Review: 'The Last Airbender'

(Two-and-a-half stars)

Writer-director M. Night Shyamalan's element-bending of the popular Nickelodeon animated television series isn't for the better.

Although his big-screen adaptation of "Avatar: The Last Airbender" stays true to the premise of the anime-style cartoon created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, an entire season's worth of character development and plot can't be shoehorned into one movie's relatively short running time. Kung-fu fight scenes featuring fireballs, swirling earth and jets of water -- coming at you courtesy of a poor 3-D conversion -- grow as tedious as some of the miscast actors.

The epic fantasy opens with siblings Katara (Nicola Peltz of "Deck the Halls") and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone of the "Twilight" saga) searching for food and stumbling upon something trapped beneath the icy surface of their sub-zero world. Shyamalan ("Lady in the Water," "The Happening") has been criticized for whitewashing the main characters, who are brown-skinned in the television series, but he should be chastised for directing such terrible performances. Awkward and wooden, Peltz and Rathbone deliver stilted dialogue and their few attempts at humor fall flat.

Noah Ringer, in an engaging debut, fares better as Aang, the lone avatar capable of restoring balance to the war-torn planet. Frozen for a century and freed by Katara's waterbending, the young boy must lead the struggle to fend off the Fire Nation's militaristic attempt to conquer the Air, Water and Earth nations. Only he has the capability to "bend" or manipulate all four elements and restore harmony. But Aang never finished his training. An Air nomad accomplished in his native airbending, Aang ran from the monks who identified him as the Chosen One and the responsibility that came with being the most recent incarnation of the avatar.

The Fire Nation is formidable. Under the ruthless rule of Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis of "Live Free or Die Hard"), Commander Zhao (Aasif Mandvi in an over-the-top, wide-eyed performance) sets out to capture Aang before Ozai's estranged son, Prince Zuko (Dev Patel of "Slumdog Millionaire"), can do so and reclaim his father's respect. The prince's hotheaded temperament is offset by the wisdom of his Uncle Iroh (Shaun Toub of "Iron Man" steals the movie), whose falling out with his brother goes unexplained.

Aang, Katara and Sokka dash here and there to visit the various tribes on the back of Appa, the last of the flying bisons. Aang's meditation sessions provide some backstory and guidance from the spirit world, and only his character becomes fully realized. But just when you truly worry about Aang's welfare, Zhao reminds his troops that killing the avatar would be futile, as he would just be reincarnated. The tension level falls. And the Dragon Spirit instructed the avatar not to hurt others, so there goes what's left of the conflict that should drive the narrative. The hero can't be harmed, nor can he do any.

The plight of the Northern Water Tribe, faceless and one-dimensional (including Seychelle Gabriel as the zombie-like Princess Yue), hardly stirs one's emotions. What should be the most exciting act of the movie becomes a protracted action scene dressed up with martial arts and visual effects.

M. Night Shyamalan will have to do a better job of crafting a screenplay, casting and directing actors, and shooting in 3-D rather than greenlighting a conversion -- and perhaps tapping into his sixth sense -- to be successful with future projects.

Rated PG for violence and not recommended for young children. 1 hour, 43 minutes.

— Susan Tavernetti

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