Movie Review: The Last Airbender

There were cheers at the end of The Last Airbender from parts of the all-media audience with which I saw it, though I wasn't sure why.

Ponderous if visually striking, M. Night Shymalan's latest venture - a live-action film based on a popular animated series - certainly does its best to make the central character, Aang the avatar, seem mythic. But there's a cartoonishness to the acting and action that is still too serious by half. And the prospect of sequels to this lumpish and leaden action-adventure is nothing to cheer about.

There's a fairy-tale quality to Shymalan's film that is meant to excuse a lot of the dawdling and plot short-comings. It's a quality that reflects the film's source material: an American animated series with a sensibility from Japanese anime.

The story borrows its mythology liberally, creating a world divided between the elements: earth, wind, fire and air. But the world has been out of balance for 100 years because the emperor of Fire has declared war on the other elements. (Kiss me, I'm Fire-ish.) That century mark happens to correspond to the disappearance of the Avatar, the one being with mastery over all the elements.

So when a youngster with an elaborate tattoo on his shaved skull pops out of the middle of a frozen lake, people are going to notice. Could he be the Avatar, the one who can help defeat the evil forces of Fire?

What do you think? He's got a tattoo of hieroglyphics in the shape of an arrow on his head. And there wouldn't be a movie if he wasn't.

The boy, Aang, is brought back to life by a brother and sister Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), who live in the frozen realm of water. She's a water-bender in training - bending being a term for those in the population with the ability to command that element and use it as both weapon and defense.

Aang, however, is being sought by both the fire lord, Ozai (Cliff Curtis), and by Ozai's disgraced son, Zuko (Dev Patel) - who believes that capturing the avatar and bringing him to Ozai will redeem the son in the father's eyes.

This is all perfectly good mythological boilerplate, including Aang's secret about his disappearance and all of the internecine squabbling for power in Ozai's court. But the drama always feels canned and the battles lack tension or suspense. There's never any doubt who has the superior power, despite the special-effects-created images of shooting flames and dancing balls of water.