By both critical and commercial measures live-action anime adaptations boast a record of futility second perhaps only to videogame adaptations. Some essential aspect of the source material is irretrievably lost during the process of translating Japanese cartoon to Hollywood tentpole something that even the most bloated visual effects budget can’t conceal. Think Dragonball Evolution and Speed Racer.
And yet Hollywood keeps trying lured by tantalizing visions of cash-cow franchises fed by loyal built-in — and most importantly international — audiences. The latest casualty of this misguided ambition is The Last Airbender based on the hit Nickelodeon series Avatar: The Last Airbender. To be fair Avatar isn’t anime in the orthodox sense in that it was conceived and produced in the States but its style and soul are almost exclusively anime-inspired. As such its big-screen fate is similarly sealed.
Who could possibly break such a rueful trend? For some reason the minds at Paramount thought M. Night Shyamalan that notorious purveyor of ponderous and increasingly shlocky supernatural thrillers might succeed where so many other directors had failed. Even worse they saw fit to hire him to pen the screenplay as well ensuring that every vital aspect of the film would feel the crushing weight of his heavy hand. With such a hacky burden to bear it comes as no surprise that The Last Airbender never really takes flight.
The film's story is set in a world divided into four tribes each aligned to an element: Air Earth Water and Fire. Certain gifted tribe members known as a “benders ” can manipulate the properties of their assigned element to suit their ends. In order to do so they must first perform an elaborate and utterly ridiculous kung fu dance after which a torrent of fire water or whatever arises to obey their command.
For the better part of a century the oppressive and warlike Firebenders have besieged the other nations gradually thinning their respective ranks. The Air Nomads have faired the worst of the lot and are presumed to be extinct until Water peeps Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) discover a boy named Aang (Noah Ringer) trapped in a giant ball of ice. Not only is Unfrozen Kung Fu Warrior the last remaining Airbender (thus the title) he is also an Avatar the only being on the planet capable of wielding all four elements. And only he can bring an end to the Firebenders’ evil reign.
Blessed with an opportunity to reinvent himself in a new genre and with a new demographic Shyamalan can’t avoid falling back on old habits most notably his penchant for awkward and cumbersome dialogue. It’s difficult enough for adults to deliver his lines but it’s absolute hell for The Last Airbender’s youthful protagonists whose not yet fully-developed temporal lobes can’t hope to adequately process the inanities of Shyamalan-speak. One can almost see the smoke coming from little Noah’s ears as he labors to complete each portentous sentence. Poor kid. Where are the Child Labor people when you need them?
But bad dialogue is only one of a litany of problems that plagues The Last Airbender which suffers from mediocre CGI inexplicable casting decisions (caucasians actors none of whom are especially talented are tabbed for asian roles when sufficiently mediocre race-appropriate actors were surely available) and a plot comprehensible only to the most ardent fans of the Nickelodeon series. Much as Aang bends the air Shyamalan tries to bend the laws of quality cinema to his will but they refuse to yield to the force of his ego. I only wish the execs at Paramount had been as stalwart.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Pixar makes it ten gems in a row with this enchanting animated story of 78-year-old Carl Fredricksen a recent widower who decides to fulfill his (plus his late wife’s) lifelong dream of tying thousands of balloons to their house and floating off to a mountaintop in South America. But he soon discovers a stowaway in the form of Russell a precocious eight-year-old “Wilderness Explorer” who he reluctantly allows to accompany him on his journey. Together the unlikely pair embark on the adventure of a lifetime encountering Kevin a rare 13-foot tall-flightless bird; Dug an overly-friendly talking pooch; and Charles Muntz a once-famous adventurer who now lives alone in a massive airship surrounded by a pack of attack dogs.
WHO’S IN IT?
Sticking to their general custom of casting actors not big stars in key voice roles Pixar assembled a superb cast for Up led by veteran TV star Ed Asner (The Mary Tyler Moore Show) as the aged Carl who takes flight in his house and finds there is a lot to learn about life even as you near death. Asner’s grumpy delivery provides the perfect counterpoint to nine-year-old Jordan Nagai’s Russell a bright and optimistic kid who proves an invaluable assistant to Carl throughout their journey. Christopher Plummer (The Sound of Music) is authoritative and intriguing as the obsessed Muntz and John Ratzenberger (Cheers) extends his streak of Pixar films to 10 as a construction engineer who tries to convince Carl to sell his house. Bob Peterson does delightful double duty as two of the key dog voices lovable Dug and the menacing Alpha head of the pack.
Like Pixar’s previous Oscar-winning masterpiece Wall-E Up is a ‘toon that is not content to explore the same places we’ve seen in previous animated blockbusters. Centering an action comedy around a 78-year-old man isn’t a strategy you’ll find in the youth-obsessed Hollywood recipe book but it pays great dividends here with a moral that life’s greatest adventure is the one you share with someone you love. The non-humans — particularly Kevin and Dug — are hilarious and unique and a silent sequence detailing the courtship and marriage of the Fredricksens is a sweet touch that could have come straight out of a Charlie Chaplin movie.
With a string of critically-acclaimed hits that includes Toy Story Finding Nemo The Incredibles Ratatouille Wall-E and now Up Pixar is ruining it for everyone else. There is simply no way they can be topped when it comes to pushing the boundaries of animated movies. Bad for other studios. Good for us.
Could Up which just became the first animated film to open the Cannes Film Festival also become the first to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar since Beauty and the Beast in 1991 (before the Animation category was even established)? At this point in the year it’s actually a good bet. Whatever the case expect Up to earn several nominations come Oscar time.
A swashbuckling swordfight across the skies between two near-octogenarians? It’s the best action scene in a summer full of ‘em.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
Oh pleeeeeease! Get to a theater fast. Up is also available in 3-D at select locations. Either way it’s a must-see.
After 20 years with the LAPD Det. Mitch Preston (Robert De Niro) just wants to catch the crooks finish the paperwork and retreat to his mundane life at home where he eats TV dinners and pursues his hobby of making bad pottery. Patrolman Trey Sellars (Eddie Murphy) really wants to be an actor--he's only a cop because he made a lousy waiter. When Sellars bungles Preston's undercover case and media hounds catch it all on tape the irate Preston shoots up a news camera that gets in his face. Over-caffeinated network exec Chase Renzi (Rene Russo) upon seeing the damning evidence that could have killed her cameraman is captivated by Preston's complete lack of charm and convinces her superior she can save his crappy network by pairing Preston and Sellars up on a reality show. As expected Preston is reluctant--and even more so when he's forced to take the mugging Sellars as his partner. The two take impromptu acting lessons from iconic actor/director William Shatner (playing himself) and set off to attract an audience boost the ratings become celebrities and get the bad guys in a televised reality christened Showtime. Meanwhile the evil Cesar Vargas (Pedro Damian)--whom we know is evil 'cause he hides in the shadows he's flashy and well groomed and he mumbles in an unfathomable Third World/ European accent--is stockpiling guns powerful enough to knock down houses and blow the doors off a Brinks truck.
The movie offers a few good yuks--a coke-sniffing dog an unprecedented cameo by jive-rhyming lawyer Johnnie Cochran and William Shatner satirizing William Shatner (who does this better than anybody else satirizing William Shatner). Unfortunately we've seen a lot of his funniest stuff like the scene in which he demonstrates how to roll over a car hood cop-style in the previews. Rene Russo gives an effective souped-up Lethal Weapon-type performance with her hyper pushy fast-talking network exec desperate to make her name in the industry. De Niro's straight-man comedy is in his facial expressions--or lack thereof--and Murphy is…well Murphy. It's their first outing together and they play off each other like a foul-mouthed version of Abbott and Costello (guess who plays who?). We've seen De Niro play grumpy (Midnight Run) and Murphy play obnoxious (almost everything) before. But as you may suspect it's their grade-A chemistry that holds this badly stitched predictable though occasionally funny flick together--especially in regards to the jokes on Hollywood and the current bounty of reality TV.
You can smell the gags and The Odd Couple-versus-Goldfinger plot unfolding a million miles away. You just know Preston is hiding a gun inside that Big Gulp when he goes undercover to investigate a pawn shop and you know Vargas will make bad-guy errors in judgment like staging a robbery in downtown L.A. the day after he's confronted by our star cops in a populated disco. But that may lead you to wonder why the police--who are likewise not presented as being particularly bright in this movie--weren't trailing him as Vargas is the prime suspect in the gun-trafficking subplot. Some of the comedy borders on satire but isn't played up enough for you to tell if it was meant that way or not. The action scenes are so badly edited it's hard to tell who's chasing whom until the camera cuts back to Murphy's toothy grin and a cement-faced De Niro shooting out his car window. And speaking of commercial-laden reality TV the product placement in this movie is shameless--we get a full-length commercial for Apple Computers played not once but twice.