At the behest of several readers who appear to believe they know my taste better than I know it, and also in an attempt to figure out just what the hell M. Night Shyamalan was thinking with his The Last Airbender, I watched the entire first season of Nickelodeon’s pseudo-anime series Avatar: The Last Airbender.
As I suspected would be the case, I got zero entertainment value out of it.
This is not fantasy storytelling for thinking adults. It’s inoffensive enough for kids, I suppose, but lack of offense is hardly reason to embrace a story. If I had a kid I wanted to inculcate with the attitudes of openmindedness that exploring the alternative worlds of fantasy fiction requires, I wouldn’t mind showing her this… but I’d want to move on right away to something with more heft, like The Lord of the Rings or even The Chronicles of Narnia. Because even an atheist can embrace the Christian Narnia as a fantasy realm that is consistent and grounded in its own distinctive philosophy, and Narnia works especially well to introduce children to other concepts… like the notion of religion itself as fantasy.
But the world of Airbender feels phony and lacks cohesion. Four different nations corresponding to the traditional elements — air, water, fire, and earth — and the people of those nations can manipulate their national element but not the others? That feels like a game of Magic: The Gathering, not a functioning human society. Even if you want to attribute the magical abilities to genetics, there wouldn’t be such clear-cut divisions in powers: it would be like saying that people can have white hair or black hair or red hair, but no shades anywhere along the spectrums between. And certainly not so that it would be possible for, every generation, a single Avatar and not one more, a sort of Dalai Lama-esque figure, to arise, someone who can control all the elements magically and hence somehow keep the peace among the nations.
It’s not just a matter of religion here: the magic is real, just not in any way that seems plausible even on its own terms, within its own context. And the lack of storytelling finesse in the worldbuilding is equally lacking in the nitty-gritty plotting and character development. Since today has been a bit of a Pick on M. Night Shyamalan Day, I’ll say something nice about him: If I’d seen the TV series before I saw his adaptation of it, I wouldn’t have been quite so hard on him, because he appears to have picked up the stilted, juvenile writing and scenarios seemingly designed to appeal to the kindergarten set of his movie directly from the soure material. His movie is pretty faithful to the source. Not really in a way worth emulating, but still.
The movie follows the same basic story as these 20 episodes: A young Avatar who has been missing for a century turns up and now must bring peace to a world that has fallen into war during his absence. But the individual stories don’t have much urgency to them. Mostly it’s a lot of juvenile bickering among Aang (the voice of Zach Tyler: The Ant Bully) and teenaged siblings Katara (the voice of Mae Whitman: Teacher’s Pet) and Sokka (the voice of Jack De Sena). Oh, and Sokka won’t shut up about how hungry he is, which is hilarious, because teenaged boys are always eating: that’s pretty much the extent of the wit here. But even when Airbender wants to be serious, it falls flat: When Aang discovers that his home has been destroyed and everyone he knew and loved is long dead and gone, he grieves by… playing a game with Sokka? Really? These three sound and act like modern contemporary kids, not the products of a culture deeply alien to our own.
And as is to be expected from a relatively modest TV series, the animation is not particularly inspiring or beautiful: it’s functional at best. The lack of feeling and soul in the story and in the serviceable voice performances is not made up for by stylish, emotional, or dramatic visuals, as is often the case when animation does work to engage the adult imagination.
I’m mystified what anyone over the age of 10 sees in this, frankly.