Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Why hating The Last Airbender is not a question of taste

There may be many films, if not the absolute majority of all films, where if you like it or not depends for a great part on your own personal taste.

With Shyamalan's Last Airbender this is not the case.

First, let's start with the whole race-controversy that surrounded this movie.

Shyamalan received a lot of criticism before the movie came out, as soon as details about the casting surfaced. He cast white actors in three of the main roles and intended to cast Jesse McCartney in the role of young prince Zuko as well. Later he was replaced by Slumdog Millionaire's Dev Patel for some reason. Now two of the dumbest excuses as for why it is absolutely okay to cast white people in roles that were in the cartoon clearly based on Inuit or Asian cultures are as follows:

"'Avatar the Last Airbender' is an Anime and hence it is racially ambiguous". Or as most people phrased it: "Look how big their eyes are, they're not Asians!".

It is true that the Cartoon TV-Series of Avatar the Last Airbender drew heavily on the aesthetics of Japanese Anime. However, there are slight differences in the animation technique and the overall style. Use of typical Anime stylistic devices and the static and iconographic way of animation that made Japanese Anime so popular and distinguishable from American animation is very scarce in the animation of the TV-Series. Yet, even if you claim that Avatar was in its form an Anime it should still be said that apart from its visual style the countless elements from different Asian cultures that were ingrained in the whole fantasy world that is portrayed in the series clearly situates it in 'some sort of fantasy-Asia'. There is no single house built in the style of Western architecture. There is no single character with blonde hair or rosy complexion. Everything, from the clothing, to the food, to the architecture, to the festivals and rites portrayed in the Avatar TV-series is influenced by a variety of cultures that can be found all over Asia over centuries and centuries. Now to say that it would be perfectly normal to have white people inhabit this completely and very specifically Asian world is more than a little strange.

Now the second argument as for why it would be okay to cast white actors in the roles of Aang, Katara and Sokka is even stranger but I heard it a number of times. "The voice actors in the TV-Series didn't speak with Asian accents, so they are clearly supposed to be white people."

Okay, leaving aside that the voice actor for Zuko is none other than the brilliant Dante Basco, whom most probably know from his role as Rufio in Hook, this argument is clearly nonsensical and even a bit offensive in itself. What, if voice actors don't speak in a stereotypical ching chang chung way you can't tell that the characters they portray are Asian? Or should they just speak Japanese or Chinese or whatever to signify that the characters are supposed to be Asians? This TV-series was aimed at young American adults, why in the world would they advise the cast to fake a stupid stereotypical accent?

Now one of the funniest and most hypocritical things about the Last Airbender movie was that Shyamalan kept dealing with his critics in a very arsey way. For example, he said that nobody should be mad that he changed the pronounciation of the names of the characters back to the actual Asian pronounciation, the way they were supposed to be pronounced in the first place. So instead of Sokka we get Soakuh, instead of Iroh we get Eeroh. The irony in this is that he seems to be so bent on getting the Asian (whatever Asian pronounciation he may have meant here... Japanese? Chinese? Asian is not a language, Shyamalan.) pronounciation of the names right, he couldn't be bothered to cast actual Asians in the roles. He dismisses a bunch of details that made the whole world in Avatar a sort of fantasy-Asia, making the original traditional Chinese calligraphy into senseless scribbles and swirls in the movie. He is not at all consistent in how he wants this world to be perceived and it shows in the final product, badly.

So aside from these rather stupid little tidbits, his reactions to criticism on the race-front were downright offensive. He went along the lines of "hey, I tossed some brown people in there, be happy already" when he declared that he cast the Fire Nation as Indians. He also said that he envisioned the Air nomads as "mixed-race people" and it was therefore okay to cast Noah Ringer in the role because he "looked mixed to [him]", even though he does remain a white kid. He finally discredits himself when he stated whinily "you are coming at me, the only Asian director who can cast who he wants!". Sorry, Shyamalan, you clearly do not understand the issue here. Maybe you can have Dante Basco explain it to you, he wrote a magnificent statement back when the movie came out:

So, this is pretty much it about the racial controversy. There are of course countless more details and wonderful quotes (such as "If you are Belgian, wear lederhosen! If you are Korean, put on a kimono" from the casting director of the movie, when he specified which kind of dress should be worn for the audition as extras for the movie), making this issue a huge clusterfuck on all fronts but this is supposed to also be a review for the movie so I am going to stop here now. I just wanted to tell you what I could in a nutshell to point out that the race controversy about the movie was not a thing of "some oversensitive people on the internet complained a lot", it's more a matter of "wow, it's unbelievable that some offensive shit like this can do down in Hollywood in this day and age" and it really shouldn't be disregarded completely when you are considering watching the movie or even paying money for it.

Grave as the issue of race in this movie may be, as unbelivable as this will sound: When you watch the movie it actually becomes the least of its problems. This was the only thing that surprised me about the movie. I thought that a lot of people would dislike it on principle because of the race controversy and that it would be hugely successful nonetheless because it has a bunch of special effects and things fly around. I can say that I expected pure shit to come forth from this, especially as I heard early on that whole characters were left out, that there was going to be no humour in this movie at all because for some reason, even though the humour was there and important in the TV series "for the movie it doesn't work" or that Shyamalan actively advised the actors not to watch the TV-series but solely rely on the script and his directions. Still, the movie managed to completely surprise me in how bad it was. So, so bad. You know when you are looking forward to watch a movie to make fun of how bad it is? I was looking forward to do that. But halfway through the movie it just became agonizing to still sit through it and watch it. I still made it through to the end.

Now let me count the ways in which this movie was wrong and should be burned with fire.

It opens to pictures of the opening montage that we are used to from the TV-series. Benders bending elements in front of a red background, next to some traditional Chinese calligraphy which translates to the elements and the properties of said element that they are bending. Oh wait, in the movie the Chinese calligraphy has been reduced to pointless scribbles. And the opening montage now just looks silly. A paragraph runs along the screen and is narrated by Katara about how the Four nations lived in harmony and then everything changed when the Firenation attacked. This was done so well in the cartoon. In the movie Shyamalan relies on really antiquated narrative cinematography (seriously? A scrolling text? With a voice over?) to tell the story. I am not kidding you.

Then we are introduced to Katara and Sokka, a pair of siblings from the Water Tribe at the South Pole. Their characters in the movie are mere cardboard cutouts of what they were like in the TV-Series. I can't decide which one of the both of them is less recognisable. For now I will have to go with Sokka, because the Sokka from the TV-series would never have grabbed his little sister's hands in anger when she accidentally splashed him with some water.

When we get to see the Water Tribe's village I was actually surprised to see some Inuit-looking actors. Just not in the speaking roles! Oh well. Surrounded by them, Rathbone and Peltz stand out even more like a sore thumb as they already do because of their wooden acting.

As the first little episode at the South Pole comes to a conclusion (Aang escapes from the Fire Nation) and we go to the next place (the Southern Air temple) it becomes clear that this narrative style will be used for the whole of the movie. You know when TV-Series sometimes have an episode that consists entirely of flashbacks with one of the characters narrating over them and basically summing up a whole season to give the audience the information they need to enjoy the season finale or whatever? The entire one and a half hour of the Last Airbender movie is told in that rushed and poor narrative style. And unlike a flashback-episodes of a TV-series it doesn't end in an exciting finale. It also makes the single segments look poorly and randomly strung together.

Soon we will encounter one of the most ridiculous scenes in the movie. The Earthbender liberation scene, as you may call it. In the TV-series this was about an Earth kingdom village that had most of their Earthbenders taken away to a prison ship. The prisoners were on a ship made of metal, there was no earth around them to bend so they couldn't riot. Katara alone let herself be caught by the Firenation to get sent to that prison and help the prisoners riot and escape the prison. It was Katara who insisted they should help the Earthbenders, who delivered a speech to encourage the Earthbenders to fight for their freedom. This was one of the first episodes that portrayed Katara as a really strong female character, brave and independent from Aang or Sokka.

In the movie this segment is completely butchered. The Earthbender prisoners are not on a prison ship, they are being held captive in a mountain village, completely surrounded by earth and rock that they could bend at any time they wanted. They just seem to be too stupid and lazy to do it! Now the scene that unfolds is representative for the quality of the acting, the dialogue and the cinematography of the entire movie. "Earthbenders, why are you acting like this? There is earth right beneath your feet!" And of course it is Aang who delivers this little motivational speech instead of Katara who just stands there and looks at him. The only thing she does in that segment is run at some Firenation soldier and yell "Leave him alone!" when said soldier asks Aang if he is an Airbender. This is so ridiculous. The whole scene, as pretty much the whole movie, is on middle-school theatre group acting level and it especially shows here.

The representation of bending is also atrocious. As they hired a Chinese calligraphy professional for the scriptures in the TV-series, they also hired a martial arts master, Sifu Kisu, for the bending sequences. All the bending moves in the original TV-series are based on actual martial arts moves and were painstakingly coreographed. In the movie nothing of this is visible. The movements (which consist of pointless, crude flailing) don't even correspond to the bending of the elements. Thus, comically, five Earthbenders do a little dance routine, followed by ONE rock the size of a FOOT floating slooowly across the screen. This makes Earthbending or any form of bending seem completely pointless.

But I have to get back to the complete butchering of Katara's character. As already said, she is one of the few really strong female characters in the cartoon world. Whatever happened to Katara, the girl who doesn't take sexistic crap from a conservative Waterbending master and challenges him to a fight, knowing that she might be seriously injured? Oh right, they completely left out this segment in the movie as well. In the movie Katara just states "Aang was accepted to train with a Waterbending Master", as if she hadn't even considered refining her own Waterbending skills and becoming stronger. Just as they left out the Kyoshi-warriors, a group of woman-warriors that briefly joins forces with the Avatar in the first season of the TV-series and will get more important in following seasons, even though they did feature them in some promotional content. Every single instance from the first season where Katara or another female character showed true strength of character, bravery and independence was not deemed important enough to put into the movie.

In the few cases, like the Earthbender liberation scene, where something awesome that Katara did was actually included in the movie, her participation to the event was played down greatly and it is Aang who appears as the strong one, as the leader. Rathbone and Peltz's performances do not help this, most of the time they both just stand there and stare. Then Rathbone is either allowed to swing around his boomerang or Peltz may stand there and say nice supporting phrases like "Don't be afraid!". Now I don't demand every movie to have a strong female character or otherwise they are automatically SEXIST AND EVIL. But in this instance you can't deny that it was an intentional and conscious deviance from the source material, making Katara into a poor little damsel in distress instead of the really badass yet never cliché character that she is in the TV-series. The leaving out of the second strong female force in the first season, the Kyoshi warriors, make this whole thing seem even less like a coincidence.

There are also other things that Shyamalan seems to just have gotten completely wrong. The Avatar IS allowed to have a family, how the hell do they want to explain in later movies (ugh) that Zuko is the great-grandson of both the former Firelord Sozin AND former Avatar Roku? Well, looking at the quality and consistency of the movie so far, they will probably just gloss over this minor detail in later installments.

All these examples of elements that Shyamalan took from the TV-series but for some reason twisted and butchered show that he has a very poor understanding of what the original was about. His work shows in many instances that it is, so to speak, neither here nor there. He pressed to have the „authentic Asian pronounciations“ for the movie but refused to cast actual Asian actors in the roles. He removed all the humour from the movie because otherwise it wouldn't be ~dark and edgy~ enough but the dialogue is still so dumb and the characters remain so one dimensional that the movie clearly has to be aimed at children. But with scenes like the one I explained above (why would Earthbenders not try to riot in a prison where they are surrounded with their bending substance?) he even insults the intelligence of the youngest kids in the audience. This is something the original TV-series never did. Even though it was a cartoon aimed primarily at children it attracted a great audience among teens and even adults around the world, myself included.

Shyamalan's version of it just looks sloppy, childish and overall a very poorly done movie. It doesn't have any redeeming qualities either. Let's just be happy now that WB never considered him for an adaption of Harry Potter, as he would have liked to do back in the day.

If you want to go see this movie because you liked the TV-series and you would love to see it on the big screen, don't.

If you want to go see this movie because you liked the trailer and want to see a nice action adventure aimed at a young audience, don't.

If you want to go see this movie because you are a fan of the TV-series and want to make fun of how bad this movie is, don't. It really isn't worth your time. The movie even fails to entertain on such a low level. The movie is not so bad it is good. It is so bad it is bad.

Even though this movie has reeked of racism and sexism from the start, they actually become the least of its problems and that is an amazing feat in itself. The only epic journey that I want to watch now is how Shyamalan will keep flushing his career down the toilet, meanwhile keeping a smug attitude about how nobody gets him.

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