The cartoon version had always been interesting because it took very Asian concepts around the elements and energy and integrated them into a fairly Western style animated series. In the animated version, the characters are somewhat over the top. Several of the characters tend to whine and give up quickly. Even the adult characters have very childish characteristics to their reactions. It is, for all intents and purposes, a regular children’s TV cartoon.
In the live-action movie, The Last Airbender, there are some noticeable differences that elevated this story line. M. Night Shyamalan, who wrote and directed this adaptation, is known for other great movies such as The Sixth Sense and Stuart Little. He has a wonderful skill at bringing to life an alternative world that is believable and characters that can be related to.
One of the first differences one notices is the mixture of cultures Shyamalan brought to the story. Rather than staying with just an Asian focus, the movie takes on a worldwide approach to filling out the differences between each of the nations within the story. The water nomads of the Southern Water Tribe remind me of northern cultures like the Eskimos. The water nation of the Northern Tribe reminds me of Russians. The fire nation has a definite Arabic bend towards them. The earth nation focuses on both Mongolian and African cultures. The only one that seems to stay with the original culture of the stories is the air nation, where the main character, Aang, is born into.
The Martial Arts which is showcased in this movie is as diverse as the nations. The Martial Art selected is well paired with the philosophy of the element. Air and water, being softer elements, have forms reflecting that level of softness. Air involves a lot of flowing, like Tai Chi, to emulate the flowing of the wind. Water involves a lot of Chi Na, or joint locking, moves just like waves crashing into the shore. Earth, being strong and hard, has a short stances and a lot of solid steps like stomping, much like you might see in Judo or Kempo. Fire nation is about explosion of energy with high kicks like Wu Shu or Tae Kwon Do. The forms themselves are absolutely beautiful in the movie. The movements of the actors make them believable.
Much of the whininess of the cartoons is removed from the movie, which helps to make the characters more relatable to a wider range of audience. The adult characters, like Uncle Iroh, are more believable and even touching in their background and storyline. Much of the scenery is breath-taking. For instance, the Northern Water Tribe’s fortress was on the scale of the elven cities in Lord of the Rings. The animation of the different bending types were smooth and fit well with the movements.
The only disappointment for me was the fact that the movie only covered the first book of the series. The story begins with a brief introduction of the world and what has led up to this point in the movie. This world is divided into four nations, each representing a different element: air, water, fire, earth. Certain people can “bend” the elements, summoning the power of the element to their will. Everything is held in balance by the Avatar, a being which is continually reborn into one of the nations each lifetime and able to bend all four elements. Aang, who is of the air nation, is the newest Avatar. But he mysteriously goes missing when he runs away from his responsibilities. In his absence, the fire nation decides to try to dominate the world. Aang reappears 100 years later encased in ice. He is freed by Katara, the only water-bender of the Southern Water tribe, and her brother Sokka. The world is very different from when Aang left. The fire nation has killed all others of the air nation in hopes to find and control the Avatar for their world domination. The Avatar can restore peace and bring about change, but he had run away before learning the other elements. Thus the journey begins to develop his abilities in the other elements and try to fight the fire nation. This movie only covers Aang’s journey to learn the water element.
Thus, the end of the movie ends with a cliffhanger and the obvious possibility for a sequel. Despite this, the movie overall was enjoyable and something that can easily be watched as a family.