As I had previously promised in my pre-movie speculation, here is my review.
Sullivan, Melissa and I all went to the theater together while my Mom, visiting, watched Freyja. Sullivan was very excited about seeing the “Fire Nation Movie on the big TV.”
For those of you only interested in my conclusion, I will simply refer to my tweet, posted shortly after seeing the movie.
Dear m night, please let someone else write, direct, and produce the airbender sequel. Thanks.
Yeah. He killed it. As hard as I tried to like it; as much as I tried to look past its flaws; it was overall a travesty. However, the wooden acting, poorly written dialogue, and bad editing have been covered ad nauseam by armchair critics all across the Internet — I’d instead like to focus on it from the angle of someone with a more intimate understanding of the show.
Remember the episode when the characters all attend a play that recaps the entire series to-date? That was a more faithful re-telling of the story.
Warning: This post contains spoilers, if spoiling this movie is even possible.
Just to quickly re-cap, here was my original speculation on what would be in the film, corrected to reflect what was ACTUALLY in the film (Red indicates incorrect predictions, black is correct):
|Episode||Title||Comments / Differences|
|1||The Boy in the Iceberg||This scene was changed slightly, but not in a way that materially affected the development of the plot.
|2||The Avatar Returns||Ditto.|
|3||The Southern Air Temple||This scene was very abbreviated, but generally faithful to the show.
|4||The Warriors of Kyoshi||Skipped, as expected.|
|5||The King of Omashu||Skipped as expected|
|6||Imprisoned||This one was actually included, albeit painfully changed. See below.
|7||The Spirit World (Winter Solstice pt. 1)||Not really included, per se.|
|8||Avatar Roku (Winter Solstice, pt. 2)||The relevant information is introduced, although in a manner radically different than in the show. I still count it as a hit.
|9||The Waterbending Scroll||Technically, they recover the waterbending scroll, but there were no pirates — it was recovered from the Earthbending town mentioned in “Imprisoned”.|
|10||Jet||Skipped, as expected.|
|11||The Great Divide||Skipped, as expected.|
|12||The Storm||Skipped, sort of… they do discuss him leaving the Air Temple (it’s one of the major plot points, actually), but as an episode, it is not included.|
|13||The Blue Spirit||Included — done reasonably well, with some slight modifications.|
|14||The Fortuneteller||Skipped, as expected|
|15||Bato of the Water Tribe||Skipped, as expected.|
|16||The Deserter||Skipped, as expected.|
|17||The Northern Air Temple||Skipped, as expected.|
|18||The Waterbending Master||Included — slight changes to make it fit into the plot.
|19||The Siege of the North, Part 1||Originally, I had thought Zuko would not be kidnapping Aang’s corporeal body (while he went to the spirit world) but that did indeed happen; This episode was reproduced pretty faithfully.|
|20||The Siege of the North, Part 2||For the most part, it was reproduced — there were a few substantial changes w/r/t the implementation, though; see below.
Overall, I think I did a pretty good job with my predictions — I nailed all of the skipped episodes and only overlooked one inclusion.
The Earth Kingdom Raids
This was a very significant difference from the show, and honestly the movie would have been better served without its inclusion. I partly think the only reason it was included was simply to show off some Earth Bending.
In the original show, the three kids tour around the world, going to different locations (many of them in the Earth Kingdom) to have fun and play around. This was one of the main differences between season 1 and seasons 2 & 3: in the latter, the plot was far more finessed and tightly managed – the loosey-goosey style of the first movie, while fun, introduces many characters and locations that really are not integral to the plot development at large.
In the film, however, the three kids begin in a down-trodden town similar to the one in the episode “Imprisoned.” However, instead of the Earth Benders being kept on board an iron-clad offshort platform (far away from any earth) they are kept in….a quarry. Yes. Way to go, Fire nation.
So Aang (pronounced “ahng” in the film) gives what I can only imagine would have been an inspirational speech if it was written better, the Fire Nation guards stand there dumbly, and then the imprisoned earth-benders start to fight back. The earth bending was very slow — the rocks being thrown did not have any kind of impetus like they do in the show — it was more like they were being rolled through the air than thrown.
On its own, this scene was…adequate. At the close of the scene, they are given a Waterbending scroll from a Fire Nation storage container. (The same scroll that they receive from Pirates in the cartoon)
But what followed was far worse – a 5 minute montage of the trio going to different Earth Kingdom villages, liberating them from the Fire Nation. The Fire Nation soldiers are presented as little more than stupid, ineffectual grunts. They do not fight with the passion or ferocity of the Fire Nation in the cartoon, and to me, this is one of the biggest betrayals to the original show. In the cartoon, the Fire Nation is very proud, ruthless, and cunning. They are formidable opponents, and certainly not bumbling fools, blinded by their own avarice.
The other thing about showing the Fire Nation as stupid villains is that it dehumanizes them and makes them one-dimensional; In the cartoon, all of the nations are shown to be humans that simply make different choices. In the penultimate episode of season 3, Kitara finds a picture of happy, cute little baby she believes to be “Baby Zuko”, which turns out to actually be Fire Lord Osai, as a baby.
These village liberation scenes really don’t add anything to the movie as a whole — they force the Avatar into the messiah role way too prematurely — it feels very forced and not a natural progression at all. The Earth Kingdom is the primary focus of the second season anyways, so it would help the pacing and development of the movie if they could have instead focused on more fully developing other scenes, or just using the time instead to add some levity.
Differences in Bending & Sozin’s Comet
Huge kudos to George Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic for their stunning work rendering the bending. With the exception of the weird “rolling rock through the air” earth bending, all four elements were done beautifully.
One very significant difference between the cartoon and the film is that in the film, Fire Bending works with the same limitations as the other elements: it must have its element present to bend, it can’t just ignite it out of nowhere.
Initially, I didn’t like this, but after more thinking about it, I realized this was actually one of my nitpicks of the original show — it is definitely a power-imbalance in favor of the firebenders. In The Deserter (Season 1), Master Jeong-Jeong makes specific note of this fact and explains it’s one reason that Firebenders must exercise more self-control than other forms of bending.
The normal fire benders must have a source of fire from which to bend, so during the siege of the Northern Water Template (the climax of the movie), flaming balls were launched into the city so that the invading benders would have a source of fire.
General Iroh, the “Dragon of the West”, is particularly feared as he, as the fire nation grunts fearfully point out in the Northern Water Temple Sanctuary, “is creating fire out of nothing!” In the denouement of the film, Fire Lord Osai, talking to his daughter, mentions that the approaching Sozin’s comet which will “give them the power that only the most advanced firebenders have: to create fire out of nothing.”
I actually really like this aspect of the plot development – I find that it more greatly balances the four elements, and makes the comet far more interesting than the cartoon’s presentation of “Fire bending, but on crack.”
One theme that was played up rather heavily in the film was this whole idea that Aang has not accepted either his destiny or the “past” (technically the world’s past that Aang was frozen through). The “destiny” referring to him accepting that he is the Avatar. The “past” refers to Aang letting go of his anger and sadness over losing his Airbending kindred.
In the cartoon, the final battle with the Fire Nation at the end of season 1 ends with Aang going into the Avatar state and controlling a massive Water-Behemoth, forcefully ejecting all Fire Nation ships from the region.
The film takes a different approach: He instead “shows the people the power of water”, as suggested by the dragon in the spirit world (I can’t tell if that’s supposed to be Avatar Roku or not…hopefully not.) Instead of forming into an aquatic adversary, Aang instead raises an amazingly large wall of water, and then the Fire Nation flees in fear. This particular scene was used as both a cathartic vehicle for Aang, to get out all of his pent-up emotion about the loss of his kindred, as well as an acceptance of himself as the Avatar — the savior of the world. As a plot device, it was very appropriate, and I didn’t mind this particular deviation from the original scene.
However, and this leads me into another point, brought up earlier: it again portrays the Fire Nation as a very weak and cowardly adversary.
The Poor Portrayal of the Fire Nation & M. Night’s Ludditism
I mentioned this earlier, but this was a really sticking issue with me, regarding the movie. As I mentioned earlier, the Fire Nation did not become the dominant force in the world by bumbling into a series of lucky victories. They are precise, astute, and above all: ruthless.
I definitely got the impression that M. Night wanted to present the folly of the Fire Nation as an over-reliance on technology, and that “good old fashioned hard work and ludditism” were the keys to True Prosperity. I can’t really cite any specific examples, but it really felt like M. Night was pushing this notion that the world would be a better place if people regressed to mysticism instead of progressive technology.
In the animated series, the Fire Nation does indeed use industrialized technology to their gain, but it’s simply because fire is a main component in steam-based technology (both in combustion and in the initial ironworking). In the Earth Kingdom, they used earth bending to construct a very elaborate series of gravity-powered stone slides for transporting cargo, people, and anything else.
My point is simply that to equate the Fire Nation’s “industrialized” technology as their downfall is a fallacy; it’s just what they’re good at.
That said – M. Night’s previous movies would suggest he has quasi-luddite yearnings, manifested as anti-progressive undercurrents such as these. “The Village”, particularly, but to a lesser extent, “Signs” and “The Happening” — science, technology, and progressivism all take a back seat to mysticism, the supernatural, and irrationality.
The problem I have with this, of course, is that in the animated series, technology and the supernatural (as bending) exist together harmoniously. In the film, people are “wowed” by bending, as if it were some kind of neat trick they’ve never seen before — but in the animated series, it is quite commonplace, even though benders are a minority. Think of it like being a celebrity musician, athlete, or artist — you’ve seen it plenty of times (making the work commonplace), but the people that can produce that kind of work are, themselves, uncommon.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not defending the Fire Nation, per se — they were bastards in the animated series (at least, under the rule of Firelord Ozai), but they certainly weren’t trivialized. It is quite easy to underestimate or minimize the enemy, building up a “straw man” that makes the heroes of the “good guys” look all that much more grandiose — but it’s a cheap literary trick; one that the original creators of the series (Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino) did not fall for, but that M. Night decidely did. His past history with villains, while spotty, shows similar themes: Mr. Glass in Unbreakable was simple and one-dimensional; his entire being motivated entirely by his obsession with comic book dualities.
But real people aren’t just all evil or all good – Darth Vader was once an innocent pod-racing boy; Lex Luther (according to the Smallville canon) was once an ambitious, yet lonely, young man, envious of his friend’s father-son relationship. Overly simplifying a hero/villain duality may be easier to consume, but as a result the story suffers.
One of the reasons the animated series is so wonderful is because it has the light-hearted spirit and passion of a children’s show, but it also presents very deep characters that struggle with very real issues, like an adult’s show. In this film, however, it seems that M. Night has adopted the shallow characters and good vs. evil mentality of most children’s shows / movies, and all the heavy-handed seriousness of an adult show. He completely misses the mark. Epic fail.
Casting Choices & that pesky Race-bending thing
Dante Basco, the original voice for Prince Zuko (you may also recognize him as “Rufio” from the movie “Hook”), commented on the issue of casting choices for the film. He says:
The fact of the matter is, in Hollywood… it’s not fair. It’s not fair at all, the tables are tipped unfavorably for ethnic actors. The percentage of roles for ethnic actors to white actors is something to the effect of: in 100 roles, there may be 12 roles for black actors, maybe 7 for latin actors and only maybe 2 for asian actors.”
For those of you unfamiliar with what I’m referring to, please see this comparison:
The animated series does not take place on Earth, but the individual cultures are clearly inspired by those of earth:
- The Air Nomads : Tibetan / Ascetic monks (Chinese / east asian)
- Earth Kingdom: Inland / Agrarian Chinese
- Water Tribe: Innuit / Eskimo
- Fire Nation: Southeastern Chinese / Japanese
They even use actual kanji in the show, use chopsticks, observe cultural customs, and even construct similar architecture to their Earthly analogues.
The issue of race isn’t a huge deal for me, provided that there is justification. M. Night didn’t just change race, though — the Fire Nation is now clearly populated by culturally Indian people. Given M. Night’s apparent propensity towards using over-simplified characters, I’m surprised he didn’t use a black or middle-eastern culture as the villains; although traditionally, Indians were frequently used as villains during the silver screen era.
M. Night has personally commented on the issue: (emphasis mine)
Here’s the thing. The great thing about anime is that it’s ambiguous. The features of the characters are an intentional mix of all features. It’s intended to be ambiguous. That is completely its point. So when we watch Katara, my oldest daughter is literally a photo double of Katara in the cartoon. So that means that Katara is Indian, correct? No that’s just in our house. And her friends who watch it, they see themselves in it. And that’s what’s so beautiful about anime.
I was without an agenda, and just letting it come to the table. Noah is a photo double from the cartoon. He is spot on. I didn’t know their backgrounds, and to me Noah had a slightly mixed quality to him. So I cast the Airbenders as all mixed-race. So when you see the monks, they are all mixed. And it kind of goes with the nomadic culture and the idea that over the years, all nationalities came together.
Regarding the first bolded line: I disagree completely. Sure, she has darker skin, which means, in a vacuum, you might confuse her with someone that is Indian, Cuban, Ecuadoran, or maybe just really addicted to tanning (her hair is too straight to be African). However, one thing she is not is “pale white” American looking.
If he wanted to cast her because she was an exceptional actor, or looked like Katara’s twin, or perhaps was very good at Tai Chi, I would not have an issue.
But the casted actress, played by Nicola Peltz, is none of those three. Her acting is wooden at best, her martial arts…adequate… and she really doesn’t look like Katara at all, aside from being a girl.
Jackson Rathbone as Sokka (or as they say in the movie: “Soh-ka”) wasn’t a bad casting choice — He is similar enough in build and voice tone that he could have been a very good Sokka. His martial arts were basic military-style fighting; relatively easily trainable (compared to, say, Tai Chi).
One thing that I really wished was different about his character was that he did not get a whole lot of funny lines. As Sokka (the character) point out many times in the show, Sokka is the “sarcasm” guy; and is the source of much of the comic relief. But in the movie — he gets virtually none. Commenting on the issue of comedy, M. Night says: (emphasis mine)
Then as the show went on, they just started being more and more themselves, and it got older and older and older. Then it became cooler and edgier. But in the beginning they had lines like, “Wanna go penguin sliding?” That was the appropriate line in episode one, but would not be in, let’s say, episode 27. That would not be that appropriate dialogue. And that — kind of, its origins as it was finding itself — is the balancing act of the movie. I wanted to honor that part of it. Because it would be like taking away my seven year old’s [connection to it], and why we’re all here, because my seven year old connected with it. I don’t want to take that away.
While I’m sure he was just picking a number arbitrarily, Episode 27, “Zuko Alone”, focuses entirely on Zuko during his personal journey. Zuko is, generally speaking, a serious character and does not get comedic lines. Immediately preceding episode 26 was the episode titled “The Blind Bandit”, where the trio initially discovers Toph (Aang’s eventual earthbending master), has some terrific comedic elements.
So I don’t buy his argument that the series loses its comedy as it “grows up” — levity and comedy are both present consistently all the way up to the very last episode; but neither is present in the movie very much at all. There were plenty of opportunities for one-liners and quick jokes.
Noah Ringer as Aang — I admit he is a pretty good fit, appearance-wise. Aang’s race is indeterminately Caucasian in the animated show, if that mattered, and Noah Ringer does an admirable job performing the martial arts.
His acting was quite forced, and overly serious. It was not the Aang that we saw in the series. In the last couple episodes of season 3, Aang was clearly pre-occupied, but quite justifiably. He had a positive attitude and delightful gib all the way even in episodes as late as Season 3 episode 13 (“The Firebending Masters”).
Ringer had his moments that were reminiscent of Aang — in combat, in serious moments, and when he was worried; but in spite of M. Night promising to “honor that part of it”, he clearly did not, giving neither Aang nor Sokka any memorable comic lines.
But there’s the rub, though – in Season 1, Zuko, as a character, was completely 1-dimensional, so it makes sense that M. Night’s penchant for simplified villains would lead to an accurate writing of a 1-dimensional character.
The real test of his skill will be in the followup movies (assuming they are even made); Zuko is one of the roundest characters in the series, undergoing dramatic change and growth; one of my favorite characters, to be sure. The second season, where there is clearly an inner struggle within Zuko’s psyche, where he is neither villain nor anti-hero and staggers across that delicate balance throughout.
Although M. Night would like to think that he has created a melting pot of races, why do the hero/villain delineations use the same tired racial biases we have seen for decades? Dark-skinned people = bad, Light-skinned people = good. It would have been just as easy to have cast Japanese / southeastern Chinese as the Fire Nation, and that would have been far more consistent with the animated series.
I’ll be honest, if another is made, I hope M. Night doesn’t come anywhere NEAR it. The unfortunate irony is that he owns all of the rights to the movie option. It’s not studio owned. If there are to be sequels, he is the one at the helm. The best we can hope for is that he gives up, sells the rights, and someone else reboots it. But clearly, after his other movies, he’s as shameless as Uwe Boll.
If he does make a follow-up, my hope would be that he breaks it up into two movies, as they are doing with the last Harry Potter movie. Seasons 2 & 3 will be far more difficulty simply because their plots are more tightly written; there is less fluff to cut out.
The one positive thing to come out of this movie is that the original creators of the series have been green-lighted to make a followup television series tentatively titled Avatar: The Legend of Korra. It’s set in the original show’s universe, but 70 years in the future. The eponymous lead character is the next Avatar, from the Southern Water Tribe. While not directly related to any of the original characters, the son of Aang & Katara (“Tenzin”) is her Airbending teacher.
I would like to say that the movie is worth seeing, and perhaps the Director’s cut will fix some of the editing issues; but the original problems will still plague it. If you are a fan of the series, it will be painful to watch, if at all bearable. If you are not familiar with the series — do yourself a favor and watch the animated series (available on Netflix and Amazon.com video download), you won’t regret it. Skip the movie. If providence holds, this series-as-film will die out just like The Golden Compass did.