For most of its runtime, The Last Airbender suffers from the problem that has plagued the last few Harry Potter movies: familiarity with its source material is required to understand the movie itself. As a critic, the fact that I know nothing about the Nickelodeon cartoon that inspired this film (“Book One” in a proposed trilogy that will probably never see completion) is a boon — I don’t have to worry about high expectations souring my opinion or familiarity obscuring the fact that the story doesn’t make any sense. However, as a moviegoer, my ignorance is a constant source of annoyance.

The plot is overly convoluted from the moment its opening crawl explains the movie’s world to the audience. See, it takes place on a pseudo-Earth world divided into four kingdoms, each guided by one of the four natural elements (water, fire, earth, and air). For millennia, a Chosen One became “the Avatar,” someone with the ability to harness all four of these elements. This Avatar, apparently, kept the peace between the four kingdoms by virtue of being a total badass. However, 100 years before the start of the film, the last Avatar (a child) disappeared without a trace, leading to a long war perpetrated by the Fire Kingdom.

Purely by coincidence, the action opens with Katara (Nicola Peltz) and her older brother/protector, Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), uncovering Aang (Noah Ringer) in a Water Kingdom iceberg. Aang was the Avatar, and now that he’s thawed out and back to normal, the Fire Kingdom wants him…well, not dead, exactly. It’s sort of unclear what they actually want from him. Commander Zhao (Aasif Mandvi) repeatedly says that killing him will just cause a new Avatar to be born, but he never takes the time to say why he wants the Avatar. Maybe he just wants to keep Aang prisoner so he can continue his war effort.

The crux of the conflict revolves around Aang’s inability to master other elements. See, he’s an “airbender,” someone with power over air, but he fled from his Avatar calling before he could master the others. Katara offers to teach him to harness water. She starts out as “the last waterbender,” although she’s not terribly good at bending water, and later in the movie other members of the Water Kingdom have an unexplained good grasp of waterbending. See what I mean when I said the plot doesn’t make much sense?

At any rate, the survival of the remaining kingdoms hinges on Aang’s ability to master water, which (as anyone who’s played a Final Fantasy game knows) is the only element that can defeat fire. Aang has a hard time learning, in part because he keeps getting kidnapped by Prince Zuko (Dev Patel), a reluctant agent of Zhao whose father (played by Cliff Curtis) rules the Fire Kingdom. Later, Zuko has a change of heart and releases Aang, but then he’s backed into a corner and must bring Aang back to his father. Like I said, convoluted.

The third act consists of an orgy of violence and special effects on par with a kiddie version of 300 or Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. I won’t spoil it for those of you brave enough to see this movie, but I’ll describe its most basic problem: writer/producer/director M. Night Shyamalan refuses to lay out the mythology in advance. This issue causes problems throughout the film (in addition to the confusion about who can and can’t bend the water, Aang has the ability to resurrect the dead and shouts that the oppressed citizens of an Earth Kingdom village should use their powers, even though earlier it’s established that only a select few have these powers), but never more than in the third act. Rather than packing the last half hour with revelations that deepen the audience’s understanding of how this world works, it feels like Shyamalan is making things up as he goes along. It builds to a laughable deus ex machina that’s followed by a smash cut to a scene that sets up the sequel by introducing a never-before-seen character who receives one passing mention earlier in the film.

Audiences who have seen the cartoon may cheer these nonsensical moments, but they exist to alienate the uninitiated portion of the audience simply looking for entertaining, thought-provoking fantasy. The Last Airbender feels incomplete, but not disjointed. It’s like the Reader’s Digest condensed book version of the cartoon series. The story has an assured flow from one scene to the next — it just lacks any concrete reason for these scenes to follow one another, for these characters to take the actions they do, and for the convoluted mythology to rear its ugly head and save the day.

The older actors — notably Patel, Mandvi, and Shaun Toub — do their best to bring a certain level of vitality and emotion to their characters. Patel has easily the most complex and interesting character, but he’s hindered by the screenplay’s insistence on forcing Zuko to do things that don’t really make any sense. Still, he does a fine job with an unenviable role. The same can’t be said for the younger actors. I feel mean for bashing kids, but Ringer makes Jake Lloyd look like Jackie Coogan (look it up). Peltz is a little better, but not much. Their characters anchor the story, but the actors themselves can’t convey the necessary emotions to make the audience feel any empathy or enthusiasm for their struggles. Coming from Shyamalan, this is a big surprise. In the past, pretty much the only reason to watch his movies was to marvel at his ability to coax great performances out of so-so actors.

The film also lacks Shyamalan’s trademark suspense. Even at his worst, Shyamalan had the rare ability to create an atmosphere of dread and a sense of suspense rivaled only by Hitchcock. Why didn’t he bring any of that to this story? This feels like a by-the-numbers big-budget kids’ movie. Instead of suspense or mystery, the film has an air of, “Hey, kids, you already know the story, so kick back and have fun.” This is par for the course for most recent kids’ movies, but it doesn’t make for gripping cinema.

Like Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant and His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass, this movie spends more time trying to create a franchise than trying to develop a single satisfying film. Changing some elements — a stronger screenplay, better casting — could have made it a decent movie, but it’s too late for that now. There’s no kinder way to say it: The Last Airbender is both a failure and a mess.

D. B. Bates is a freelance script reader and writer.

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