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Battle of the Airbenders: TV Series vs Film

 

Avatar: The Last Airbender is an animated series that Nickelodeon aired from 2005 to 2008 that draws heavily from Asian mythology and Anime style.  It’s easy to dismiss this as another Pokemon or Yu-Gi-Oh! or just another goofy Japanese import for little kids.  While definitely in that vein, it is an American production that tells an epic tale with terrific characters existing in a world that’s both unique and plays homage to cultures of the past.

Created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, Avatar is set in an Earth-like place (is it the past or the future?) where humans have broken into four nations: Earth, Water, Fire, and Air (the 12 astrological signs are subdivided into these elements).  Each of these people have distinctive cultures, and certain members of their tribes have an ability to “bend” their designated elements–that is, control them.  Earthbenders can manipulate the ground and soil, Waterbenders move water in all its forms at their command, Firebenders control energy, and Airbenders have power over the winds.  Among these benders, the one person who can command all four elements.  This person is reincarnated over the centuries, but the most recent one, a 12-year-old Airbender named Aang, disappeared 100 years ago.  During that time, the Fire nation attacked the other three to take control of the world.  They wiped out all of the Airbenders and are still at war with the Water and Earth nations by the time the series begins.

In the first episode, teenaged Water tribe brother and sister Sokka and Katara discover Aang and his flying bison-manatee Appa (that is like a cousin to Falkor from The Neverending Story) frozen in an iceberg.  Upon being rescued, Aang learns all that transpired during the century that he was gone.  He had just found out that he was the Avatar before running away from his responsibilities before being trapped in the ice, so he has not yet learned the other arts despite being a proficient Airbender.  He must journey to the North Pole to learn Waterbending from a master who lives there.  Katara, a novice Waterbender herself, and Sokka, struggling with the desire to become a leader and a warrior, join Aang in his adventure.  Along the way, they pick up a lemur-bat named Momo.  During the second season, a fourth human is added to the group, a little blind girl with a tough attitude named Toph who is the world’s best Earthbender.  They are in a race against time, as Aang must become adept at Waterbending, Earthbending (the polar opposite of his natural Airbending skills), and Firebending before a comet arrives, giving the Fire Lord even more power.

They are pursued by Prince Zuko of the Fire nation, who was banished three years ago by his father, the Fire Lord.  He carries the scar on his face from his confrontation with his father, and must retrieve the Avatar to regain his honor.  He travels with his Uncle Iroh, who uses humor to guide him on his own journey of self discovery.  However, he is in competition with Admiral Zhao, who uses his considerable resources to stop Zuko and catch Aang himself.  Later, Zuko’s sister Azula and her two female companions become the primary antagonists and prove to be formidable foes.

For a children’s show, the characterization is very complex.  Tragedy hangs over the heroes and anti-heroes alike–Aang’s entire people have been long since wiped out; Katara and Sokka’s mother was killed in a raid by the Fire Nation and their father has been gone for two years fighting the war; Zuko’s father turned his back on him and his mother disappeared three years previously.  They all have parent issues, either wanting to avenge a loss or seeking approval.  They can act heroic and petty, sometimes at the same time.  They make mistakes.  They learn.  They grow.  We cheer their successes and feel heartbroken at their failures.  This aspect of character development over the run of the show is somewhat expected in some adult series, but is highly unusual in children’s entertainment.

Avatar: The Last Airbender (season 1)The series itself is broken into three “books,” one per season corresponding with the three elements that Aang must learn to conquer.  Each season has its own overarching quest that builds onto the total story, and by the end of Book Three: Fire, the story concludes in a spectacular fashion.  Not to give away specific spoilers, but the structure is not unlike the original Star Wars trilogy in that Book One ends with a victory, Book Two has a melancholy cliffhanger, and Book Three goes all out with its definitive ending to the story.  It is very satisfying.

During the adventures our heroes endure, we are introduced to a wide range of settings including an icy fortress, an underground labyrinth, a mountaintop palace, a volcanic prison, a swamp made up of a giant life-giving tree (rather similar to another Avatar made a few years later), a cavernous library swallowed by a desert, a cliff-hanging temple, and many more amazing visuals.  Additionally, we meet many supporting characters who inhabit these locals (the most terrifying being a creature that literally steals faces from anyone who displays emotions).  These seemingly guest characters are all important to the overall plot, even if it’s not apparent at the time, and most end up returning in critical ways by the end of the series.  The only problem is that there are so many of them, that it’s sometimes difficult to remember exactly who they are when they re-appear after an extended absence.  For this reason, the series needs repeated viewing just to assimilate all the complexities.  In this manner, it’s like a kid’s version of Lost.

Like any filmed entertainment, The Last Airbender is not perfect.  Too often (especially in the third season, apparently to counteract the increasing darkness of the show), the normally wonderful animation style degenerates into the goofy Anime-ish expressions when the characters show strong emotions like rage, shock, or exasperation (though the blushing cheeks when the characters become embarrassed is a nice touch).  There is also a tendency to pander to the young audience with silly sound effects like tinkling when someone sneaks along on tiptoe.  Given the amount of action (which is quite often amazing to behold), the animators are careful with the onscreen violence.  People hurl fireballs, shards of ice, and various sharp weapons at their foes; characters plunge from astronomical heights; armies wage battles on grand scales.  Under these circumstances, it would seem that death would be all around, yet the fighting (even using non-magical fists) rarely results in injuries.  This A-Team way of treating violence as non-lethal may be as psychologically damaging to an impressionable young mind as showing the logical outcome, but that’s the way of children’s programming.  The irony is that the series acknowledges death as a reality and talks about (though never shows) people having died.

Regarding the fighting that takes place, it’s interesting to note that each of the four nations use different techniques with their bending, each one taken from specific martial arts:  Airbending is based on the Ba Gau style of martial arts with Hsing Yi thrown in for good measure; Firebending is based on Northern Shaolin style of kung fu; Earthbending is based on Hung Gar style of kung fu; and Waterbending is based on the Yand style of T’ai Chi Ch’uan.  The show’s creators did their homework when any flailing arm and feet movements would have sufficed in a lesser series.  This attention to detail also translates into the cultures depicted, which immerses the series into Asian architecture, wardrobe, food, and general lifestyle–though its variety from Japanese to Chinese to Inuit is lovingly explored.  This is a wonderful way for American kids to be exposed to something different than the Western lifestyle.

The animated Avatar won seven awards, including an Emmy, and was nominated for four others.  The show has amassed a huge fan base composed of people from all ages.  Excitement grew when it was announced that the beloved series was coming to the big screen with a live-action adaptation directed by M. Night Shyamalan.  However, faster than you can say “Jar Jar Binks,” audience anticipation turned to anger when The Last Airbender hit the theaters (the word “Avatar” was removed from the title to prevent confusion with the James Cameron extravaganza).  Fans were outraged by the way Shyamalan (who wrote, produced, and directed) condensed the entire first season into a 103-minute running time as well as alleging racism because the ethnicity of the characters were changed.  Even the critics agreed, giving the film a Rotten Tomatoes score of 6%.  Shyamalan’s goal of making a trilogy seemed stalled when the film, budgeted at $150 million, brought in $131 million domestically (though to be fair, it made a total of nearly $320 million worldwide).

So is the movie really that terrible?  If you’ve never seen the TV series, you may enjoy the fantastical elements and adventure because you don’t know what you’re missing.  But if you’re a fan, you’ll see everything that was cut out or randomly altered.  The movie is a hollow shell of the TV series, a Cliff Notes version of the story that hits the highlights without ever getting to the heart of what makes Avatar work.  Even so, it does have some good things going for it.  Despite its five Razzies, it was not the worst movie ever made.  Let’s do a comparison of the two versions of Airbender.

Culture and Race

Fans were so incensed when they found out that the Waterbenders were played by white actors when they are dark skinned in the TV series.  Shyamalan seemed to apply his own racial preferences on the characters, but is it fair to accuse him of racism?  In the TV show, each of the nations had very specific cultures based on various Asian societies:

  • Air – Tibetan
  • Water – Inuit
  • Fire – Japanese
  • Earth – Chinese (with each Earth Nation city having its own uniqueness)

The film actually broadened the racial structure beyond just Asian, though one has to wonder if the main characters were played by white actors due to studio pressures.  The movie broke down the nations as such:

  • Air – Interracial, with Aang’s mentor apparently black (though dressed like Tibetan monks)
  • Water – Caucasian
  • Fire – Indian
  • Earth – Asian (non-Indian, as India is part of Asia)

Movies are adaptations of the source material and the filmmakers can interpret the material any way they wish, though if they make too many changes, it can alienate fans of the original.  One of the strengths of the show was the way it delved into a fantasy version of Asia, so it’s understandable why people were upset.  However, with Shyamalan being Indian, it’s also understandable why he chose to bring this Asian influence into the film.  The problem, of course, is seeing fan-favorite characters with dark complexions suddenly being pearly white on the big screen.  But if the film was to expand on its cultural representation to include all races, should Caucasian be excluded?  Of course, an argument can be made that if all races were to be shown on screen, why is there only fleeting shots of a single black actor?  The next issue is the fact that the heroes are pale skinned while the villains (of Indian descent) are darker.  It’s too bad that Shyamalan didn’t reverse the Water and Fire Nations.  It would have been interesting to see Dev Patel as Sokka instead of Zuko.

Plot

Any time you adapt a work into film, whether the source material is a book, TV series, play, graphic novel, or video game, the filmmakers must take certain liberties to transform it to be cinematic.  The essence of the story must be kept in place and the spirit of the original must be captured, but put into a succinct, entertaining two-hour (or so) package.  Some details need to be condensed or omitted.  Look at the Harry Potter series and how screenwriters Steve Kloves and Michael Goldenberg were able to streamline massive books with multiple subplots into straightforward stories for the big screen.  While some fans griped about elements missing, the movies still seem cohesive and usually do not feel like they jumped over important information.  This is what The Last Airbender did, but failed miserably.

Each episode of the TV series was an individual chapter within the “books” that made up the seasons.  The film was an adaptation of the first season, labelled “Book One: Water.”  The chapters were done in a somewhat episodic nature, though they built into the overall storyline.  While some seemed to be just filler, some elements such as characters or locations became important later.  Other times, a plot point is introduced that carries over to the next episode.  Many times, the importance of these elements are not truly shown until season two or three.  Sometimes an episode exists just to develop the characters.  The challenge is to take 20 22-minute episodes and condense them into a movie that would only be roughly a third of the length–and to have it make sense.

It’s really too bad that Shyamalan didn’t hire show creators DiMartino and Konietzko to write the screenplay.  After the disaster of a story that was The Happening, the director needs to learn how to collaborate in order to get the most out of a good concept.  He seemed to randomly grab elements from the first season and throw them together with little regard to how they wove together in the film.  Also, as many critics pointed out, the entire story felt like exposition.  It’s great to discover new things as the film unreels, but you have to set up the rules in Act 1 and then let the story play out without overwhelming the audience with new information that would just confuse them.  For instance, in the last three episodes of Book One, our heroes find themselves with the Northern Water tribe, where Sokka falls in love with Princess Yue.  She is fated to sacrifice herself and become the Moon Spirit.  The mythology surrounding the Moon Spirit is explained in these episodes, which serve as the climax to Book One.  Within the context of a single episode, it’s okay to deal with a concept that’s new to the series.  In the movie, this is handled in the last 40 minutes (their love story is reduced to Sokka volunteering to protect her upon first meeting her).  As the film is moving toward its conclusion, we now have to grasp understanding the mumbo-jumbo about the fish that are the living representations of spirits.  Does anyone really care?  We should be more concerned with wrapping up the story at this point in the film.

The movie clocks in at a relatively short hour and forty minutes, which reduces the amount of time to develop the plot.  It could have easily been over two hours long by fleshing out things that are just stitched together.  Young audiences are willing to sit through long movies (again, look at the Harry Potter films) as long as they’re engaging and entertaining.  What is really missing, though, is character development.  Despite the fact that the characters talk a lot, most of it is explaining what’s going on.  Rarely do we see the characters acting as unique human beings, which is a strong point of the series.  Too often, important information about the characters are explained with a passing line.  Shyamalan forgot the most basic tenant of storytelling–show, don’t tell.  This also hurt the characters in the fact that none of them resembles those of the TV show.  They are all too somber and serious, even those who are supposed to be the comic relief.  Shyamalan treats the mythology as sacred rather than having fun with it, thereby allowing the audience to have fun.

He also seemed to forget how to structure a film.  Act 1 introduces the characters, setting, and conflict.  He does these things in The Last Airbender, but in a very rushed manner.  Nothing feels organic.  Zuko’s introduction, for instance, almost seems like an afterthought, as if Shyamalan knew he had to have Zuko there, so he just threw him in.  The second half hour was just some random scenes that in no way felt like the plot was thickening–again, it was more exposition thrown at us.  We briefly see an Earthbending village.  Aang is captured and then Zuko frees him dressed as the Blue Spirit, which happens in Chapter 13 in the TV show.  Why does this happen so quickly in the film?  Because Shyamalan needs to include it, and there’s no time to do it later.  The turning point in the story at the hour mark had the heroes reaching their destination at the North Pole, which should be in Act 3.  Essentially, the filmmaker took the first three episodes and the last three episodes for most of the movie, cramming details from the other 14 episodes into the middle half hour of the movie.  The journey was the fun part of the series and where most of the theme and character development happened.

Here’s how the film’s plot should have played out:

Act 1 – Take a cue from Lord of the Rings and Star Wars and use a pre-title sequence to explain the back story and rules of the benders.  Even the TV series did this in its opening credits.  Bring the audience up to speed, then start the show.  Katara and Sokka find Aang and Appa in the iceberg and bring them back to their village.  Allow Aang to play and show that he’s a normal kid.  This is important in the fact that he must grow serious by the end of the film.  Let the audience get to know him and actually like him.  Show Katara and Sokka’s personalities as they get to know him.  Reveal the fact that he’s the Avatar once his personality is established rather than right away.  Meanwhile, introduce Prince Zuko and his goal, plus his relationship with Uncle Iroh and General Zhao.  They zero in on Aang, who struggles with his role as the Avatar.  He goes to his temple, finding his people long dead.  He now realizes that he must journey to the North Pole to learn Waterbending from a master, and Katara and Sokka go with him.  The Firebenders are on their tale.

Act 2 – Here’s where we need to have their epic journey with the relationships between Aang, Katara, and Sokka developed.  Obviously, not every episode from the show needs to be included, but we need to see the world in which they live.  Let the audience be awed by the variation of cultures and settings.  In the first half of season one, the heroes visit a couple different Earth Nation cities while Katara tries to improve her Waterbending skills.  While the movie does show an Earthbending town, it has little impact.  Let’s see the city of Omashu, where Aang meets his now-elderly childhood friend who has become an eccentric King.  Let’s meet the female Kyoshi warriors with Sokka getting a crush on the leader, Suki.  Of course, all the while we have our Fire Nation antagonists chasing down the protagonists.  However, we need to see the struggle that Zuko is going through trying to both redeem himself in his father’s eyes and competing with the movie’s true villain, General Zhao.  Iroh tries to train Zuko, who is so focused on his goal that he does not listen to his elder.  The first half of Act 2 needs to culminate with Aang’s trip to the spirit world, where the former Avatar, Roku, informs him that he must learn all three elements before a comet arrives.  This now ramps up his need to reach his destination in a timely manner.

The second half of Act 2 has to build the intensity of both the journey of the heroes and the quest of the villains.  If the first part focused on Earth Nation, the second part needs to spend time with the Fire Nation.  After a run-in with pirates, Katara gains possession of an ancient scroll that teaches Waterbending, so she and Aang try (with frustrating results) to improve their skills.  Aang is captured by General Zhao, but Zuko puts on the Blue Spirit mask and rescues him so he can turn the Avatar in himself; however, he is wounded during the escape and Aang must save him.  The episode featuring this incident has a nice scene where Aang asks Zuko if they could ever be friends (the line was moved to the end of the movie as a throw-away).  This is important because it establishes that Zuko may not be all bad.  The next step on their journey has the heroes meet a group of young rebels led by the charismatic Jet, who wants to destroy a Fire Nation village, thereby killing everyone including children.  Aang and his companions prevent this from happening.

Act 3 – Finally, Aang, Katara, and Sokka reach the Northern Water tribe.  Aang is trained by the master while Sokka romances Princess Yue.  Katara is prevented from being trained because she is a girl, but stands up for herself.  General Zhao amasses his navy to attack the Water Nation while Zuko and Iroh sneak in.  The epic battle ensues.  Princess Yue turns into the Moon Spirit, which General Zhao tries to destroy.  Zuko confronts Aang, but fails to capture him.  Instead, Aang uses his Avatar powers to destroy the Fire Nation ships (he only threatens them with a static tidal wave in the film).  After the battle, Aang now is tasked with learning Earthbending and Firebending, with Katara named his Waterbending teacher.  We’re now ready for Book Two.

Characters

If the film did a poor job adapting the plot, how well did it handle the characters?  Not very well, unfortunately.  As previously stated, none of them resembled what they did in the TV show, at least in their personalities.  Here’s how the two versions compare:

Aang

TV – Voiced by Zack Tyler Eisen, Aang is a fun-loving kid who laughs and plays a lot, often to the consternation of his companions.  He especially enjoys creating an air bubble that he sits on and rides.  He is a normal 12-year-old who is burdened with a heavy responsibility that he is not ready for.  During the course of the journey in the entire series, he matures and becomes serious but spiritual like the monks he had lived with during his formative years.  He gets frustrated when he is unable to master Earthbending (the opposite of Airbending), yet shows off the other skills he masters.  He is capable of losing his temper, but he is also compassionate and unwilling to take a life (he is even a vegetarian).  His morals is his driving force in life.  Aang also has a crush on Katara, though doesn’t act upon it in Book One.

Film – First time actor Noah Ringer was chosen because of his considerable martial arts skills and the fact that he looks exactly like Aang.  As with the other actors, much was made of the fact that he’s white and not Asian (he’s actually of Native American descent), but the character is pretty pale and his physical features are pretty generic, racially speaking.  Ringer is perfect casting.  A lot of critics derided his acting ability, but as his performance in Cowboys & Aliens shows, the kid can act.  It’s just that the role is so underwritten, that he has nothing to do but look grim when he’s not displaying his amazing martial arts talent.  From the moment Aang is thawed out, he is serious and not playful, which undermines his whole character.  He may have cracked a smile twice in the entire film, and possibly even laughed in the background of a flashback.  As is shown in a behind the scenes video, Noah Ringer is a prankster with an infectious laugh.  If he was allowed to show some of his real personality on film, the character of Aang would have been much truer to his origins.

Katara

TV – Voiced by Mae Whitman, 14-year-old Katara is serious, sensible, and motherly.  She is the last of the Waterbenders from her village, but because she has no mentor, she struggles with learning the skill on her own.  Through the course of Book One (especially with help from the stolen scroll), she is able to master Waterbending enough to become Aang’s instructor, even if she got jealous of his ability to pick up this talent with apparently no problem.  She misses her mother, who died protecting her during a Fire Nation attack, and harbors resentment for her father, who has been away at war for the past two years.  She tolerates her brother’s antics and is somewhat oblivious to Aang’s affections for her since she looks at him more as a little brother than a love interest (that changes).  By the second season, she is a formidable force as a powerful Waterbender.

Film – The very pale Nicola Peltz assumes the role and does an okay job with–yet again–an underwritten role.  She’s the one character that should be serious, and the actress gets that right.  However, any other nuances in the character is missing.  Nothing is said of Aang’s crush (or her reaction to it), she never meets any other character from the TV show (like Jet, the leader of the rebel kids) with whom she has any emotional attachment, she has no conflict with the Waterbending master (who isn’t even in the film–Princess Yue’s father takes over this role), and any struggles she has with learning the skill is barely mentioned.  She’s essentially there to be the girl in the adventure and not much more.

Sokka

TV – Voiced by Jack DeSena, skinny 15-year-old Sokka is possibly the most complex characters on the show in addition to being the comic relief.  As the oldest child in the village, he must act responsibly but resents the fact that he was too young to join the men when they went off to war.  He wants to make his father proud by proving himself as a leader and a warrior, .  As with Katara, though, he has no one to teach him how to do this, so he often makes mistakes.  He has no bending abilities, so is often the odd man out during their adventures, but he does not back down from a battle.  He has a sharp-edged boomerang that he puts to great use.  His biggest character trait, though, is his sense of humor.  He often cracks witticisms that annoy Katara but entertains himself.  He and Aang often play juvenile games that end with them flicking each other or giggle at things that boys their ages find funny (such as the word “buttress”).  Just like Aang and Katara, he grows through the course of the series (even finding himself a mentor to teach him sword fighting).  He truly becomes a leader, devising battle plans and using intelligence to overcome adversity.

Film – Jackson Rathbone, who was 26 when The Last Airbender was released, plays Sokka.  Needless to say, he looks no more like a scrawny 15-year-old than he does Inuit.  He also has no wit, sarcasm, or humorous actions.  Instead of being the comic relief, he is just the other guy along for the ride.  The character is stoic throughout the film with no hint at any internal struggle.  The actor himself is bland, especially considering the role is supposed to be lively and fun.  Miscast and badly written, Sokka is one of the greatest disappointments in the movie.

Zuko

TV – Voiced by Dante Basco (who most people will remember as Rufio in Steven Spielberg’s Hook), 16-year-old Firebending Prince Zuko is driven by his obsession to find the Avatar and bring Aang to his father, the Fire Lord, to win his approval.  Three years before, Zuko voiced his disapproval of the plan of using soldiers as a sacrifice during battle, causing his father to challenge him to a duel that resulted in Zuko being scarred and banished.  In Book One, he is pretty much the primary antagonist, with just hints that he will eventually change to become one of the good guys (which doesn’t happen until half way through Book Three).  There is a massive internal struggle within him because he wants to do good, but is controlled by his need for paternal approval, that will probably never come.  His dressing as the Blue Spirit and rescuing Aang is important because even though he did this for selfish reasons, it showed that he has the guts to stand up against his own people and also hints that he and Aang could be more than enemies.  His relationship with his uncle is complex as well, since he looks at the old man as a mentor and the father he never had while simultaneously not taking him seriously.  His ambiguous nature makes him one of the strongest characters on the show, and his ultimate change of heart is one of the most satisfying elements of the series.

FilmSlumdog Millionare‘s Dev Patel, who at least is young enough to play a teenager, portrays Zuko.  For once, the character is actually written fairly close to his TV counterpart.  Patel does a good job capturing the obsession and fervor of the character.  Unfortunately, there’s not much more to the character as written.  We get that he’s in turmoil, but his relationship with his uncle is one-note, and no other subtlety is even implied.  His performance could have been so much better if given the proper material to perform.

Uncle Iroh

TV – Wonderfully voiced by veteran actor Mako, Iroh is a Yoda-like mentor to Zuko.  He is the Fire Lord’s brother, a retired Fire Nation general who was actually in line for succession to the title of Fire Lord, but was usurped.  This apparently doesn’t bother him, however, as his goal in life now is to operate a tea shop.  Tea is his great love, and he drinks it as often as he can.  He also enjoys a board game using little tokens, one of which is a symbol of a secret organization that he belongs to.  He has a genial manner and often comes off as the goofy sidekick when he has a lot of depth to him.  He lost his son in the war and has taken on Zuko as a surrogate, and constantly challenges him to make the right decisions and do good, and is saddened when the impetuous teenager screws up.  Mako died during the recording of the second season (there was a really sweet episode that was dedicated to him), so in Book Three, the show’s creators wisely had him remain silent through many episodes (which actually served the story) and was missing from a good portion of the season.  When we did hear him speak again, the character was performed by Greg Baldwin, doing a passable impersonation of Mako.

Film – Shaun Toub played the character with–you guessed it–seriousness.  In no way did he physically resemble the animated Uncle Iroh, being tall and thin rather than short and pudgy and having sporting long hair.  Gone is any sense of whimsy or wisdom, replaced with somber stoicism.  At least the movie acknowledges that his son died and he has “adopted” his nephew, so there is some connection between them.  But the contrast of the characters in the show is not present in the film, which is the audience’s loss.

General Zhao

TV – As the true villain of Book One, General Zhao was modeled after the character of Colonel William Tavington in The Patriot, so who better to do the character than the actor who played Tavington?  Jason Isaacs’s voice has gravitas that drips with menace.  He is ambitious, cruel, and immoral, wanting to secure his place in the Fire Nation military by destroying the Avatar and crushing the other nations.  He meets a fitting end at the end of the first season.

Film – Who better to follow Jason Iassac’s footsteps than…Aasif Mandvi from The Daily Show?  Who in their right mind thought that this squeaky-voiced comedian had the screen presence to play such a forceful, villainous character?  While he is appropriate as one of Jon Stewart’s correspondents, but in this fantasy adventure, he’s entirely wrong.  Not only does his casting eliminate all threat the character posed, thereby undermining the entire dramatic conflict in the film.

Fire Lord Ozai

TV – The ultimate villain of the series is actually hidden from view during the first two seasons (much like Emperor Palpatine, Sauron, or Blofeld), though we hear his voice as done with flair by Mark Hamill.  We only his hand or the back of his head so there is a menacing mystery surrounding him.  When he is finally shown in Book Three, he resembles his son Zuko, though with a long beard.  To some degree, finally revealing him humanizes the Fire Lord rather than keeping him as a concept of evil.  He’s still a horrible human being, make no mistake, but we finally see him as a character.  His final battle with Aang in the four-part series finale rivals some of the epic showdowns of fantasy entertainment.

Film – He’s a guy.  That’s it.  Played by Cliff Curtis, there is no threat or grandeur.  We know he’s Zuko’s father and Iroh’s brother and he’s the leader of the Fire Nation.  Other than that, he pretty much sleepwalks through the film.  Showing him on screen is a huge mistake, and it makes one wonder if M. Night Shyamalan actually watched the series before writing the screenplay.

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Action

While the series is firmly rooted in the tradition of anime, the animation is done extraordinarily well and is accessible to viewers who are not normally drawn to that style.  In particular, the many action scenes are thrilling and actually have a sense of danger.  Given the concept of the show, most of the fighting is done using magical abilities rather than hand-to-hand, though there is some sword play and fisticuffs at times.  Being a children’s show, the most harm done is that someone is knocked out, and even in situations where in reality the characters would be killed, we see that people are generally unharmed.  The main irritation, though, is that on occasion during fighting scenes, the characters fly through the air with streaks behind them rather than the actual background moving.  This technique is often done in anime, and while some people like it, it’s a lazy way of showing action.  The bending styles, based on various martial arts, have a reality to them that grounds the fantasy elements.  The animators did a good job capturing the movements and making each bending stand on its own.

Shyamalan has never done a special effects action movie to this point in his career, so it was interesting to see how well he handled it.  For the most part, he is effective.  Many times, true to his personal directorial style, action happens within the frame without the camera focusing on specifics, so the events seem to happen on their own rather than feeling staged.  A lot of work went into the choreography, and in particular Noah Ringer is amazing to watch.  In particular, there’s a scene where Aang and Katara practice, and it’s shot with quiet elegance.  However, it’s unclear if the film kept true to the series in which martial arts applies to which element.  Also, the movements seem overblown.  While the entire body is used when bending in the TV show, the movements are fluid and graceful.  In the film, too often an overly complicated routine is used to do the magic.  In one scene, Earthbenders stomp on the ground in unison, which looks really silly.  The battles all too often look like people play fighting rather than really trying to do harm to one another.  It’s like the background extras were told to clash swords, but don’t actually make any threatening motions.  That undermines the urgency of the film, as if the filmmakers just said, “Reality doesn’t matter because it’s just a movie for kids.”  Lesson learned from Harry Potter–kids can handle it when characters on screen face real threats to their lives.

The biggest disappointment, though, comes in the climax of the film.  It’s essentially a remake of the season one finale of the show, but for some reason has less of an impact.  One change is understandable–in the show, Aang becomes a giant water fish that wipes out the Fire Nation ships.  On film, that probably would not work well because the visuals would be outlandish.  Instead, he creates a wall of water that threatens the ships, making them turn around and head out to sea.  This is a lackluster ending to a talky, bland movie.

Other Elements

As was previously stated, The Last Airbender is not totally horrible.  The production design is effective, even if the story lacks many of the imaginative locations of the series.  What we do see is done fairly well, in particular the Northern Water tribe’s ice palace.  This also applies to the costumes, which differed from the series but were still well designed.  The movie is also filmed with nice cinematography.  Even though Roger Ebert complained about the converted 3D and its inherent murkiness, the 2D version is bright and clear.  The music by long-time Shyalaman collaborator James Newton Howard is grand and enjoyable, though it would have been nice to see what series composers Jeremy Zuckerman and Benjamin Wynn could have done on a feature film budget since their music for the show is wonderful.  It’s evident that a lot of effort was put into the production values of the film, and M. Night Shyamalan seemed to want to do something special with this adaptation, but unfortunately he went about it in a seemingly clueless manner in regards to the story and characters.

The Legend of Korra

The animated adventures of the Avatar continues with the new Nickelodeon series The Legend of Korra, which premiered Saturday, April 16.  Set 70 years after the original show, this story follows the new Avatar, an impetuous teenage girl named Korra (Janet Varney) who is adept in Firebending, Earthbending, and Waterbending, but for some reason cannot command Airbending.  She goes to Republic City, which was founded by Aang, in order to learn Airbending from Aang’s son Tenzin (J.K. Simmons).  She becomes involved with a sport called Probending, where she teams with brothers Bolin (P.J. Byrne) and Mako (David Faustino).  An anti-bending movement  grows, led by a mysterious character named Amon.  The culture has become modernized with automobiles and radios, and the city has glass and steel skyscrapers.  The conflict of The Last Airbender was that the Nations were at war, but in The Legend of Korra, they are peacefully co-existing with the threat of everything our initial heroes built could be destroyed.  It will be interesting to see how this new mythology unfolds.

copyright © 2012 FilmVerse

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11 comments on “Battle of the Airbenders: TV Series vs Film

  1. you know. i think that the movie honestly couldn’t have been better. i mean, how many Inuit actors can you find for katara and sokka who would LIKE to act in this movie? stop complaining about that.

  2. I have seen the animated TV show of this. While not my favorite one, I thought it was overall a very good one. I felt the movie deserved all the hate it got. Nothing worked at all. They were just trying to make a paycheck movie, I think they failed at that as well.

    • I think Shyamalan honestly thought he was making a good movie, but failed miserably. He was completely out of his element, and it’s like he forgot the most basic tenants of good filmmaking. Since he wrote, directed, and produced this turkey, the blame squarely falls on his shoulders.

      Have you seen the new series? I haven’t gotten into it as much as I wanted to. It’s quite different than the original, so it takes some getting used to.

  3. Also that The Legend of Korra sounds interesting and will check that out, thanks

  4. The animated series is one of the best I can remember but yet again they failed big time with the film because that film is going on the ten worst of the decade, terrible writing, terrible acting and wierd mix of martial arts and special effects. Just watch the damn series before you make the movie! What’s wrong with these morons?

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