Wonderland. Middle Earth. Pandora. A galaxy far, far, away. With life and all its humdrum day-to-day routines, it’s almost expected that the idea of a mythical world would appeal to most, if not all, movie-goers — ideally, a world in which the realm of impossibility isn’t so impossible. The Last Airbender, based on the Nickelodeon animated series, is the latest film to dive headfirst into such a world.
As the film starts, we are ushered into a world set in the future that is divided into four nations – the Earth Kingdom, the Water Tribes, the Air Nomads, and the Fire Nation. It is soon learned that the prideful Fire Nation has been involved in a century-long war against the other nations, and there has been no let up in their attempts of dominating all inhabitants. Each nation is home to those who can manipulate — or bend — the elements on which the fabric of their respective society is based. But legend holds fast to the Avatar, the one who is to maintain balance between the nations and who can bend all elements.
We’re introduced to Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) who are inhabitants of the Southern Water Tribe who happen upon Aang (Noah Ringer), an Air Nomad whose body has been preserved in a globe of ice beneath the ocean. Strange markings on his head and body cause many to believe that he is the Avatar, with the job of keeping all four nations in harmony. However, due to his prior incapacitation of sorts, he is only versed in the skill of airbending. Katara and Sokka take Aang as their responsibility as he looks to master the other elements, with the hopes of finally ending the war with the Fire Nation.
Naturally, this film depends heavily on special effects that make the world involving the four nations a tangible onscreen idea. Outside of each one’s respective landscape comes the task of actually bending elements — those of the Fire Nation hurling flames from heat sources; Water Tribe members making water rise and fall; Earth Kingdom dwellers employing dirt and rocks to do their bidding; and the invisible quality of air, of which Aang is the last bender. In this case, viewers looking to be indulged by such visual effects will find their needs met. The actual task of the one doing the bending seems to involve a level of emotion — say, a strong belief in self, or even perhaps strong doubt. It is the dialogue and delivery that isn’t fully convincing, especially when it comes to the lead characters, who we are to be fully invested in. Ringer, Peltz, and Rathbone’s fresh faces add sparks to their characters that will hopefully acquire more depth in their adventures together and there is a similar hope that these three relative newcomers will grow into their roles as time goes on.
With good guys naturally comes bad guys and, while The Last Airbender‘s bad guys are definitely menacing in approach, their actual demeanor and execution of what is supposed to make them so threatening comes off more argumentative than forceful and dreadful. Dev Patel, as the scorned Prince Zuko, is convincing as a guy who wants to prove his worth, as are the fellow cronies of the Fire Nation who are hellbent on capturing Aang. But it’s also these bad guys who recap the film throughout and provide a running narrative that moviegoers might find a little redundant. Some of their actions to disrupt the balance of the spirit world more than they have might not hold as much weight as intended. At the same time, however, their determination to capture Aang in their attempt to rule over the four nations is a vital part to the story which can only be further played out in future chapters.
Those expecting a comprehensive story in this one film may not find it here; still, at a running time of 1 hour and 43 minutes, the build up leading to Aang’s realization of his responsibility to the nations could have been more involved. However, for all intents and purposes, what ultimately proves to be climactic for this film does leave room for the chapters that will chronicle Aang’s discovery of self and ever-growing camaraderie with Katara and Sokka. It is of slight hope that the platform on which the narrative is displayed will mature along with the characters it involves.