Thursday, December 5, 2013

In 3 Fixes: Fixing "The Last Airbender"

We're all Avatar: The Last Airbender fans here, right? What's not to love? A great trio of main characters (that grows to four in season two and five in season three [six if you count Suki, and really, you should]) who go on interesting adventures, all of them having compelling back stories and fun personalities.

With great story arcs and dynamic character relationships, especially for a kids' show, Avatar: The Last Airbender was one of the greatest shows ever, in my opinion. Naturally, given the wealth of material, a movie would be a simple thing. But, then they actually made the movie, and you all know what happened from there.

Well, I feel that most movies with major problems have them at the script level. Yes, I know. The problems with M. Night Shyamalan's The Last Airbender go beyond simple scripting problems, but I believe that a good script can at least give the film a strong narrative that can, at the very least, cover up the other problems of a troubled film.

 So, humor me, if you will, as we explore the idea of fixing a movie on the structural level in the first of what will be a series of articles relating to different movies. Let us look at The Last Airbender, in 3 easy points!

First, let's identify the biggest problem with the script to this movie. Can you guess what it is?

If you said characters, you are absolutely correct! More specifically, character development. The cartoon did a wonderful job of giving the characters lots of room to breath and grow. They also gave each character various arcs, especially emotional arcs, that span the various plots of the show.

In a movie, you have to dial that back a little bit, naturally, as you don't have the time to cover all the bases the show did. This means that the screenwriter needs to use every reasonable shortcut available to him or her.

When Aang, Katara, and Sokka decide to set out and fight the Fire Nation, the audience really needs to give a crap that it's these three characters doing this. Likewise, when Princess Yue and Sokka have their brief romance towards the end of the film, you really need to find a way to give the audience a chance to know Yue, and to really root for she and Sokka to succeed.

This problem with character permeates the entire movie. Think about the end, where Aang is doing mystical McGuffin dance and he thinks about his old teacher. In the series, I cared about that relationship a lot. In the movie, I had to remind myself who the hell that guy was.

How to fix this? I think you have to deviate from the structure of the show. Which seems obvious, but the fact of the matter is that the movie, with all of its odd changes from the source material, kind of kept the same narrative flow of the series, resulting in a lot of backtracking as the movie progressed, as well as a rushed feel to everything.

In order to keep the spirit of the show intact, you really have to treat this like a movie. I mean... That's obvious. But apparently not so to the filmmakers.

These are three simple fixes that would wonders for the movie. Let's take a whack at it!


Make Yue the narrator at the beginning of the film. I can hear the cries of no already. But here's the deal: she was always going to be the most difficult character to work on in the movie. She is introduced toward the end of the film

Do you remember the David Lynch version of Dune? Remember how Irulan narrated the beginning? Yeah, same thing here. Not perfectly the same, as Irulan's voice pops up through out the book. But having Yue from the beginning of the film, telling us about the Fire Nation and their war, and Benders and all of that jazz, will introduce us to the character so that we aren't completely bored or confused or rolling our eyes when Sokka falls in love with her.

Having Yue narrate an epic prologue would be cool, very similar to Lord of the Rings' opening. Speaking of epic prologue:


HAVE A FREAKING PROLOGUE. Not a title crawl. Not bland explanation about the nations. SHOW US! This is a movie. If there was one thing the cartoon did well (really, it did many things well) it was showing and not telling.

So, give us an epic prologue! Show the Fire Nation's initial invasion. Show the effects of the war. And show Avatar Roku until he mysteriously vanishes. We get all of the exposition we need for the beginning of the movie.

Pretty simple. Of course, we haven't discussed the most important fix.


Aang. Aang needs to be fixed for this movie to work. Seems obvious, but again, not to the filmmakers. Here's the problem with the character, and it has nothing to do with the young man who played him; character development. Yeah, I already said that, but it's an important lesson.

Character development is everything in story telling. Really, characters are the most fundamentally important thing in story telling as a whole. At least in my estimation.

But this is an easy fix. A REALLY easy fix.

You remember that bit at the end, where Aang is doing ninja magic and making the water go crazy and he scares the Fire Nation people away? Do you remember that little random flashback of Monk Gyatso?


I mean, kind of. Imagine, you have your lovely little narration from Princess Yue, and she mentions Roku vanishing and the Avatar being lost.

That's the end of the prologue. We transition into Aang in training, getting called into a room by the elders. Gyatso is with him, preparing him. He's clearly concerned for Aang. Aang is told he's the Avatar. Aang runs out of the room. Gyatso, who has parental instincts towards Aang, wants to run after him, but the other monks tell him to stop.

We get a moment later with Aang escaping out of the window and heading out, just as Gyatso comes into the room to talk to him.

For the rest of the movie, you simply sprinkle flashbacks of Gyatso and Aang's relationship. This gives us an emotional anchor in the movie, even if it departs a bit from the source material. I think it's a necessary departure.

With an emotional connection to Aang for the entire movie, the experience becomes more satisfying all around.

And since we're on the subject of Aang, let's not make all dark and serious. He needs to be youthful and funny. A child escaping a responsibility no child should ever have been forced to face. Between his innocence and his relationship with his only real father figure, he becomes instantly compelling. Think about the end, where he finally has to face that responsibility. Because you've seen him running from it the entire movie, you cheer him on when he finally faces it, as the Avatar.


These three fixes go a long way to making a better experience with the movie. And much of the movie doesn't have to change.

Sure, silly choreography, odd special effects, white washing, and other problems might have still been there, but a reasonably presented story could have covered some of those problems. (Maybe not the white washing.) And it could have been done with some minor fixes.

Brit W.

Check out my book "Piggy"!

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