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The Last Airbender

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800px-Lstairbenderlogo.jpg

I'm curious: have the words "An [director's name here] Film" ever been incorporated into a movie's logo like this before? I can vaguely think of movies that have had titles like "John Carpenter's Vampires", but there's something about bracketing the director's name off like this that just seems more pretentious to me. Whatever else it does, it doesn't lay to rest any concerns about Shyamalan's ego.

Or, worse, because the words "an" and "film" are so small, it almost looks like the movie's title is "M. Night Shyamalan: The Last Airbender". Y'know, kind of like "Carman: The Champion".

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On a whim, I started watching the first season of Avatar: The Last Airbender via Netflix, and I'm very impressed so far.

Stylistically, it's one of the best blends of western animation and anime that I've seen. It's not too cartoonish -- one of the complaints I have with so much of the animation that comes out today, especially that which is geared towards kids -- but still has a goofiness and lightness to it that I find very appealing. The nods to kung fu movies of yore are a nice touch as well -- there was one scene in a recent episode that was clearly an homage to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

I could see how the story's eastern mysticism elements -- e.g., the talk about reincarnation -- could be problematic for some. But for me, it's really no more pernicious than the Shintoism that pops up here and there in Miyazaki's films. And while it's definitely action-packed, it's not overly violent (at least, not so far) and it goes a long way towards discussing and dealing with the consequences of war and violence. I find it surprisingly and refreshingly nuanced, especially considering that it's a kids' show.

But what really gets to me are the characters. These are some incredibly well-defined and interesting characters. Sure, there are some cliches, such as the young boy who wants to become a powerful warrior like his absent father, but they're handled incredibly well and take some intriguing turns. There have been some surprisingly poignant scenes, such as to two characters discussing the loss of their parents and the ways in which they cope with the grief, all while recognizing that it's not enough. And like Miyazaki, the series is wise enough to paint the villains in shades of grey, such that the main antagonist isn't completely unlikable and unredeemable.

All of that is to say, I'm both more intrigued and more worried about the film. For one thing, everything I've seen from the film so far looks rather gritty and glum, whereas the series can get rather goofy at times. For example, Shyamalan has stated that:

I took away a little bit of the slapsticky stuff that was there for the little little kids, the fart jokes and things like that. We weeded that stuff away and the other stuff came out. We grounded Katara's brother, who's the comic relief in the show. We grounded him, and that really did wonderful things for the whole theme of the movie.

One of the major aspects of the story is that the main character, the avatar, is actually a twelve-year-old boy, and that he acts like, well, a twelve-year-old boy (which includes fart jokes, childish pranks, and even being a bit of a brat at times). And the comic relief provided by Sokka, Katara's brother is not only funny, but also important to him as a character, since he's slowly maturing and learning to become a honorable man throughout the series. But if you take that comic relief and that development away, and "ground" him from the getgo, I'm not sure what you'll be left with.

Edited by opus

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M. Night Shyamalan said:

: I took away a little bit of the slapsticky stuff that was there for the little little kids, the fart jokes and things like that.

Interesting, given that, if memory serves, the first Stuart Little (which Shyamalan wrote) had a fair bit of fart-joke humour that the second Stuart Little (which Shyamalan did NOT write) did not.

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I just finished Avatar: The Last Airbender this weekend and I was very impressed. I hope to post some more in-depth thoughts on Opus, but basically, take everything I wrote back in March and double it. I don't find it at all a stretch to use "Miyazaki-esque" to describe it. Indeed, I'm hard-pressed to think of any American animation -- children's or otherwise -- that has the same amount of myth-making, world-building, character depth, and moral complexity that this series does. It's definitely not for younger children, but this is the kind of series that I would've absolutely loved when I was 10 or 11. And even though I'm 34, I still love it -- and I wish there was more, much more to the series.

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I'm about 1/3d of the way through Book One of the original series and love it so far!

That's right about where my wife is, and she's enjoying it as well.

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I watched the first episode awhile ago, but I thought it wouldn't develop into anything more than a cheap anime knockoff so I stopped watching. Sounds like I might have judged it too quickly.

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I watched the first episode awhile ago, but I thought it wouldn't develop into anything more than a cheap anime knockoff so I stopped watching. Sounds like I might have judged it too quickly.

Definitely give it another try. IIRC, the first couple of episodes are basically introductory episodes. Things get more interesting as more of Prince Zuko's (my fave character in the series) backstory is revealed.

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I'm curious: have the words "An [director's name here] Film" ever been incorporated into a movie's logo like this before?

Well, there's An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn, whose director, Arthur Hiller, had his name removed from the credits, so it really did become an Alan Smithee film.

And films like this one.

Edited by mrmando

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I'm curious: have the words "An [director's name here] Film" ever been incorporated into a movie's logo like this before?

The closest examples I can think of are the 'Quentin Tarrantino Presents' and othe such films that leverage a more famous name for publicity.

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Am hoping that the team responsible for this series has another one in the works.

FWIW, I've read that three new 60-minute animated films have been discussed and planned. However, I think this was prior to the announcement of the live-action version, so I don't know if they're still on or not.

As for the big-screen version and a cast devoid of Asian actors: ???!!!! Definitely not a good idea - all of the characters in the series are Asian and/or Asian-American. (I don't want to go into details here, since it seems like most board members haven't yet seen the series.)

When I first heard about this, it didn't really bother me. I figure, you go with the best actor/actress for the job, regardless of their ethnicity. But the more I think about it, the more it does trouble me. I don't think the filmmakers are racist or anything, but given how saturated the series is with Asian philosophy and culture, it will seem odd to see a bunch of white folks wandering through this world.

That being said, I'm much more bothered by the changes in tone and character that Shyamalan is making (e.g., making Sokka more serious).

Am also thinking that a 2-3 hour feature can't possibly begin to do justice to the story arc and characters - unless (maybe) it's the 1st of a multi-part series.

This movie is only dealing with the first season. A trilogy is planned, one for each season (or "book").

Edited by opus

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As for the big-screen version and a cast devoid of Asian actors: ???!!!! Definitely not a good idea - all of the characters in the series are Asian and/or Asian-American. (I don't want to go into details here, since it seems like most board members haven't yet seen the series.)

When I first heard about this, it didn't really bother me. I figure, you go with the best actor/actress for the job, regardless of their ethnicity. But the more I think about it, the more it does trouble me. I don't think the filmmakers are racist or anything, but given how saturated the series is with Asian philosophy and culture, it will seem odd to see a bunch of white folks wandering through this world.

That being said, I'm much more bothered by the changes in tone and character that Shyamalan is making (e.g., making Sokka more serious).

I hear you, but at the same time - if this series were set in an African-derived world, do you think it would be wise (or acceptable) to cast white actors as leads?

Well, that's kind of what I was trying to say in my last sentence there. I have no reason to believe that Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone won't do well as Katara and Sokka, respectively; I've no reason to believe they're not solid actors. But there's going to be a disconnect for me, as someone who has seen the original, because Katara and Sokka -- and the rest of the Water Tribes -- were clearly influenced by Native American and Inuit culture, from their physical appearance to their clothing, and Peltz and Rathbone are white. It'll be odd, at the very least, to see them traveling through this Asian-inspired world in Asian-inspired dress and vehicles, and espousing Asian-inspired philosophy... when they themselves are not Asian.

Will it be enough to completely ruin the movie for me personally? I don't think so. Like I said, I'm more concerned about the changes to tone and atmosphere. But it will take some getting used to. And I can imagine how much moreso that would be for someone who is Asian.

I have no problem with the idea of colorblind casting (which is still problematic for many people, from many backgrounds), but I don't think that's what is going on with the casting choices for the film version of "Airbender."

I read that the filmmakers had been accused of "influencing" the casting process towards Caucasian actors, due to a callsheet that was released. As it turns out, though, the callsheet had never been authorized by the filmmakers themselves, but rather by that particular casting agent.

That being said, I don't know exactly why the filmmakers made the choices they made re. the casting. One other critique I've heard is that the heroes of the movie (Aang, Katara, Sokka) are played by whites and the villains of the movie (Zuko, Iroh) are played by non-whites. I find this particular critique much less compelling, if only because I have difficulty thinking of someone like Zuko as a true villain. I can only hope that the movie maintains the moral ambiguity surrounding this particular character.

This movie is only dealing with the first season. A trilogy is planned, one for each season (or "book").

Still... they must have had to cut a lot to come up with a 2+ hour feature film. And the eventual cutting gets a lot more problematic as they get into Books 2 and 3 - there are so many complex, interwoven plot lines!

If anything, I'm feeling like there should have been a 4th season for the TV show, because the ending of the series feels a little rushed and forced - like they had to wind everything up too quickly. (Maybe I'm just disappointed because I'd hoped to see more of Iroh and Zuko together, after

Zuko makes the decision to turn his back on his father and the militarism of the Fire Nation.

It seems like that part of the plotline was left hanging.)

Agreed, and not just because Zuko was my favorite character. If those other movies are made, I hope one of them deals primarily with

Zuko's ascension to the throne and his attempts to reorient the Fire Nation and undo the brainwashing that was performed on its populace by his forefathers.

Edited by opus

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e2c wrote:

: I actually think there's a lot that's being said (a not-subtle "subtext") with the casting of white people as the heroes and Asians as the villains. My take is that the casting is too close to the old Fu Manchu-like "evil Oriental" for comfort.

I think it may be more general than that. Think of Disney's Aladdin and how the hero was patterned after Tom Cruise while the villain was the most "ethnic"-looking character of the lot. Unfortunately, the trend in most films is to make the protagonists -- the people we want to identify with -- look as non-"ethnic" as possible while also making the antagonists a lot more "ethnically" identifiable.

And this, in turn, I think, is an aspect of the phenomenon that Scott McCloud described in Understanding Comics: the more detail a character has, the more "objective" our view of them becomes and the less likely we are to identify with them. Ethnicity, or ethnic-specific traits, may be just another version of the details that make it less likely that we will "subjectively" identify with a character.

Now, of course, "ethnicity" is just as much a property of Scots and Germans as it is of Arabs and Chinese. We ALL belong to some sort of ethnicity, or matrix of ethnicities. So calling one thing "ethnic" and something else NOT-"ethnic" says something about the perspective from which those distinctions are being made. But given that the global entertainment-industrial complex is rooted in a particular culture or set of cultures, I think we all know WHICH perspective we're talking about, here.

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M Night Shyamalan in his own words on The Last Airbender race controversy.

I'd like to quote from the interview, but it does contain some spoilers, especially if you're watching the cartoon. Suffice to say, it sounds like Shyamalan is pretty ticked off by the accusations.

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I just posted my analysis/assessment of the original cartoon.

Hanging with Aang: The Miyazaki-esque mythology of "Avatar: The Last Airbender"

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I wouldn't doubt it, either, but that sentence is stuck on at the very end of the piece - which leaves me thinking that the writer is trying to start rumors.

How to say this? ...

I think his sources were well-informed.

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How to say this? ... I think his sources were well-informed.

An easy assumption to make, not that the rest of us don't have limited sources of our own - like all the very stupid movie trailers and released clips of the film. I have to agree with Vince Mancini on this one. And that is just based on the clips they've released of the film.

Mancini - All I can say is, wow. I always thought the Crouching Tiger-style wire fighting (as opposed to more realistic Jackie Chan/Tony Jaa fight choreography) was lame. This is a step further than that, where they start with the look of wire fighting, then remove all the actual actors and stuntpeople so that it’s like a CGI puppet show. Oh, and instead of them actually punching or kicking each other, they only fight with CGI water and fire effects that the characters command through ridiculously elaborate hand gestures like an interpretive dance. If you ask me, this looks retarded.

I don't understand. I just don't understand why this is supposed to be cool.

Edited by Persiflage

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Well, for what it's worth, that's how they fight -- elements controlled through elaborate hand gestures (which are modeled after real martial arts) -- in the cartoon series. So, in that regard, it sounds like the movie is being faithful to the cartoon (and truth be told, the fight scenes in the trailers were one of the least bothersome elements for me). Whether or not those gestures, etc. look silly in live-action is a different issue.

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Persiflage wrote:

: An easy assumption to make . . .

Heh. I suspect Christian wasn't assuming anything. The film opens tomorrow, and the local press screening is tonight, and American critics often get to see films before we Canadians do, so... I'm guessing either Christian or someone he knows has seen it. (Especially since one of his fellow Washingtonians, or DC'ers, or whatever people in that city call themselves, just said at Facebook that the film reveals "a career whose promise was long since spent." It sounds to me like the critics in that burg have seen the film for themselves, now.)

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Yeah, I had no issue with how cool or corny the stuff looked. I tried to put myself in the framework of how this story works, as far as I knew (admittedly not much at all), and didn't want to condemn it over things I didn't/don't understand. I've yet to seen any reaction from fans of the original series -- or anyone else, for that matter -- as to how they perceive the film.

EDIT: Yes, Peter, we saw it last night.

Edited by Christian

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Roger Ebert:

"The Last Airbender" is an agonizing experience in every category I can think of and others still waiting to be invented. The laws of chance suggest that something should have gone right. Not here. It puts a nail in the coffin of low-rent 3D, but it will need a lot more coffins than that.

[...]

I close with the hope that the title proves prophetic.

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Roger Ebert wrote:

: I close with the hope that the title proves prophetic.

Y'know, I have to say, I HAVE been wondering why the first movie in an aspiring franchise would be titled "The Last" ANYTHING.

I mean, what are they going to call the sequel? "The Last Airbender 2"? "The Airbender AFTER the Last Airbender"? "STILL the Last Airbender"?

Edited by Peter T Chattaway

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Well, there have been 4 Final Destination films - and one more on the way. And there has been an Indiana Jones film after The Last Crusade. The Last in Last Airbender applies to the character - I would assume - not the film. The series this is based on is called Avatar: The Last Airbender and I'm sure we can all understand why they dropped the Avatar. Were they supposed to drop the Airbender as well? What would they have called it?

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Roger Ebert wrote:

: I close with the hope that the title proves prophetic.

Y'know, I have to say, I HAVE been wondering why the first movie in an aspiring franchise would be titled "The Last" ANYTHING.

I mean, what are they going to call the sequel? "The Last Airbender 2"? "The Airbender AFTER the Last Airbender"? "STILL the Last Airbender"?

Well, the title of the first season of the series (which I understand the movie is based on) is Avatar: The Last Airbender: Book 1. The proceeding seasons are Book 2 and Book 3 and feature the same characters (there's only one last Airbender). So presumably, the title of the second movie, if there is one, would be The Last Airbender: Book 2.

I still say they should have kept Avatar in the title. It's really what the series is about (there were lots of Airbenders once, but there's only ever one Avatar at a time), and it would have boosted opening-week box office by tricking people into thinking they were seeing a James Cameron sequel.

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