Last night, before combining The Last Airbender with Rifftrax, I made the mistake of watching it without the sarcastic commentary. Surprise! It truly earned its 6% rating at Rotten Tomatoes. I was fascinated, though, with why it’s so eye-bleedingly bad.
There’s been a lot of discussion about the whitewashed casting and how it undermined the setting established by the original Nickelodeon series. I will admit that I was taken aback by seeing a Fire Nation represented by actors of Indian, Maori, and Iranian descent, not to mention a notionally Inuit group of people represented by two very white actors. But leaving aside that giant misstep, the movie did a terrible job of condensing the original source material into a movie, in large part because it’s focused on the wrong thing.
The movie is based on the first season of Avatar: The Last Airbender, a cartoon on Nickelodeon. That series’ first season was over ten hours long. The movie runs a little over an hour and a half, yet attempts to fit all of the first season’s major plot points into that time.
The result? A whole lot of stuff happens, a giant brownie of plot with dollops of exposition ice cream and topped with a glaze of voice-overs, but there’s little meaning to the action. To fit in all of the story, they had to dispense with character development.
In the series, the main characters have time to grow and become fully-realized people. Aang comes to terms with being the Avatar; Katara learns to trust in her strength; Zuko learns who he is and what he truly values. This is the series’ core, the real story being told. In the movie they’re ciphers, blown about by the winds of plot. The Last Airbender doesn’t even bother with common movie shorthand to signpost character growth, and skips any real banter and character interaction for poorly-staged and ill-paced action sequences.
For my day job I write proposals and put presentations together to teach people about my company’s technology. A big part of my job is deciding what story I’m telling, and to whom, and what the most critical parts of that story are. Because of that I’ve gotten better at recognizing when a story is about more than the specific events of its plot. In focusing on cramming ten pounds of plot into a two-pound bag, Shyamalan lost sight of what Avatar was truly about.