Having failed to correct his downward-trending career path with 2008’s “The Happening,” in which Earth’s ravaged ecosystem declares war on the feckless humans who destroyed it, M. Night Shyamalan returns with “The Last Airbender,” a modestly diverting live-action take on the popular Nickelodeon cartoon.
Known to fans as “Avatar: The Last Airbender” — credit James Cameron with forcing Paramount to scrap half its original title — Shyamalan’s faithful adaptation follows 14-year-old Katara (Nicola Peltz), the last remaining waterbender in the Southern Hemisphere, and big brother Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) in their quest to thwart the advances of the warmongering Fire Nation.
Aiding them is Aang (Noah Ringer), an all-powerful airbender capable of controlling the wind and communicating with the spirit world. After spending a century cryogenically frozen, Aang awakens to find his tribe massacred and his once-Edenic home a graveyard. Yet revenge is a temptation he cannot afford.
Aang is the Avatar, a Christ-like savior destined to win the hearts and minds of innocents bullied into submission by the Fire Nation’s thugs.
Fighting is not in his job description, but with a price on his head — courtesy of Lord Ozai, the flame-wielding megalomaniac played by Cliff Curtis — what choice does he have?
Complicating matters is Ozai’s exiled son, Prince Zuko (Dev Patel), who plans to win back his father’s favor by capturing and slaughtering Aang. Will Zuko follow through or will he renounce his claim to a tainted throne?
Shyamalan accepted a daunting task in trying to compress the first season of “The Last Airbender” into a feature-length production, and his movie is too often bogged down by obligatory exposition.
Compounding his problem is the Avatar himself, a blandly uninteresting hero who’s easily outshone by Patel’s conflicted prince.
Patel — impressive in his portrayal of a street-smart game-show contestant in “Slumdog Millionaire” — rises to the occasion here as a reluctant antagonist, forced to play the bad guy by a distant, disapproving dad. In Zuko, we sense a conscience compromised and a character more compelling than his nobler nemesis.
Where Aang, Zuko and Katara go from here is anyone’s guess — “Airbender” ends with a cliffhanger that strongly implies a sequel. Whether Shyamalan gets to make one will depend, in all likelihood, on box-office performance.
For all its shortcomings, which include a lackluster 3-D retrofit — compensated for, in part, by Andrew Lesnie’s handsome cinematography — “Airbender” shows flashes of inspiration, a tribute to Shyamalan’s craftsmanship. Here’s hoping he builds on them in a follow-up unfettered by so much backstory baggage.
Starring Noah Ringer, Dev Patel, Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone, Shaun Toub
Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Running time 1 hour 43 minutes