I LIKE M. Night Shyamalan's "The Last Airbender" (Spoilage)
#1
The most controversial part of this movie makes no sense: Asian American actors are upset that the lead roles were not cast with Asian actors. Frankly, I am surprised that this movie has been picked as the latest symbol of "what should be using Asian actors". Do Asian American actors really want to be identified so closely with live-action Anime- and Martial Arts movies?

That said, the obvious disconnect between the ethnic look of the movie's lead actors and their "tribe" is disconcerting enough that one reasonably asks why the tribes could not be cast more homogenously to match their leaders/representatives (for the storyline). However, Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone are not (as I had read in some reviews) the only Caucasian actors used for the Water Tribe of the South. Katharine Houghton played their grandmother and she happens to be Katharine Hepburn's neice.

So it's not like only two members of the Water Tribe were cast outside the ethnic expectation. Seychelle Gabriel plays Princess Yue and she's of Mexican descent. Shaun Taub, who plays General Iroh, is of Persian descent -- while his nephew, Prince Zuko, is played by Dev Patel (the young Indian actor from "Slumdog Millionaire").

The original series, as I understand it, draws intentionally on a mixture of Asian traditions (including Buddhism and Hinduism) so using Indian actors and Chinese or Japanese actors to follow the show's precedents makes sense. That said, I would expect people to cut the director some slack if he can show any consistency within his film world.

I've gone through this "they've sacked the canon!" experience with numerous movies in the past. James Bond purists couldn't stand Sean Connery; people freaked when they learned that John Wayne played Temujin in Howard Hughes' "The Warlord"; Tolkien purists wanted Peter Jackson to stay true to the books (although I seem to be the only person who made a broad, public appeal for the retention of the extremely critical Bombadil character).

Frankly, purism isn't all it's cracked up to be. The purists can rarely agree on anything that is canonical. A lot of people love Arnold Schwarzenegger's Conan even though he was not very much like Robert E. Howard's Conan -- and yet when Rolf Moeller played Conan in a low-budget TV series Conan fans objected.

So, I'm not bothered very much by the casting of the lead characters. The cast seem to be chosen for reasons other than who "looked like the part". Did similarly talented actors who did look like the characters try out? I don't know. Maybe they lacked the chemistry that Shyamalan was looking for if there were such audtions.

That said, the movie itself is pretty interesting. It goes farther than most movies in building a cinematic world that seems real -- real in the sense that there is substance to it. One gets the impression that there are actually lots of cities and towns in this fantasy world -- with Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" movies, people wondered how Middle-earth was supposed to exist at all because there seemed to be no one around (except Orks). Huge tracts of land were subtracted from the landscape, and along with them various populations of interesting peoples. Kings of Arnor? Who needs Kings of Arnor?

The acting was acceptable for what seems like a children's movie that is trying to be more than a children's movie. The original series aired on Nickelodeon and the movie actually goes out of its way to take the storyline seriously in an adult way.

The characters are not as fully fleshed out from an adult perspective as, say, in a typical dramatic series. The chief reason for that, I think, is that sex and adult relationships have almost been relegated to the background. You get to see two teenagers fall in love. The storyline is really about a spiritual tug of war between ambitious humans and a world that is somehow watched over by spirits.

The lack of depth in explaining the spirits and how the peoples of this world relate to them does weaken the story, but then film-makers have always had to struggle with the exposition-versus-action issue. Too much exposition and the audience loses interest. Too little exposition and the audience loses track of what is going on.

I think the movie offers enough narrative voiceovers to help the audience understand what is at stake. It takes a while to reveal that Aang (the young Avatar/last Airbender) is struggling with an emotional conflict that is not immediately evident. In fact, Shyamalan takes a gamble with Aang's character by only slowly revealing why he is in conflict. And I think the gamble pays off, although it only pays for itself. That is, developing Aang's character this way makes the final scene (with Aang) both emotionally resonant and meaningful.

To be honest, it is only when you see Aang in that final shot that the movie makes its point: his inner conflict through the entire world into turmoil. How evident was that in the TV series? I don't know. It's actually a very deep and subtle point, one of those "adult" concepts you don't often see in a children's show.

In other words, Aang's character is not cut-and-dried. He has to struggle with who he is and come to grips with the fact that he's somewhat different. Shyamalan chose to make that realization the focus of the story. Hence, the movie is not just another kid's adventure that follows heroes on some cookie-cutter quest. The movie is setting into motion a coming-of-age tale that pertains to someone who is only partly human. He gets his humanity better than his non-humanity.

I think that Aang's journey is what will make the franchise successful. People are angry over the casting but would they object to Asian actors performing Shakespeare? Would they object to African actors performing "My Fair Lady"? Art is about expression, not conformity. In fact, Art most often succeeds when it challenges the audience to reconsider its expectations.

Sure, Hollywood has failed to set a good example in many ways by marginalizing ethnic groups, but "The Last Airbender" is not set in Japan, China, or India -- it's not about China, Japan, or India. In a metaphorical sense this fantasy world does say to the audience, "If we look through the eyes of these Asian traditions we can see ourselves in such-and-such a way". But if I look through those eyes, I don't expect to see myself looking like an Asian.

The story itself questions some of our deepest-held human ideas. What if we have the opportunity to walk with the powers we revere? What if we woke up one day to realize we were one of those powers? What if we were just a child and the realization of what we are terrified us?

I think people should see the movie and not judge it with a self-righteous wrath of presumed offense. I think Shyamalan is saying, "Hey! There are some universal truths in this story and we can tell the story using any good actor."

Should we hope to see Hollywood use more Asian American actors in roles that are clearly Asian American characters? Absolutely. No need for Charlie Chan fakery. But there are no Asian American characters in the movie so far as I can see.

So let the actors act, let the director direct, and let the story unfold. I want to see the next two installments of this franchise. If criticism derails it, movie audiences will have denied themselves a refreshing fantasy film experience. At least Shyamalan hasn't bogged himself down with the sickening stereotypes we see all too often in fantasy movies. So far I haven't seen any goofy ale-drinking Dwarves, no angst-ridden anti-hero thieves trying to overcome magicians, no barbarians-in-the-desert.

This world -- whether it is because of Shyamalan's vision or the original creators' vision -- imagines a world rich in history, culture, ideas, and conflict. There is a lot to be said for that. The movie doesn't have to win any academy awards to be good. It just has to entertain and get people to think and react.

I believe it succeeds on all those points regardless of its minor flaws.
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#2
A very good review Michael, both in commentary about the film and about the audiences. I’ve heard nothing but negative press on this movie, which I’ve found to be very sad, given that I had high hopes for Shyamalan as a great director of our time . . . if only he would stop trying to be a writer, too!

But your positive review does make me ask a question: Why do you think there has been so much negative press? Is it simply backlash from the furor over casting (something I hadn’t heard previously)? Is it based mostly on fan(atic) misanthropy? Is there some “flaw” in the telling of the movie that Western audiences/critics can’t follow?
All your base are belong to us.

It could be that the purpose of my life is only to serve as a warning to others.
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#3
I think people are getting tired of the Shyamalan "formula" but I also think that there was a huge expectation that the live action roles would conform to the ethnic stereotypes.

I really don't think Asian American actors are doing themselves any favors by raising a protest over this film's casting.
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