More NonSense: Racebending Epic Fail Roundup

Noah Ringer plays Aang in the movie "The Last Airbender"
Noah Ringer plays Aang in the movie "The Last Airbender"

"As a Vietnamese American, I find “The Last Airbender’s” production and casting a great offense to my cultural roots, and believe that Paramount – and especially Shyamalan – should be ashamed of themselves. Frankly, I hope they go down in film anthropology as infamous practioners of self-indulgent, self-delusional ignorance, stupidity and racism"
- Q. Le (Quote added 07/11/10)

Despite its July 1st worldwide release, The Last Airbender has yet to hit my local movie theater. So I'm not going to be able to make any independent assessment of it just yet. But here's what the online critics have to say about it. The movie continues to draw criticism for its decision to cast Caucasian actors in the leading roles. Asian American cartoonists Derek Kirk Kim, Gene Yang, and Tak Toyoshima have repeated their initial objections to Paramount's "racist" casting. At the center of calls to boycott the movie, Racebending.com has organized several public protests and demonstrations in the hope of negatively impacting on the commercial success of the film. But they're also big enough fanboys to put up a handy guide deliniating the differences in the main plot points between the big screen adaptation and its source material.

With the movie having already alienated a significant portion of its existing fanbase months before its release, it would have to make up in box office sales from the general population. Early numbers indicate that the movie has not quite succeeded. It has received a critical drubbing from the mainstream press: As of this writing, aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes has given it a a horrendous 7% general rating, and Metacritic has rated it a "generally unfavorable" 20 based on 32 reviews. So the movie is a flop with the cognoscenti. But what does the public think? Entertainment Weekly reports that the film earned "$16 million on Friday after pulling in $16 million on its opening day for a 5-day holiday weekend gross that could total $70 million." This sounds like a decent box office weekend performance. But according to Patrick Goldstein, the film has received a grade of C from CinemaScore - an organization that tracks the reaction of audiences during a movie's opening night. "the C grade is a pretty reliable indicator that the movie will have a steep dropoff in its grosses in the weeks to come" explained Goldstein. He goes on to opine about director M. Night Shyamalan's future with the franchise:
"In the run-up to the film's opening, Shyamalan has been talking about quickly getting to work on a sequel, but if I were him, I'd be keeping my options open. This movie, to quote one of my father's favorite expressions, looks like a dog that won't hunt."

How much did the casting of white actors to play non-white roles hurt The Last Airbender? Roger Ebert thought it did some damage, or at the very least didn't help:
"His first inexplicable mistake was to change the races of the leading characters; on television Aang was clearly Asian, and so were Katara and Sokka, with perhaps Mongolian and Inuit genes. Here they're all whites. This casting makes no sense because (1) It's a distraction for fans of the hugely popular TV series, and (2) all three actors are pretty bad. I don't say they're untalented, I say they've been poorly served by Shyamalan and the script."

Kirk Honeycutt agrees saying:
"The Nickelodeon series, created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, is wholly and inarguably centered on Asian (and Inuit) culture. But Shyamalan, a South Indian, for whatever reason -- you supply the motive -- chose to cast mostly white actors. Two fellow Indians, "Slumdog Millionaire's" Dev Patel and veteran Indian-American Aasif Mandvi, play different kinds of villains, but otherwise this fantasy world is pretty white until you get to the extras.

No one can say whether "Airbender" would have been a better film with a different cast. But as it is, the film loses substantial credibility in regard to its source material."

Others disagree with it's importance. Andrew O'Hehir opines: "Despite the Internet uproar launched by some fans of the animated series "Avatar: The Last Airbender" (which was going to be the title of this movie, until, uh, other forces intervened), I have to say that the racial controversy around this movie is overblown." Angry Asian Man on the casting of Noah Ringer, blamed the script for not giving the actor enough to work with: "To be fair, Noah Ringer, who plays Aang (the titular last airbender), does an okay job. Is he the only kid in the entire world who could play Aang, as Shyamalan has so boldly claimed? Absolutely not. But he does a passable job in an mediocre movie. Could this material have been elevated by casting an Asian actor? Probably not." Joe Morgenstern puts the casting controversy into the larger context of a series of bad decisions:
"The producers have been widely criticized for failing to cast the Asian characters of the original with Asian actors, and the criticism is valid, notwithstanding the presence of Asians in minor roles. Like the hero, Aang, the lead characters of the brave sister and brother, Katara and Sokka, are played by young and conspicuously Caucasian American actors—Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone (who also plays the "Twilight" vampire Jasper Hale). But where does criticism end when a production is botched from start to finish?"

Richard Corliss tried to put a positive spin on it:
"The dearth of racially appropriate casting in the U.S. simply means that fewer Asians were humiliated by appearing in what is surely the worst botch of a fantasy epic since Ralph Bakshi's animated desecration of The Lord of the Rings back in 1978. The actors who didn't get to be in The Last Airbender are like the passengers who arrived too late to catch the final flight of the Hindenburg."

But some of the harshest criticisms were reserved not for the film's casting, but for its cynical implementation of 3-D technology. Ebert attacked it as "Not only is it unexploited, unnecessary and hardly noticeable, but it's a disaster even if you like 3D. M. Night Shyamalan's retrofit produces the drabbest, darkest, dingiest movie of any sort I've seen in years." Sam Adams reported on the industry's squeezing of theater goers: "audiences in upscale areas were having difficulty locating 2-D screenings. A listings search turned up exactly one non-3-D theater on the island of Manhattan; ditto Santa Monica." Keith Phipps sums up the general disgust for these practices: "...a few 3-D elements have been added to satisfy the current 3-D craze, and the higher ticket prices they allow. Worse still, the process makes the already-dark imagery darker, and turns the action blurry. Viewers who see it in this form will pay more for an even shittier experience than the one they would have had in 2-D."

Most of the reviewers I read confirmed my own nagging doubts about Shyamalan's ability to adapt a serialized fantasy epic aimed originally at children. Mr. Beaks commented "Burdened by an never-ending onslaught of expository dialogue awkwardly delivered by actors giving career-worst performances across the board, The Last Airbender is so outrageously bad it's a wonder it ever got before cameras. Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy, veteran producers who know better, should've shut down production the minute Shyamalan turned in his first draft and found a writer with a vision for the material. Or just a writer with a vision, period." Charlie Jane Anders eviscerated the director's efforts: "Shyamalan's true achievement in this film is that he takes a thrilling cult TV series, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and he systematically leaches all the personality and soul out of it — in order to create something generic enough to serve as a universal spoof of every epic, ever." Peter Debruge thought Shyamalan misses the point of the series: "Here, we expect an epic martial-arts movie and instead get a soul-searching adolescent's decision to spare his enemies -- a character-driven approach that's ill served by the largely amateur cast."

I'll let Angry Asian Man sum it all up:
"M. Night Shyamalan attempts to adapt the entire storyline of season one (Book 1: Water) into this movie (the first of a planned trilogy). Having seen and enjoyed the animated series, I'm aware that this is no small feat. Unfortunately, overall, the plan fails. It's supposed to be epic, but the whole thing feels clunky, rushed and at times incomprehensible. You might not have to boycott this movie -- it's so bad, it could boycott itself."

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