When most people talk about Avatar, The Last Airbender, they talk about the cartoon series, with it's sharp writing and storytelling, massive worlds and culture, great characters and superb animation.
I'm not here to talk about the cartoon.
Still all of the elements above sound like an excellent basis for a film though, at least as far as I can tell. Certainly cinema has shown us that it can take those elements from books and produce outstanding films. Just take a look at such examples as Lord of the Rings and The Hunger Games.
Unfortunately, M. Night Shyamalan is not up to the task. The director of the film The Sixth Sense is, at least on paper, meant to be up to the challenge. Sadly this isn't the case.
I'll start off with the good points of the film. The special effects are decent enough. It's actually good to see Momo and Appa in the flesh as it were. Some of the martial arts stuff looks competent. Azula actually looks like Azula. Okay, I admit it, I'm scraping the barrel here and then some.
Unfortunately the other aspects of the film are best described as bodged. There's no real character development of the protagonists or antagonists. Instead the film rushes from one major set piece to the next. This leads me to my next issue with the film.
There are scenes clearly based on parts of the cartoon series. In the hands of a capable screenwriter and director, they could have made the film an outstanding example of storytelling. Unfortunately this film is not in the hands of a competent team. Instead, we see emotional and touching scenes from the cartoon rushed through without any character or story development. The Southern Air Temple, a scene that should inspire tears and make you feel for the central character just leaves the audience detatched and even bored. Monk Gyatso is barely shown and the connection that we have in the cartoon is none-existent, rapidly negating the desired effect.
Then there's the story of Haru. In the limited time we meet him in the cartoon, we become attached to him BEFORE he gets arrested. In the film, we barely have time to register his existence before the film rushes us into what is supposed to be a despondent prison. Unfortunately this was botched as well. The steel prison that kept his father and other Earthbenders imprisoned is ommited entirely and so when we see the prison that can't hold them instead. To make matters worse, the prisoners are never really demonstrated to have lost their will to fight as we saw in the cartoon, so we see another potentially great set piece wasted.
Then there's the development of Sokka's relationship with Princess Yue and her eventual death. Again, we don't see the development of their relationship and what little we do see feels forced and unromantic. I have seen andriods deliver more emotion. That's not good. And Princess Yue's death to save the Moon Spirit. In the cartoon, we actually CARED. In the film, we don't even know who she is. Apart from the fact that she's a Princess, there's virtually no personality to her.
Then there's the issue of running time.
Fitting the whole first series into one film would be challenging to any director. Fitting it into the space of a film that runs only 103 minutes is nothing short of stupidity. Most of the botch, rushed set pieces are in my opinion a direct result of the decision to try and squeeze too much into such a limited running time. Well, that and the fact that everything about this film that could have been great was wasted.
What makes this film so painful for fans of the cartoon is that the film does show hints of being something greater and that it takes some of the great moments from the series and makes a pigs ear of it. This film COULD and SHOULD have been so much better. If the film had been run by a much more capable team, then we would be looking at a classic and talking eagerly about the second and third films. Just imagine how great it would have been in the hands of the team that made Lord of the Rings or Pan's Labyrinth or The Hunger Games. Unfortunately, we had the team who gave us this instead.