July 1, 2010 at 11:57 am

Tom Long Film Review: 'The Last Airbender' -- GRADE: D-

Review: 'the Last Airbender' blunders

M. Night Shyamalan adaptation knocks the wind out of epic cartoon

Noah Ringer is Aang, the Airbender with the potential to save the world. (Paramount Pictures photos)

Stiff, fuzzy-looking, cloddish and disastrous in nearly every way, "The Last Airbender" looks as if it could have been made by the spoiled son of a studio mogul willing to waste gobs of money.

That the movie instead comes from the once hugely successful M. Night Shyamalan ("The Sixth Sense," "Signs") is downright mind-boggling.

True, Shyamalan has been on a downward drift for some time now -- following the flop "Lady in the Water" with the ridiculous "The Happening" -- but it seemed inconceivable that he would ever fall this far.

Conceive it. "The Last Airbender" is simply stupendously bad. It never connects emotionally, offers little if any character development as it races through its ridiculous plot lines, screeches to a halt with little resolved and looks absolutely awful.

It would be easy to blame its visual shame on lousy 3-D effects, and they are indeed bad, but this movie would have looked artificial and constructed no matter what. The sets look every bit as false as they are, the special effects are mundane for the most part, and the costuming is downright embarrassing.

This matters mightily since the story and dialogue are so stilted and absurd they elicit repeated laughter when no humor is intended.

Some of this, no doubt, has to do with the live-action film's anime-inspired cartoon roots (Shyamalan adapted the movie from a popular Nickelodeon series). But by scrunching a season's worth of story elements into less than two hours, Shyamalan has managed to make a movie about magic that is wholly lacking in magic.

The film begins on some vast plain of ice where a teen boy, Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), and his younger sister Katara (Nicola Peltz) are hunting. Noticing something beneath the ice, they decide to hammer away at the very thing that's supporting them. Guess what? It cracks.

Up from beneath the ice rises a giant ball, which opens to reveal a young boy with tattoos on his head alongside what will turn out to be a giant flying beaver of sorts with horns.

It turns out the boy, Aang (Noah Ringer), has been missing for a hundred years and is the last Airbender of the film's title. In this world, different tribes have the ability to manipulate elements -- fire, water, earth -- and he's the last of the wind whippers.

Which makes him very valuable, and soon bad Fire types -- they are currently dominating and destroying the world -- are out to capture the Airbender as he sets off to both learn how to manipulate the other elements and foment rebellion with Katara and Sokka by his side.

OK, it's all ridiculous, but no more so than your standard "Star Wars"-derivative hocus-pocus fantasy. It's the somber approach to this silliness as well as the myriad technical difficulties that doom the film.

In the end you neither believe nor care about any of these characters. When a white-haired princess (don't ask) sacrifices herself to the greater good near the end of the film, it has all the emotional impact of someone dropping a paper clip.

This is supposed to be the first installment of a trilogy. Please, heavens, let this truly be "The Last Airbender."

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