"The Last Airbender" covers a lot of ground in just under two hours, and viewers who are unfamiliar with the popular Nickelodeon animated series that inspired the film may find themselves wishing the movie had opened with five minutes of maps, timelines and explanatory notes.
Long story short, we're visiting a mystical world where geopolitics is a four-way rivalry among nations affiliated with Air, Water, Earth and Fire (insert 1980s funk-band joke here). Psychically gifted citizens of each place can defend themselves by chucking quantities of their native element at adversaries. The fire nation is the most warlike, and its Napoleonic leader is determined to subjugate the others, with ash-belching battleships and ninja-clad warriors who are literal flame throwers. Against them stand Katara and her brother Sokka, teen warriors from the Water tribe, and Aang, a 12-year-old thawed out after a century encased in ice. He is an Avatar, capable of commanding all four elements and blowing evildoers to sparkling, satisfying smithereens.
Groggy yet? Hold on, you haven't met headstrong Prince Zuko and his courtly guardian Uncle Iroh, fierce Fire Nation Admiral Zhao, Fire Lord Ozai or Princess Yue, whose prematurely white hair somehow powers the moon. The plot here is like Hansel and Gretel's bread-crumb trail after a hurricane. This is pure introductory adventure, meant to immerse us in the series' richly complicated universe. In truth, there is more metaphysics and exposition in the movie than I could digest. At a certain point my brain ceased processing new input and simply switched to sensory input mode. From there on, I had a fine time. The story is at best incidental to the pleasures this film has to offer.
Despite significant stretches of talky tedium, there is plenty here on which to hang a franchise. "The Last Airbender" is one of the most visually luscious and exhilarating entertainments I have seen this year, full of giddy fireworks and kinetic pleasure. I suspect writer/director M. Night Shayamalan has been watching the early "Star Wars" films and such intricately art-directed Chinese super-productions as "House of Flying Daggers."
The film is chockablock with gee-wow marvels. The Asian-inspired sets are extraordinary. Aang and friends travel on a flying six-legged albino beaver; Fire Nation cavalrymen ride into battle on giant geckos. The camera observes these psychedelic wonders casually, as George Lucas nonchalantly showed us the twin moons of Tatooine. And in the Lucas manner, the warfare is bloodless, with fighters felled by special-effects showers of ice or wind or sparks, so that combat has a sort of gorgeous grandeur.
There are echoes of earnest young Luke Skywalker, and Harry Potter, too, in Aang. He is a Young Man of Whom Great Things Are Expected, who must train his telekinetic skills, and accept his fate as his world's savior among an order of mystic monks, though he'd rather snuggle into a normal family. His waterbending companion, Katara, is courageous and determined to help Aang fulfill his destiny (hello, Hermione). Her overprotective brother Sokka (hi there, Ron) is on hand to add a little adolescent heat in his flirtation with doe-eyed Princess Yue.
Any decently powered laptop could cough up these characters, given the right input of Joseph Campbell and Japanese comic books. But to his credit, Shyamalan focuses on their humanity, wedding emotions and effects. The ingratiating young cast does well in roles that are about 40 percent tai chi moves and determined scowls. Noah Ringer never camps it up as the bald, extensively tattooed Aang, and his martial-arts moves could sweep new Karate Kid Jaden Smith right onto his keister. Nicola Peltz as Katara is required to regurgitate reams of fantasyland history, and somehow remains engaged and engaging. Jackson Rathbone (currently playing a much more mature vampire character in "Eclipse") makes Sokka sturdy and likable despite an unbecoming shaved-temples and ponytail hairdon't. The most-ambitious performance award goes to Dev Patel as the Fire Nation's Hamlet-like Prince Zuko, inconsolably bitter because of his father's indifference. With his thousand-yard stare and eruptive rages he brings scorching intensity to his performance as an angry young royal.
Because of its continent-hopping escapades and ever-escalating battles, the film feels rushed, with characters and situations whipping by so quickly that most feel underdeveloped. When we reach the climax, a smooth handoff to the next link in the series, we feel a key element is missing. For all its spine-tingling satisfactions, "The Last Airbender" hasn't staked a unique claim on our imaginations as it recycles set pieces from earlier blockbusters it tries so hard to emulate. Maybe that cohesive vision, that elevating passion, that soul arrives in the next installment.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186