The Last Airbender: Was it Worth it? (W6)

The primary text that I’m writing on is the movie “The Last Airbender” directed by M. Night Shyamalan. This movie was released in 2010 but still is remembered as one of the worst films of its genre today. Now, the movie itself was not bad if a person had walked into the theatre without any previous context to what the movie was actually about but for the more realistic case, being everyone who went to see the movie saw or knew about the cartoon from which it was derived, it was a huge disappointment. However, I’m not here to criticize just the movie itself but to criticize the person in charge of creating it, the director. M. Night Shyamalan was praised by fans of the cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender for taking on the task of turning that amazing animated show into a live action film. However, fans were not aware that Shyamalan was going to add in a twist to the original story, like he did with all of the other films he had written and directed. That twist he decided to make is what I’ll be criticizing. Here are some scenes from the film that will help me explain my criticisms.

Scene 1:

Katara’s Voice: “The Four Nations: Water, Earth, Fire and Air Nomads lived amongst each other in harmony.

Great respect was afforded to all those who could bend their natural element.

The Avatar was the only person born amongst all the nations who could master all four elements.”

Scene 2:

Katara: “This is where you lived?”

Aang: “They must be playing some trick or something, Monk Gyatso is going to try and jump out and scare me at any moment.

He’s the teacher responsible for me. He’s kind of like my father.”

Katara: “Is it okay if you tell me your name?”

Aang: “The monks named me Aang.”

Scene 3:

Aang: “What do you want with me?”

Iroh: “My nephew wants me to perform a little test on you.”

Aang: “What kind of test?”

Iroh: “I assure you it won’t hurt, I’ve performed it hundreds of times. It only takes a few moments and then you’re free to go.

Would you mind if I put a few things in front of you on the table? It will only take a moment.”

Aang: “That’s all you want?”

Iroh: “I’m Iroh, and you have my word.”

The problems I have within those passages my not make sense when read as much as they are when heard. Nonetheless, even when heard they don’t make sense to a person not familiar with the original show, so I’ll explain. In the original series the title word “Avatar” is pronounced using the letter “a” sound similar to that heard when saying the word “apple”. However, in the movie it was pronounced with the letter “o” sound similar to what’s heard when saying “operation”. A similar thing was done when pronouncing the main character’s name — instead of “Aang” which uses the long “a” sound like “angel” it is pronounced “Ong” also with the same “o” sound in “operation”. A change also happened with the pronunciation of another character’s name, Iroh, which is pronounced “eye-row” in the original TV series but “ear-row” in the movie. Now, my criticisms aren’t specifically with the characters names but with the reason Shyamalan gave to justify changing the names. In this essay I will be criticizing the extent of which M. Night Shyamalan used cultural appreciation and considered race when creating The Last Airbender movie, opposed to how much he claimed he actually did.

Shyamalan said that the reason he changed those pronunciations was because he felt that it was, in a sense, respecting the Asian culture from which the original series was somewhat derived from. Now background on the original series, Avatar: The Last Airbender was not based in any part of Asia or even the real world for that matter, it was based in a completely made up and fictional world that, in Shyamalan’s defense, did have a strong Eastern-Asian influence. Nevertheless, because of other aspects of the movie that reasoning was not being bought by fans or the original series’ creators. Shyamalan claimed that he wanted to add our world’s Eastern-Asian culture to the movie yet there weren’t any Easter-Asian or Asian-American main characters in the film. Based on the clothing, skin tones and other factors found in the characters of the original series it has been deciphered that the four ethnic groups depicted in the series stem from Inuit, Chinese, Korean and Tibetan influences. Yet, there weren’t any Inuit, Chinese, Korean or Tibetan people playing main character roles in the film. I, along with many other fans, don’t accept the idea that he could not have found Asian actors to portray these characters but for this essay’s sack I will humor that thought. Many characters in the original series could have been portrayed by Caucasian people, and there were in fact Caucasian people in the film but they weren’t playing the roles they should have been. From skin tone factors alone, a European decent person could have played a Chinese or Korean based character and a Middle Eastern, African, or even Hispanic decent person could get away with playing an Inuit or Tibetan character — but that did not happen. Actually the complete opposite happened. As far as main characters go, Dev Patel and Aasif Mandvi, who are Middle Eastern decent, played Chinese and Korean like characters; while Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone, both Caucasian, played Inuit like characters. So naturally, before the film was released and the name pronunciations were an issue, a race issue was brought into play. Many fans and critics felt that, in a fictional world where the “brown people” were portrayed as the good guys and the “white people” the bad, M. Night was bringing our world views into play when casting in a reverse fashion. Even for the people who didn’t care much for the racial issue that question was just, “Why?” Why would he change around the roles and then not even add in an Eastern-Asian character even though he was proposing that the reason he changed names was supposedly to respect the Eastern-Asian culture. Also, on top of it all, was all of that even worth doing looking back on how the world reacted to the final product.

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