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MOVIE REVIEW

The Last Airbender

‘Airbender’ loses something in switch from cartoon to live action

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / June 30, 2010

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“The Last Airbender’’ has had more bad karma than almost any movie deserves. Adapted from a popular Nickelodeon cartoon series called “Avatar: The Last Airbender,’’ the movie saw the first half of its title bigfooted by a certain James Cameron production late last year. The core fan base has been up in arms over the casting of white actors to play characters that on the show are anime-Asian (i.e., round-eyed but clearly based on Japanese drawing styles and other cultural markers).

Writer-director M. Night Shyamalan has been in the doghouse since his last few films (“Lady in the Water,’’ “The Happening’’) were roundly mocked; this is his first project-for-hire. And — the final indignity — “Airbender’’ has been put through the same postproduction 3-D rinse cycle that resulted in the cheapjack eyesore that was “Clash of the Titans.’’ The process is to genuine 3-D — the kind you see in “Toy Story 3’’ or “How to Train Your Dragon’’ — what colorization is to color: A ghoulish simulation.

It would be heartening to report that Shyamalan has wrangled a good movie out of this litany of disaster, but no such luck. “The Last Airbender’’ is dreadful, an incomprehensible fantasy-action epic that makes the 2007 film “The Golden Compass,’’ a similarly botched adaptation of a beloved property from another medium, look like a four-star classic. Like “Compass,’’ “Airbender’’ ends with a cliffhanger, but don’t hold your breath waiting for Chapter Two.

The 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. The latter comes in two modes: barely noticeable, as if the technicians set the knob at 1.3 and went out for lunch, or actively irritating. Really, I’ve got winking-Jesus postcards that look better.

Go see “Airbender’’ in 2-D if you must, then, and appreciate the pieces: Patel’s tremulous Zuko, a few mildly stunning CGI sets, a six-legged flying bison swiped from Hayao Miyazaki, and some single-take action sequences that might work if they were lit and choreographed with any finesse. Then wonder where M. Night Shyamalan goes from here, because, honestly, anywhere is up.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/movienation.

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The Last Airbender

Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan.

Written by: M. Night Shyamalan, based on the cartoon series by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko.

Starring: Noah Ringer, Dev Patel, Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone.

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs.

Running time: 95 minutes.

Rated: PG (fantasy action violence).

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