Movie review of 'The Last Airbender'
By Michael O'Sullivan
Thursday, July 1, 2010
I've been getting e-mails for weeks complaining about the casting of "The Last Airbender," director M. Night Shyamalan's live-action adaptation of the Nickelodeon cartoon "Avatar: The Last Airbender." The writers are upset that most of the actors, with the exception of British-born Indian actor Dev Patel, who plays bad guy Zuko, are white. They should be upset with the casting, but not for the reason they think.
Newcomer Noah Ringer, who plays the title role of Aang, a messianic child with the power to manipulate the elements, is woefully miscast. Not because he's white, but because the kid can't act . Embarrassingly amateurish, he gives new meaning to the term lightweight, and it has nothing to do with his character's ability to float on air.
Playing a hero who's meant to be something akin to the young Dalai Lama, Ringer brings less than zero gravitas to the role. He makes the kid who plays Gibby on "iCarly" look like Sir Laurence Olivier.
Aang has run away from the monastery where he was being groomed for his role, before he had mastered control of water, earth and fire. So it's almost plausible that he comes across as such a neophyte.
Making matters worse are Ringer's young castmates. Playing Katara and Sokka, Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone are stiff and awkward. Short of a screen test, it's hard to imagine less convincing line readings.
Even Patel, of "Slumdog Millionaire" fame, is one-dimensional. Zuko is hoping to capture Aang so that his people, known as the Fire Nation, can suppress the Earth, Air and Water tribes. He's been banished by his father, the Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis), until he returns with the prize. In other words, Zuko is seeking redemption and reconciliation with an emotionally withholding father. But judging by the look of his constant scowl, all he really needs is some ibuprofen.
The grown-ups don't fare much better. As Commander Zhao, Aasif Mandvi delivers a histrionic, eye-rolling performance. Only Shaun Toub, as Zuko's wise Uncle Iroh, manages anything close to subtlety.
As for the special effects, the bending of the elements is, I'll admit, kind of, sort of cool. Walls of dirt rise up to repel fireballs. Oceans surge and turn to ice. And Aang rides around on a hang glider that unfolds from a staff he carries. After a while, though, all the fighting between people hurling rocks, flames, water balloons and blasts of air at each other starts to resemble, as a waggish friend noted, one long game of rock, paper, scissors. It gets real old real fast.
Too bad you can't say the same for the immature and unseasoned cast.
Contains martial arts and mildly violent action.
Correction: An earlier version of this review misspelled the name of Laurence Olivier.