It’s got a flying yak and a whispering dragon, mystical powers and an epic scale, but for all of this, "The Last Airbender" is surprisingly dull for a martial-arts-based 3D summer action flick.
For one thing, you might as well leave your 3D glasses at the doorâ€”no one’s going to be breathing fire into your lap or karate chopping at your date. The graphics pretty much stay within their celluloid cage once the credits finish their flight, only popping back out for the closing credits.
Setup to be a fantastical thrill-ride, this plodding children’s fare (based on a Nickelodeon cartoon) could have used some more impressive visuals to bale out its pat storytelling. It’s not that Shyamalan’s tale is without imagination: Blending together elements of Buddhist mysticism and Chinese kung fu lore, it offers a battle between pan-Asiatic tribes whose respective champions have control of earth, wind air or water (no, they do not combine their powers and summon Captain Planet). At the film’s center is the requisite "chosen one," The Avatar (Noah Ringer), the latest incarnation of an ancient hero with potential to "bend" all four elements and presumably bring order to the warring factions. The twist, as you already know from the previews, is that this avatar is a little boy (making him a great hero for kids).
Starring: Dev Patel, Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone, Shaun Toub, Aasif Mandevi, Cliff Curtis
The biggest problem here is that there’s no adrenaline. The child actors are very talented, but they’re not given textured enough characters to arouse our loyalty and they’re never really put through much palpable danger. While we know that the tribe of the â€˜fire-benders" is an evil empire who has conquered and enslaved the others, we just don’t witness enough of this to get sufficiently worked up about it.
Part of the problem is that the film’s villains, led by Dev Patel ("Slumdog Millionaire") as Prince Zuko and Osif Mundvee (TV’s "The Daily Show") as Commander Zhao, are far too likable. They’re charismatic without being scary. Sure they snarl a bit and make some wicked decisionsâ€”but they’re pretty chilled out for super-villains. Nothing we see them do gets our vengeance-juices flowing, and they don’t have any haunting weapons or even menacing costume pieces.
They are very clearly no match for Anng the Avatar, whose real challenge is to man up and own the responsibilities of being Spidermanâ€”I mean, a hero. Meanwhile, our other protagonists, Katara, the young girl who is last of the water-benders (Nicola Pelz), and her brother Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), are mainly charged with the task of building up Anng’s confidence. They scurry about with earnest concern and repeatedly pledge their loyalty.
On one hand, as an adult, I want to commend "Airbender" for a remarkable lack of gory violence, but on the hand, I can’t help but wish this was replaced with some sort of lively danger — some flying and tumbling, some exciting chases with narrow escapes, some balletic fight choreography a la crouching dragonâ€”instead of tiresome posturing between dull exposition followed by moments of mystical hand-waving, which conjures up some pretty tame water bubbles, icicles and flamey warning-shots.
The very young might enjoy this film’s super-empowered youth on a hero quest, and it may inspire them to play fight without actually hitting each otherâ€”but if you’ve been waiting for the next incarnation of James Cameron’s "Avatar" to take you on a thrilling ride, your savior has not arrived.