In my post on the Avatar film casting controversy, I expressed a lot of skepticism over the choice of M. Night Shyamalan as director. Those reservations were based on the films he has directed throughout his career. His style, preferred subject matter, and increasing pretentious quality, are incompatible with the kind of straightforward adventure found in the original series.
As for the casting controversy, while not absolving him of being involved in this mess, this casting call and the choice of four all-white tween heart-throbs might have been pushed on him by Paramount to maximize the film's mainstream appeal and profitability. Whether this is true, and whether he initially fought, or unquestioningly supported, those directives is something no insider has yet divulged (as far as I know). Even Avatar's creators have kept mum this entire time. The silence from everyone is deeply suggestive of something going on behind the scenes.
The replacement of one of the leads with Indian-British actor Dev Patel in some ways actually makes things worse. 1st: it comes across as tokenism calculated to assuage fans who have initiated letter writing campaigns. Coming off the success of Slumdog Millionaire, Patel is already a proven talent and thus a relatively conservative choice. But 2nd: he's being cast in the antagonist role, making him the villainous Oriental fighting against the heroic Caucasians. And 3rd: the casting of a South Asian to play a role closer to East Asian still smacks of cultural insensitivity. All Asians apparently still all look the same to Hollywood.
The casting controversy has engendered some rather vehement online denials over the show's problematic Asian identity. This being the internet, they can get as tiresome and monotonous as self-righteous fan outrage. So I'd rather single-out Derek Kirk Kim's post again, as well as that of Gene Yang. Matt Thorn's essay on the drawing styles of Japanese manga and anime serve the case of Avatar just as well.
Given how little information is available on what is still the preproduction phase, no one knows yet what the film will finally look like. Fans are assuming that Shyamalan is attempting to reproduce the Asian-flavored world of Avatar. Hence the yellowface accusations. But it's possible that before this is over Shyamalan will stray from the cartoon's premise and present us with some kind of corporate-defined multicultural setting in order to give the studio an excuse to sidestep those accusations. Such a hypocritical alteration would then be used to justify ignoring demands to recast the leading roles.
The creators of Avatar mirror the young audience's fascination with manga and anime - A phenomena Hollywood doesn't really get. It falls outside a certain narrow stylistic range of animation. It doesn't fit into traditional views of their audience. It must be Westernized, whitewashed, and watered-down by comitee into something mediocre. Given the stuff he has to work with, I'll be very surprised if Shyamalan somehow succeeds in forging this material into something truly original.
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