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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Last Airbender

Will mythology, splashy effects bring M. Night Shyamalan a hit?

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Season One of Nickelodeon’s animated “Avatar: The Last Airbender” has been transformed into a live-action children’s feature by M. Night Shyamalan. The director hopes his shift from psychological horror and science fiction to 3-D kids’ saga will halt his declining fortunes. His recent films, especially Lady in the Water and The Happening, have fared poorly with audiences and critics. If successful, The Last Airbender is slated to become the first in a metaphysical adventure trilogy, a sort of Buddhist Narnia.

The Last Airbender’s story is a Joseph Campbell hero’s quest whose reluctant protagonist, Aang, is a boy with cabalistic tattoos on his forehead. Airbender's wonder world consists of four nations, corresponding to the ancient elements of fire, water, earth and air. Not unlike the Dalai Lama, Aang was identified as the latest incarnation in a line of spiritual leaders called Avatars, who balance the four elements and communicate with the primeval spirits of nature.

The world in which Aang finds himself is seriously out of balance, thanks to the Fire Nation. Armed with steampunk technology and an industrial-age ethos that demands the subjugation of nature and the domination of other races, the Fire people’s tyrant king is bent on world conquest. Aang is the messiah figure that might thwart the assault. According to the sages, much of his authority, aside from manipulating (“bending”) the elements, resides in his power to change the human heart.

The mythology is interesting, but like many directors before him, Shyamalan strains against the sclerotic conventions of epic fantasy cinema. Dialogue that sounds profound on the page or from animated figures can fall wooden from the mouths of actors. Noah Ringer, a perky little Buddha, manages to inject some life into the proceedings. But rather than allow the story to show itself through action, Shyamalan relies on chunks of exposition recited by the characters. Some of the effects are splashy, but many scenes still resemble those old plastic 3-D postcards and are a poor representation of the unreachable horizon of reality.