June 30, 2010

Last Airbender is "completely atrocious"

M. Night Shyamalan's The Last Airbender premieres Friday, which means reviews are starting to appear. On Facebook, the critics at Racebending have summed up the response:Unsurprisingly, early reviews for The Last Airbender are completely atrocious. M. Night has absolutely ruined the show. Our condolences to Mike and Bryan and we hope this isn't remembered as their legacy.A posting reminds us of the controversy surrounding the movie:

Is 'The Last Airbender' Racist ... or Just Drawn That Way?

By Gary SusmanThe characters in the TV series 'Avatar: The Last Airbender,' created by Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino, are clearly drawn from Asian and Inuit cultures, from their names to their costumes to their martial arts styles. The hero, Aang, is inspired by Tibetan Buddhist monks. His friends, Katara and Sokka, live in a realm of anoraks and igloos. Antagonist Zuko and his tribe appear as classical Chinese warriors.

In the movie, all four characters were initially cast as Caucasian actors: Noah Ringer (Aang), Nicola Peltz (Katara), Jackson Rathbone (Sokka), and Jesse McCartney (Zuko). Before shooting began, however, McCartney was replaced by Dev Patel, of 'Slumdog Millionaire' fame. That change did not appease the project's critics, who noted that the heroes were still all white Westerners, while the only Asian in the principal cast was the villain.

The clearinghouse for the protests has been the website Racebending, which is calling for a boycott of the film. "American actors of color rarely get to play the hero, if ever," said Marissa Lee, one of Racebending's co-founders, in a statement. "We're really disappointed. Paramount felt that white actors were better suited to play heroes of color than hardworking, underrepresented actors who are actually of Asian or Inuit descent."
An apparently typical review:

'Airbender' loses something in switch from cartoon to live action

By Ty BurrThe film should probably have stayed a cartoon; live-action kills it dead. Set in a fantasy world divided between the tribes of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water—each tribe having its mystical adepts who can control their assigned element—"The Last Airbender" follows a brother and sister from the Water tribe, Sokka (Jackson Rathbone, one of the "Twilight" vampires) and Katara (Nicola Peltz), who discover a 12-year-old monk-child from the Air tribe frozen in a block of ice. His name is Aang (newcomer Noah Ringer) and he may be the Avatar who can unite the tribes against the warlike Fire Nation.

I have no idea what Ringer's ethnic makeup is, and it doesn't matter: The kid's pretty good and perfectly believable as a Chosen One in the storyline's pop mulch-up of Tibetan Buddhism. I wish I could say the same for Peltz and Rathbone, whose crime, again, isn't that they are Anglo but just painfully dull.

"Airbender" is actually stolen by Dev Patel (the hero of "Slumdog Millionaire") as the exiled Prince Zuko, a full-on neurotic with a daddy complex who provides the movie with its greatest suspense. Is he a good guy or a bad guy? Patel's a strong enough actor to keep us guessing.

Otherwise it's a tossup as to which is worse: the script, which regularly grinds to a halt to Explain Everything until the movie curls up and dies; the shockingly dingy camerawork; or the execrable 3-D.
Some comments from the Facebook thread:The most scathing review I have read summarized: This movie is so bad it doesn't need boycotting.

I love this in the first review: "I walked out of there with a totally new attitude. I feel like thanking the producers for not putting any Asian American actors in this movie. I think it would have set us back five years in seeing Asian Americans' prominence in film improve...because everyone would have blamed the Asian leads for the quality of the movie."

I'm thrilled that there are bad reviews because that will further decrease Paramount's profit. As people mentioned above, I certainly would watch a future remake if it was made with the same care and cultural consideration of the original series.

Yeah. As hypocritical as it might sound, I have the feeling that if Asians were cast, then the audience would be blaming them for a faulty movie instead of M. Night and the producers. So maybe if this film flops, the other sequels are put in indefinite production hell, and there is a reboot with a competent team of producers, writers, and director, "The Last Airbender" won't be remembered as a (potential) disgrace.

[T]his was such a major gaffe by Paramount who didn't learn the Dragonball Z lesson; if you're going to do a movie that has a pre-existing strong fan base; lesson 1--don't p**s them off. It's amazing that such a huge strategic marketing mistake was made. Even if mainstream doesn't review it well, other movies have become "cult classics" due to fan support.
Comment:  Let's make the key point clear:

Two of the four main characters should've been Inuit played by Inuit actors. Instead they're played by bland white actors who are "painfully dull."

In other words, the lack of authentic Natives is a major flaw. Instead of a refreshing look into a distinctly different culture, viewers get the same plain vanilla they've seen in a hundred movies, TV shows, video games, and cartoons.

And fans are reacting accordingly: with hate and scorn. Instead of rushing to see Airbender, they're studiously avoiding it. It looks as though the movie will tank at the box office.

Summing it up:

Inauthentic casting and culture => multimillion-dollar flop

Anybody not get the message yet? The Last Airbender is a perfect example of what I've been talking about for years. Twilight has succeeded with Native actors and Airbender has failed without them.

For more on the subject, see Hollywood Doesn't Know Anything and Results Matter in Last Airbender.

Below:  Baby-faced white actors pretend to be Inuit.


Luci said...

I'm so glad this movie is most likely gonna bomb. But, being a fan of the original show, it's depressing how many people don't give a damn about the racist casting. And how many people have been fans of the show for years and have thought that the characters were white all this time.

That said, I really feel that the cultural context was the only hint as to the Water Tribe's race. Yes, it's still a pretty huge hint, and, yes, the characters really are supposed to be Inuit/Yupik. But I'm just not sure that an Inuit children could look at the characters and see themselves. I don't think the creators did it on purpose, but someone in the Racebending community once said that, what with the characters' faces, their tall, slim and lanky build and their wavy, light-brown hair, sometimes it felt like they took the Caucasian beauty ideal and then just made the characters brown to signify that they're "ethnic". I know it's stylized animation...but they just don't seem like stylized version of the Inuit/Yupik. A surprising amunt of people (who, I guess, missed the cultural cues) thought Katara and Sokka were East Indian, or white/black biracial. And, really, I think , going purely on looks, the characters resemble either of those much more than they do the Inuit/Yupik. I don't know, most of the Asian characters seemed to be drawn much more racially correct. Stylized, yes, but still Asian. Maybe it's the wavy, light-brown hair that annoyed me so. I know that their eyes had to be blue, because the characters' eyes correspond to their element, but would it have killed them to make their hair black? I saw some early sketches of Katara from the recently published Avatar artbook, and she was drawn much more plausibly Inuit there. I don't know, maybe it's just me, but it's a bit disheartening how many people agree that Sokka and Katara aren't white, but then claim that they're (Asian) Indian instead.

John Lees said...

I think a key point to take from the review posted is that "their crime, again, isn't that they are Anglo but just painfully dull." While it might not be quite right to say "racist casting made this film fail", changing the character's skin color was a symptom of an apparent all-around disinterest in doing justice to the source material, and that has seemingly resulted in a poor film.

And I think it's a fitting footnote that the one actor getting rave reviews for his work in the film is Dev Patel.

Gail Simone made a funny remark about the film on her Twitter, though:

"Shyamalan says Vanilla Oreos are the most diverse cookie ever created, & the vanilla cookie is PERFECT for the role of the chocolate cookie."

Luci said...

As another example of people refusing to believe the Katara and Sokka characters are Inuit, Shyamalan has just done an interview in which he claims that there is no Inuit actress that could have played Katara... Of course, he's trying to save his ass, but I've been keeping my eye on the fan boards and so many agree with him, and even post pictures of Inuit people to support that argument. No matter how hard the movie fails, I can't be completely happy knowing that most of the series' fans still have absolutely no understanding of the racial controversy...

Yeah, I'm really hoping this doesn't have a negative effect on Dev's career. He's talked about how few, bad quality and stereotypical the offers he got after Slumdog were (which right there should tell people everything about racism in the film industry), god knows what'll happen after this fail of a movie.

Rob said...

As the article said:

"The hero, Aang, is inspired by Tibetan Buddhist monks. His friends, Katara and Sokka, live in a realm of anoraks and igloos. Antagonist Zuko and his tribe appear as classical Chinese warriors."

The Siberian Yupiks are related to the Inuit of North America, with similar clothing and shelters. Using Asians, especially Siberian Asians, as the Water Tribe might've worked. Four Asian ethnic groups as the four tribes would've made sense to me.

For more on the subject, see Dismissing the Pro-Airbender Arguments.

Rob said...


I didn't exactly say "racist casting made this film fail," did I? The closest I came was to blame "inauthentic casting and culture."

I agree with your statement that "changing the character's skin color was a symptom of an apparent all-around disinterest in doing justice to the source material." That's basically what I'm saying too.