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Originally published June 30, 2010 at 12:14 PM | Page modified June 30, 2010 at 1:06 PM

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Movie review

'The Last Airbender': Shyamalan's fired-up adaptation is out of balance

"The Last Airbender," directed by M. Night Shyamalan, is a rather generic and numbing action movie based on Nickelodeon's hit animated series about a mystical boy's quest to stop a war.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 2 stars

'The Last Airbender,' with Noah Ringer, Dev Patel, Jackson Rathbone, Nicola Peltz. Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, based on the original Nickelodeon animated series. 103 minutes. Rated PG for fantasy action violence. Several theaters.

I probably speak for a lot of parents when I say having a kid gave me a convenient excuse between 2005 and 2008 to watch Nickelodeon's captivating Peabody- and Emmy-winning animated series "Avatar: The Last Airbender."

The basis for filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan's earnest but largely unexciting live-action adaptation "The Last Airbender" (the first feature in a trilogy), "Avatar" was a serious show that, unlike the new film, never took itself too seriously.

A pan-Asian, ancient-quest tale fusing mysticism and martial arts (but with characters speaking colloquial American dialogue), "Avatar" was a cultural hybrid in look and feel. When word came that Shyamalan was adapting "Avatar" (retitled "The Last Airbender" in deference to the recent James Cameron hit) for the big screen, the idea sounded less than ideal.

On one hand, Shyamalan is a determined if uneven teller of fables ("The Sixth Sense," "Signs," "The Village"), and his respect for "Avatar's" story integrity and imagination is impressive in "Airbender."

But there's little room for his other fantasy-horror trademarks, such as reticent characters, unsettling story premises, tense pacing of abnormal developments and his penchant for "The Twilight Zone"-like twist endings.

Without his peculiar brand, "The Last Airbender" simply becomes an exotic movie for children (not really welcoming of curious adults) with more generic razzle-dazzle than unique interest. (Seeing it in 3D adds little.) The sprawling story is so dramatically compressed there is barely enough oxygen for relationship growth (crucial in "Avatar"), let alone traces of an interesting director's personality.

At least Shyamalan cast the film well. Noah Ringer is wonderful as the boy Aang, the so-called Avatar, a peacekeeping master over four nations identified with either earth, air, fire or water. Missing for a century, Aang's disappearance results in a war waged by the aggressive Fire Nation over the three other cultures.

Accompanied by teenagers Katara (Nicola Peltz) and her brother, Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), Aang seeks to get control over a dangerous time. In doing so, he must keep ahead of the Fire Nation's banished young prince, Zuko ("Slumdog Millionaire's" Dev Patel, the best thing about this movie).

"Avatar" was so winning because, between big fight scenes, Aang, Katara, Sokka and Zuko were just kids: goofy, hurt, clumsy, jealous, vulnerable and funny. That made their bravery, ingenuity and loyalties seem magnified when they had to deal with things in deadly seriousness. In this first film, at least, Shyamalan embraces battle scenes — with effects-heavy emphasis on manipulation of fire, earth, water and air — to numbing excess, and largely forgets the rest.

Shyamalan can still get the balance right in the next two installments (hopefully he'll do well by the original story's excellent final chapters). But on the evidence of this first movie, I wouldn't bet on it.

Tom Keogh: tomwkeogh@yahoo.com

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