Friday, August 21, 2009

Which TV show? 'Avatar: The Last Airbender'

Posted By on Fri, Aug 21, 2009 at 1:20 PM

It's "Avatar Day," meaning that participating IMAX theaters across the country will be presenting the free, 15-minute preview of James Cameron's sweeping 3-D sci-fi film Avatar. The trailer for Avatar debuted yesterday and looks kind of like Dances With Wolves on an alien planet, although its admittedly neat-o visuals reminded Movieline a little too much of Delgo.

Avatar is sure to be a huge deal when it opens in December, but I wanted to use Avatar Day to talk about the other pop epic of that name, "Avatar: The Last Airbender." The three-season animated adventure aired on Nickelodeon from 2005-2008, but may have flew beneath many people's radar until Paramount Pictures announced that Sixth Sense director M. Night Shyamalan would be directing the big-screen version. A minor kerfluffle blew up over two films with the "Avatar" name, but Shyamalan's will only be called The Last Airbender when it opens in theaters on July 2, 2010. Here's the teaser trailer:

There's no telling how good or bad the Airbender movie will be, but the show is terrific, as my family and I discovered over the summer.

"Avatar: The Last Airbender" is easily mistaken for anime, given that it's animated very much in the Japanese style and takes place in a mythic land closely patterned after medieval China and other Asian countries. But it's an American production created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko and is much more accessible than many of those bewildering, multi-part anime TV series.

In the show's mythology, select individuals called "benders" have control over one of the four elements -- Earth, Air, Fire and Water -- and their "bending" moves are animated to imitate specific kinds of martial arts, so the show has a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon vibe. The warmongering Fire Nation has wiped out all of the nomadic Airbenders save as 12 year-old boy named Aang (named in homage of Crouching Tiger director Ang Lee?). But Aang isn't just the last airbender, but also the Avatar, with the potential to control of all four elements and bring balance to world. He's very much like the Dalai Lama with superpowers and a playful sense of humor.

The show's 61 episodes have such close continuity it's like a single, multi-part story with the scope, thrills and humor of such family-friendly fantasies as Harry Potter or the Bone graphic novel. The cute animal sidekicks (including a flying bison) and comic bickering prove quite tolerable, and the show builds to sieges and battle sequences of enormous imaginative scope. One memorable sequence from the second season finds Aang and his allies trying to protect the walled capital city of the Earth Kingdom from the Fire Nation's battleship-sized drill machine. In its own way, it's like the thrill of seeing the Rebels trying to blow up the Death Star. Plus, since the premise requires Aang to master all four types of "bending," the show works a strong but not didactic message of the value of education and self-discipline.

The film version will feature Slumdog Millionaire's Dev Patel as the Fire Nation's Prince Zuko, a scarred, unusually complex adversary for an animated series. The images in the teaser look like live-action equivalents to the show, but Shyamalan's previous film work up until now do not suggest he's the right man for the job. "Avatar: The Last Airbender" is a bright, fast-paced action-fantasy with winning humor, splashy visuals and solid characterization. Shyamalan has proved to be best with dark, quiet Hitchcockian suspense (and sometimes not even that).

"Avatar: The Last Airbender" is probably better than Shyamalan's film will be, but I'd go further and say that it's probably better than Cameron's Avatar will be, groundbreaking visuals notwithstanding. It's that good.

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