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IN SHORT: All the kids were filled with glee . . .. [Rated PG for fantasy action violence. 103 minutes]
Those being the kids in our screening of The Last Airbender, all of whom (we're guessing) know the Nickelodeon series by heart.
A feeling of dread crept over yours Cranky as the words BOOK ONE appeared at the beginning of our 3D screening of The Last Airbender. More often than not, when films are constructed with planned sequels in mind. certain basic necessities of storytelling wouldn't be overlooked if the filmmakers concentrated on the task at hand -- making a film that will want us to beg for a sequel or two. The Last Airbender treads a fine line and nearly sinks itself early on but, given its prepped and ready to go audience, doesn't. Given that we didn't bring kids to the screening we did manage to follow most of the story even as continuity errors came ripping out of the screen along with many of the 3D images.
"Bending" is the term used to indicate control of a particular force of nature by means of elaborate motions resembling karate or tae kwan do movements. On a world with no given name, the Four Nations of Earth, Air, Fire and Water, each with cities in the northern and southern hemispheres of the World, had been at peace until a century before this film begins. In each city, monks taught their students how to "bend" the elemental spirits for both defensive and offensive purposes. Keeping the Peace across the entire world was an Avatar, a person uniquely endowed with the ability to bend all four "spirits". One day, said Avatar disappeared. At that time the Fire Nation began a war against their neighbors, offering the simple choice: submit or be annihilated.
A century on we meet two children of the Water Nation: Katara (Nicola Peltz) and her brother Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), both searching for food on the icy wastes near the refugee camp in which they live. What they discover, underneath a cracked ice sheet is a massive ball-shaped container, in which two creatures are held. One, a huge, furry animal of some kind that possesses the ability of flight. The other, a boy of perhaps eight years old, called Aang (Noah Ringer). The child bears the tattoos of an airbender, which makes him a curiosity as all the Airbenders were wiped out in the beginning stages of the War. The siblings take Aang back to camp and try to hide him there. Somehow the Fire Nation is aware of the find and the banished Fire Nation Prince Zuko (Dev Patel), accompanied by his uncle, the General Iroh (Shaun Toub) and various troops, invade the camp and take the elderly and the young away.
Which doesn't explain how they missed Grandma (!) who explains some basic history and sends the kidlets off on a quest to the Earth City in the north. But first, the Airbender makes a side trip to the monastery in which he had been partially trained -- he has no skills in Water, Earth or Fire bending -- only to find it destroyed and littered with the skeletons of those who once were teachers and friends. As well, Aang has walked into a trap set by Fire Nation forces and is captured.
Those relying on Cranky to lay out the entire plot ain't going to get it here <g>. Aang will be captured and escape (or be freed by surprising characters) several times across the running time of this film. He will be tested by the Prince and General to determine if, indeed, he is the prophesied return of the Avatar. Aang will also meditate and commune with a "dragon spirit" that will complete his training and teach him the ways of the Avatar (basically it comes down to "Don't hurt anyone" which takes all the fun out of it for old fogies like Cranky) even as his enemies endeavour to destroy other powerful spirits such as the Moon, embodied in the form of Princess Yue (Seychelle Gabriel).
Yeah, we know how it reads. It isn't nearly as confusing as you think it is. Have your kids explain it all to you, in hushed tones of course.
Interspersed between battles are scenes between Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis) and his right hand man Commander Zhao (Aasif Mandvi), commander of the Fire Nation military forces, that explains more of the political background of the situation. Their decisions will turn enemies into allies and failing all through this first film, the Fire Lord makes a decision that will play out in part two.
The production values are terrific though the 3D process tends to take the brightness out of a lot of the scenes, color-wise. That just a function of the glasses and has been a problem all along. Strangely we didn't have "white" problems in the early scenes set on ice and snow. Once you get into city sets, things dim out.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to The Last Airbender, he would have paid . . .
much higher if you're already a fan -- the ones in our audience were describing The Last Airbender as "awesome."
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