Yep, I joined the rest of humanity and saw “Avatar” this weekend. (In Real 3D, not regular 3D — but not XD, because that’s different, though it may be 3D, too? Hard to keep up with the new new…) Anyway, as I sat in a fully packed theater of a film in its fifth week of release, I experienced sort of what I expected.
In the words of my colleague Kat Achenbach: “visuals = POW! ; story = meh.”
Can’t really refute that. Strip “Avatar” of its visual effects, and you get blunt story manipulation that tells you what to feel now, and telegraphs what you’re going to feel in 10 minutes. Greedy corporations, evil! Bloodlusting soldiers, bad! Purehearted natives, good! Not a single surprise to be had for 3 hours. But I’ll give it this: Put those visuals back in, and I stop caring about the overt manipulation, cuz yeah, that was some beautiful glowing-planet porn right there.
(I am intensely curious how this film will play on home movie screens. That big-screen “wow” does all the heavy lifting, so without that, will “Avatar” feel too long, slow and small to warrant repeat viewings at home? It may take advances in the purported 3D TV before this movie is really worth a DVD purchase.)
I’ll admit that as a guy, even when I am cognizant that I’m being fed a pasty lump of story gruel, I’m happy to shelve those objections temporarily when, for example, robots and dinosaurs start blowing each other up.
Like eating too much chocolate, “Avatar” is pure indulgence, and I’m rarely opposed to pure indulgence. Just remember to brush and floss and move on to healthier food tomorrow.
Now that THAT is out of the way…
… let’s clear the decks for the movie of the other “Avatar”: the one that aired first, the one that lured director M. Night Shyamalan, and the one that knew damn well what to do with a story in the three seasons it ran on Nickelodeon.
“Avatar: The Last Airbender” may be the best cartoon epic ever. Combining pan-Asian aesthetics, long-form fantasy, fierce kung fu, bone-deep character development and comedy, this cartoon still gets repeat viewing requests in my house, from the 9-, 7-, 5 and 39-year old alike. Creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko designed themselves an American anime that rises above whatever expectations you may have upon hearing that label. This show, which debuted in 2005, is better than sizzle, it’s smart.
In an imaginary world where martial arts masters can control the elements of air, fire, earth and water, an Avatar is born into every generation who can control all four at once, and thus maintain the balance of power among the nations. After the newest Avatar is frozen in ice for 100 years, he emerges to discover that in his absence the Fire Nation laid siege to most of the world. This 12-year-old boy must now square off against the Fire Lord to stop his totalitarian rule. Along the way, Aang the Avatar meets a cast of deeply developed allies, adversaries and comic foils.
If you want to see 22 taut minutes of storytelling, use Netflix to lay your hands on the fourth disk of Season One to see episode 13, “The Blue Spirit,” which is one of the high points of the series. It’s got everything:
We open with Aang’s companions falling ill to a delusion-inducing fever. Jeopardy!
While he goes after a cure on his own, Aang gets captured by a Fire Nation admiral. Jeopardy times two!
His friends can’t save him — they’re getting sicker by the minute, and Aang carries the cure. But lo, who’s this?
A mysterious intruder! What follows is a furious kung-fu-fueled rescue with ingenious visuals and choreography. At one point, the escapees use giant bamboo ladders to stilt-step between ramparts. Energetic action!
Things get complicated when the Blue Spirit’s methods get murky. Drama!
By the end of the episode, Aang has to make some difficult decisions, endure some sacrifice, confront preconceived notions, and plumb deep feelings of loss and loneliness. Yeah, that’s a lot of ground to cover, but the way “Avatar” does it is graceful and genuine and satisfying. Oh, and it wraps up with a good gag, as Aang’s fevered friends get their cure in the form of frozen frogs to suck. Comedy!
Shyamalan must agree with my enthusiasm, because his live-action version (called “The Last Airbender” as a non-contest surrender in the name-recognition war) has a gorgeous trailer in advance of its July 2 release.
But the other “Avatar” is hogging so much airspace, I’ve barely heard a peep about this film for months. I haven’t gotten a single official e-mail update since I signed up for ’em last summer. These images aren’t even official; just scraped-together flotsam from the Internet:
Apparently, I can expect a commercial during the Super Bowl, and I sure hope so. It’s time to take back the “Avatar” mindspace from the giant Smurf people!