of humor from the script, the remaining six lines of dialog imploded with Sokka at its center?

The most dangerous aspect of stealing dialog is that is also robs a character of their opportunity to become flesh and blood. Without his jokes, Sokka is just standing around like a bug-eyed stooge who talks like his sister should. Shyamalan cut the scenes where we see Sokka aggressively defending his village from the Fire Nation. Instead, he urges Katara to take no action. This inverts one of Sokka's defining character traits, that he doesn't want to get involved in other peoples' business, but is fiercely defensive of his own family. In the show, Sokka wants to head straight to the Northern Water Tribe; in the movie, he wants to dally in the Earth Kingdom to liberate villages (could of used that attitude back in your home village, you punk!).

Aang is also void of humor and goofiness. He's also without shame. What takes half a season to articulate to his closest friends, the movie makes clear in his first encounter with Katara, in which he basically says, "I ran away from home. Guess I shouldn't have done that. Oops." To which Katara could say, "Yeah, oops, you got my mom killed. Oops, my tribe was destroyed. Oops, it's been a hundred years without hope, you humorless cue-ball." Aang doesn't have inner conflict about running away and turning his back on the world; he never feels the shame about accidentally burning Katara while learning firebending; he never comments on the fact that everyone he knew is now dead; he just travels through the world with a look of consternation, like he's not quite sure what he's going to have for dinner that day.

Though he is fated to play an increasingly more important role in the series, Zuko's portrayal in the film is flat. He has one mention of restoring his honor (a word he uses ad naseum in the show), and a nice line where he practically apologizes to Katara for knocking her out, pleading that he must capture Aang in order to restore, you guessed it, his honor. But other than that, he has all the whininess from the show, with none of the prowess or dignity or rage. Zhao doesn't fare much better. He starts out just as cocky and insulting as his animated counterpart (voiced by the superior Jason Isaacs), but soon falls under Ozai's shadow. Zhao's most sadistic accomplishment in the show, his idea to kill the moon spirit, is attributed in the movie to Ozai, with Zhao standing by, looking perplexed. (Ozai's best line from the movie is in a deleted scene, in which he tells a messenger to wait in place until a growing fire is three fields wide, and only then may the messenger attempt to put out the flame.)

But let's get down to the biggest character smear in the movie, that of Katara. Shyamalan doesn't pull any punches when it comes to putting women back in their place. Sure, he omits some strong female supporting characters, like Suki, June, Smellerbee, and Aunt Wu. At least that's consistent with his agenda to include zero supporting characters. But Katara? She is the emotional core of the group, the responsible parent, the compassionate one, the one with rage, the one with mad waterbending skills that she teaches to herself! Shyamalan kicks her in the ovaries.

Katara is never shown to be a strong waterbender. In the show her unchecked emotion is what frees Aang from his icy imprisonment; in the movie, it's Sokka's boomerang. That time Katara got herself arrested to rescue her friend Haru? Nope, didn't happen. Katara's idea to visit the Northern Water Tribe? Uh-uh, cupcake; that was Sokka's idea. That time she got so mad at a character named Jet that she whipped him in the face then froze him to a tree? Or flew to a cave to comfort a guilt-ridden Aang? Or learned how to heal others? Nonsense, says Shyamalan; girls can't do that stuff! In the show, Katara takes down their enemies, and she takes them down hard. In the movie, Sokka shoves her aside to protect her.

And finally, let's talk about sexism. The show tackles the topic head-on. The opening scene of the series has Katara lecture her brother about his expectation of traditional roles, and how she's not going to stand for it anymore (it's this outburst that cracks the ice to free Aang). On Kyoshi Island, Sokka's first sweetheart, Suki, lays it on the line when she says, "I am a warrior, but I'm also a girl". She doesn't have to choose. In the world of Avatar, girls can fall in love and still defend their villages. Nothing beats the conflict when Team Avatar finally arrives at the Northern Water Tribe. Master Pakku refuses to teach Katara, because in the Northern Water Tribe, women are healers, not warriors. Oh no he didn't! Katara doesn't just call him a sexist pig, she challenges him to a duel and lets loose a fury of waterbending that would have flattened anyone other than a master. It's simply awesome and should inspire a generation of girls to run for President and bury their enemies in snow. What happens in the movie? Pakku immediately accepts her as one of his students, though their one scene together was cut from the theatrical release.

Had I not watched the show, I might conclude that Katara was a last minute addition to the script to get girls to come see the movie. The fact that The Last Airbender has not one but two meaningless female characters (Katara and Yue) actually does put it a good distance beyond most movies in terms of pandering to half the world's population. Had I not seen the show, I might think that this movie was just a mangled rip-off of Dungeons & Dragons written by a deranged Willy Wonka who years ago forgot how to laugh. Had I never seen the show, I'd have no idea what an amazing and powerful character Katara is. Or how funny, pessimistic, and loyal Sokka is. Or how Aang is a fun-loving, optimistic, wise, thrill seeker.

Go watch the show, beginning to end, and forget that this movie ever existed.

By the way, the DVD's chapter breaks are too few and far between to be useful. I was curious to see, for such a horrible movie, which scenes were so bad that they didn't make the final cut. Let me tell you, the first deleted scene is just awful. Team Avatar has just liberated some Earth Kingdom village, though they wear orange instead of green, and they celebrate by doing what looks like a fairly realistic tribal dance. The problem is, the world of Avatar isn't in our world; they shouldn't be dancing like we do in our world. They should dance like they do in season 3, when Aang and Katara share an amazing duet. If you can survive the first half of the scene, you'll be rewarded with a stereotypical reprisal of Whoopi Goldberg's phony soothsayer character from Ghost.

Oh, what, that's not enough of a reward? Well then, because I'm feeling generous, he's the shot I mentioned in my previous review, of Princess Yue's erect, circumcised hairdo. I mean, seriously, did Shyamalan even watch this movie? How did this scene make the cut?