The Lost Airbender

So, I only started watching the animation a month or two ago, and only here and there. Nonetheless, I quite like it, and I think it’s for the same reason I’ve been enjoying The Muppet Show, as I mentioned recently.

And this reason becomes even more apparent on watching the M. Night Shyamalan adaptation travesty, which I did the other night. I mean, even the creators of the series backed away carefully when asked what they thought of it. You know, that means it’s really bad. Well, it was.

The funny thing is that I happen to agree with a lot of the incidentals that people have brought up in their film reviews, such as their comments on the moronic and whitewashing casting (and when not whitewashing, the races were fiddled around for no reasons; and the extras were of the original race in the series, but the main characters weren’t… for no apparent reason beyond Shyamalan’s ego — way more about that whole mess here); the horrible slowed-down bending and the resultant boring action scenes; the use of voice-over in lieu of compelling plotting; wooden acting and awful script; the jump from locale to locale; the cheesy heroic that somehow, in a very sexist way that Katara in fact decries in the first episode ever — in the first scene of the show! — ends up backburnering her; the constant dialog saying only, “Let’s X” followed by narration of “Then we decided to X” followed by characters doing X; the crappy, pointless 3D; the gloominess and absence of fun — and the latter, for me was almost the main thing.

Well, yeah, all of that…

But to me, more egregious than all of those things — except maybe the racist casting and the assumptions that seem to underlie it — is the major thing I like about Avatar: The Last Airbender, and which I think I only realized because I’d been watching episodes of the Muppet Show: it’s one of those shows that, when you watch it, you’re taking a trip into the world of children.

This is not calling it childish, mind. “Childish” is the insulting word adults use to put down a behaviour in children which, if they paid attention, they’d have to admit plenty of adults to as often as, or more often than, kids do.

No, traveling into the world of children is quite the opposite of that: it’s letting go of that bigotry and moving into a child-centric space, a place where a child’s view of the world is not immediately dismissed as in normal everyday life, but rather validated, explored, and widened in a healthy and encouraging way that urges children to look more broadly, without telling them that to do so, they must throw away their capacity for glee, joy, and fun.

I figured this out, funnily enough, rewatching The Muppet Show, where the muppets are very, very clearly mostly kids — and I mean little kids — who have taken control of a theater and, by extension, the TV. When I was a kid, I found that much of the day, whatever was on TV was for adults, but when The Muppet Show came on, that was for us, for kids. For me. I could relate to Fozzie wanting to go out and make jokes, except his jokes were, well… amateur. Everything the muppets did was amateur, in the same way kids who dress up and put on plays are being amateur. The Carol Burnett episode (maybe the fourth or fifth I watched after my renewed interest in the series) drives the message straight home, especially when she is trying to sing during a dance-a-thon and Gonzo starts calling out different dance styles:

(See Burnett’s scene starting at about 5’30”.)

The adult guest stars on The Muppet Show are not immediately in charge, and while they might briefly try to assert control, but they can never really be in control. Eventually, the little buggers will always win out, and any adult who goes into their world has to learn to dance to their beat. There’s a lesson there for adults, for parents and teachers in particular. The Muppet Show takes place in a children’s world, and it’s a great place to visit, at least for a half hour at a time, not the least because it’s full of kids putting adults in their place.

Avatar: The Last Airbender doesn’t work in quite the same way — there are dark themes in the background, a war and destructive imperialists and pain and suffering — but there’s also Aang, who isn’t so sure about this saving the world stuff, but also isn’t the whiney, weepy child of the Shyamalan film — instead, he’s a mad little genius, eager to enjoy his childhood by going penguin sledding, or koi-surfing, or a million other things. He’s a kid who wants to embrace life, and by doing that, he (and his friends, who are all children) get closer and closer to saving the world.

And that, that is what I feel is the thing most missing in The Last Airbender: beyond Shyamalan’s obvious lack of interest in or love for the original material — I barely know it myself, but even what I know shows the film to be wrongheaded — it is his utter inability to take us to, to think of going into, to even notice that the story, properly done, is a trip into a world with growing shadows and darkness, yes, but one seen through children’s bright and hopeful eyes.

What baffles me is that people keep giving him money, after so many of his films have been garbage — an offense not just against audiences, but against the institution of the cinema. When someone like me is sitting there in the audience thinking, “I could make a better adaptation than this crap!” it may well be arrogance, but… CGI is getting cheaper all the time, and fans are getting more and more creative all the time. Sooner or later, Hollywood is going to look like the old Kremlin, a mad and unsustainable dream of centralized control of a culture.

And one that was, we shall hopefully task and shake our heads, implacably hostile towards children. Because, frankly, that’s what this remake is: hostile towards kids. I’m not saying it should have been Disneyfied, but… it’s as if Shyamalan looked at the original and saw only “childishness” to be purged. More’s the shame, and more’s the pity.

But until then, could someone just get Shyamalan (who clearly did not get it at all) exiled from Hollywood? Please?

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