The film adaptation of Nickelodeon’s critically and commercially successful cartoon, Avatar: The Last Airbender, was released in 2010 to a tidal wave of criticism larger than any seen in the film. It scored a lowly 6% on Rotten Tomatoes, whose comments begin to uncover the problems.
Despite flashy special effects, The Last Airbender squanders the potential of its popular source material on an incomprehensible plot, laughable dialogue, and a joyless sense of detachment.
Of course these comments refer to the finished film, which was ridiculed for its poor 3D conversion. Even before the film was released, the production was mired in a racism row by casting white actors in a universe which is heavily influenced by Asian culture. However, all we care about is the script, yet this too was in a constant flux. A very insightful interview in Vulture with M. Night Shyamalan, the film’s writer, director and producer, revealed that because he was used to making suspense films of 90 minutes in length, that he used that model on this film. While he claims that trying to make a film in a different genre was akin to an artist learning a new style, or trying to learn a new language. These analogies are side-stepping the fact that filmmakers must adapt to the material, and it is most often a collaborative process. Unfortunately, as Shyamalan acted as writer, director and producer, he takes the brunt of the blame. He adapted the script, filmed it, and then edited down to 90 minutes, and it is the last which caused a number of problems, but for us, the main one is exposition. Entire scenes were cut, meaning the characters had to spout exorbitant amount of exposition just to try and make sense of the plot. For example, the crux of the Fire Nation’s plot to defeat the Northern Water tribe rests on them killing the Moon Goddess’s physical form. In a large piece of exposition, we learn that Commander Zhao was dispatched to find a library and seek information within that tells them how to achieve this assassination. We are not aware of this plot until well into the film, when it could have been visually set up at the start.
Several voice-overs by Katara were also added in post-production to explain large plot-points that were cut out or rushed over, not least of all the love story between Sokka and Princess Yue. Since we barely see this couple together, falling in love, an audience has very little empathy when Yue dies.
The other problem is trying to squeeze the plot of twenty half-hour episodes from the cartoon series into the 90 minutes. To this end it feels like entire scenes have been lifted from the cartoon, patched together in the hope that the audience would have foreknowledge of the world and overlook the incoherent plot. More could and should have been changed from the cartoon in order to construct a structured film. There is a heavy reliance on coincidence, such as when the Earth Nation boy coincidentally bumps into the adventuring trio of protagonists, or when Prince Zuko’s ship just happens to run into Commander Zhao’s.
In my opinion, many of the problems with the script are caused by structure, specifically where the script starts. It opens as the cartoon does, with Katara and Sokka finding the titular Avatar, Aang, encased in a protective shell of ice. However, this incident has a large back-story leading up to it, one which is poorly explained in the rest of the film, again with a heavy reliance on exposition. The golden rule in screenwriting is “Show, don’t tell.” Exposition is sometimes necessary, but there are ways to hide it. I often find when writing that a character should have to work to receive a piece of information, be it an interrogation with a suspect, or an argument with a loved one, creating drama which forces the information out as a reward, rather than simply gifting it to the protagonist.
The same is true of Zuko’s backstory. He has been exiled by his father, Fire Lord Ozai, which we are told numerous times. Later in the film Zuko explains to a child exactly why he was exiled, but it would have been much better to see this happen, to allow us to understand Zuko’s motivations to hunt down Aang.
Also, as a small niggle, I would have retained the cartoon’s title of Avatar: The Last Airbender. While it was removed so as not be confused with James Cameron’s Avatar, the fact is that the film is about the Avatar of this world, Aang.
To summarise, the key problems with the script were:
• An extraordinary use of exposition to propel the various plots.
• A heavy reliance on coincidence.
• Remaining too tightly fixed to the source material, specifically the structure or order of information from the cartoon.
• Unclear motivations and world of film
To try and rectify these, I have considered the following:
• Using the cartoon’s tapestry of history to set up the film.
• Clearly and visually set up the plots of the protagonist, Aang, and the antagonist, Zuko.
• Clearly explaining the world of the film, and how the role of Avatar works, rather than gloss over it in a rush.
• Introduction of main characters earlier, including Princess Yue (so the ove story between her and Sokka can develop), and also a small introduction to Toph Beifong, an earth bender who will become a main character in the sequel films).
AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER – RETROSPECTIVE REWRITE
START: One hundred years before events of the main film. Fire Lord Sozin shares tea with his best friend, Avatar Roku. They look at a map of the world, the four nations – Fire, Water, Earth and Air – kept in balance by the Avatar. Sozin admires his friend, but expresses his plans to dominate the world, claiming them weak and unworthy. Roku says he will not stand for this, that as Avatar he will oppose such action, powering up his Avatar State. Sozin says that soon Roku will not be Avatar. Roku’s power’s fail him as Sozin reveals the tea to be poisoned. Sozin says he is truly sorry as his friend dies in his arms. Sozin then orders his men to exterminate the Air Nomads. His men question his orders, but Sozin says the next Avatar will be an Air Nomad, following the order of the seasons, and if he is killed before mastering the four arts, he will not be reincarnated. His men warn them that such a demand could take a decade. Sozin says so be it.
The Fire Nation launch a war against the Air Nomads, with entire communities destroyed along with their flocks of flying bison. During this time we see a young Air Nomad named Aang grow from a child into a young teenager, under the tutelage of Monk Gyatso. Their temple has received news of the Fire Nation drawing near. Another Monk argues with Gyatso that they must test the boy, but Gyatso says he is not ready, that Aang is too young to be put under such pressure. However Gyatso gives in, and they test Aang, confirming he is the new Avatar. The other monks tell him that he will rise up to learn all four arts of bending, that he will defeat the fire nation and restore balance to the world. Aang however just wishes to play with the other children. The monks say this is impossible, he is the Avatar, he has responsibilities that come before fun. Aang realises he will be taken away from Monk Gyatso, and in a childish fit, runs away with Appa, his flying bison. He stops, talking to Appa, and he realises how selfish he was. He returns, only to find the temple destroyed by the Fire Nation, torturing Monk Gyatso. Gyatso gives his life so that Aang may escape, telling his pupil to seek out the Southern Water tribe to learn water bending. Aang and Appa escape the volleys of fire, pursued into a wild storm, and feared drowned.
The Fire Nation report back to an aging Lord Sozin, claiming success, but a mystic counsel of the Fire Lord informs him that the Avatar is still alive. Lord Sozin is old and dying, and on his deathbed tells his son Azulon that they must find the Avatar if they are ever to rule the entire world. Azulon says the same thing to his son, Ozai.
Years later, Ozai, now having two children, Prince Zuko and Princess Azula, is in a meeting with his generals, pouring over a map, trying to figure out a way to attack the Northern Water Tribe’s last remaining city. Ozai plans to sacrifice many men i a diversion, which Zuko openly opposes. Ozai tries to instruct his son in the ways of war, but Zuko says they cannot kill so many of their own people. Ozai and Zuko, both strong fire benders, duel, to the delight of Azula. Ozai’s older brother Iroh begs Ozai not to do this, but Ozai ignores him, and gives his son a beating, leaving his face and body badly burned. Ozai banishes him and Iroh, telling them they can return if they bring him the Avatar, which receives a volley of laughter from the others present, as the Avatar is considered a myth. However, one of the ancient mystics silences them, claiming the Avatar will return soon. Meanwhile, Fire Lord Ozai is approached by another of his men, Commader Zhao, who offers a different strategy. The waterbenders are stronger when the Moon is out, so Zhao suggests taking a ship on a mission to raid an old water tribe temple, which may reveal where to find the Moon Spirit, and kill her. Ozai agrees. Later Zuko approaches the ancient mystic and asks her for guidance. She tells him to travel to the Southern Water Tribes, the Avatar is near there.
In the Southern Water tribe, Katara and her clumsy brother Sokka are ice fishing, when they discover something buried in the ice. They dig, and reveal Aang and Appa, kept safe in a ball of energy supplied by the Avatar state. Katara, taken by Aang, reveals the Avatar, him, has been missing for over one hundred years. They see smoke coming from their village, and return, only to find Zuko and Iroh searching for the Avatar. From a vantage point, Aang asks Sokka and Katara why the southern tribes do not fight back with water bending. Katara reveals no one in the southern tribe has been able to bend for a generation, and all those that could were killed by the fire nation. Aang, seeing the village being destroying, flashing back to the Airbender temple, surrenders himself to Zuko.
Zuko and Iroh question Aang about his whereabouts, but realise he is just a child. Aang learns more about what has happened the last hundred years, and that the fire nation plan to attack the last Northern Water city. Aang states he cannot allow them to continue. He escapes with the help of Sokka and Katara, who have come to his aid on Appa. In doing so they disable Zuko’s ship.
The adventurous trio head north to warn the Northern Water Tribe, stopping at Aang’s old home, the Southern Air Temple. The place is a ghost town, and Aang blames himself for running away. He vows not to let it happen again. At the temple, he has visions of Avatar Roku, but cannot make sense of them. They find an old map, and plan their route, which takes them through the Earth Kingdom. They decide to avoid the major cities of Omashu and Ba Sing Se, wishing to travel stealthily.
Meanwhile, Commander Zhao raids a desolate old water temple, and finds a scroll which informs him that the ocean and moon goddess are linked to a physical form, two fish, that swim in a spirit pool, but the location has been torn off.
Zhao’s ship stops at a port, where he finds Zuko and Iroh waiting while their ship is repaired. Zhao shows them the scroll, which Iroh finds disturbing. Zhao mocks Zuko, but Zuko reveals they found the Avatar. Zhao calls him a liar, and they duel, Zuko winning. Zuko is informed that the flying bison has been spotted in the Earth Kingdom. Zuko and Iroh go in search of them, while Zhao returns to the Fire National capital, swearing he will kill Zuko the next time they mee.
The trio trek through the Earth Kingdom, avoiding Fire Nation squads. While camping near a river, Katara practises her water bending in secret, but is seen by Aang. She explains she kept it hidden for fear the Fire Nation would take her away. Aang says she could teach him, but Katara is shy, says she is a novice, he needs a master. Sokka interrupts – he has seen a nearby village controlled by the Fire Nation. The trio move closer, and spy Zuko and his men in charge of the village, demanding to know where the Avatar is. Zuko picks on a blind Earth Kingdom girl, Toph Beifong. Meanwhile, Iroh remembers this village; it was once much larger, but he burned it down when he was a young naive commander (shown in brief flashback). Sokka says they should leave, but Aang, with memories of the destroyed Southern Air Temple fresh in his mind, opts to free them. Aang reveals himself to Zuko, and they fight, while Katara and Sokka free the town’s captives, including the blind girl. Zuko has defeated Aang, and injured Appa, but Toph reveals herself to be an earth bending master, and aids Aang in his fight against Zuko, as do the other earth benders. Zuko flees with his men, but Iroh is caught.
Toph thanks Aang for his help; she reveals she is from a wealthy family in Ba Sing Se, and they should look her up if they go to the city. Toph and the others take Iroh, also known as the Dragon of the West, to Ba Sing Se to face his earlier crimes, while Aang, Katara and Sokka take the injured Appa to the Northern Water Temple. However, Zuko attacks the caravan carrying his uncle, and frees him.
Zhao returns to Fire Lord Ozai with the scroll, but without the location it is useless. Ozai is quite the opposite of his brother Iroh, not believing in the spirits. Ozai tells Zhao to find Iroh; he will know something of these spirits. Zhao does not reveal the existence of the Avatar, wishing to claim that prize for himself.
In the Northern Water Temple, the trip meet Princess Yue, whom Sokka is immediately attracted to. They also meet water bending master Pukka, who agrees to help Aang master water bending, but not Katara; the Northern Water Tribes being sexist. Katara reveals this is why her grandmother moved to the more accepting Southern tribes. It is revealed that Pukka loved Katara’s grandmother, and has been bitter since the day she left. Pukka decides he can right a wrong by teaching Katara.
Yue shows the trio the secret spirit pool, where the sun and the moon goddess live in the physical form fo a fish. Yue tells the story of how when she was a child she died, but she was placed in the pool and the moon goddess granted her life. While in the temple, Aang is transported to the spriit world, and has fleeting visions of Roku. Master Pukka reveals it is because the Winter Solstice is nearing, the bond between the physical and the spirit world is very strong, and that Aang may be able to talk to Roku, but must travel to where Roku died – the Fire Temple. Pukka says it is suicide.
Without Appa, who is being treated for his injuries, the trio, accompanied by Princess Yue who leaves without permission, they sail to the Fire Temple. They sneak in, and Aang is able to communicate with Roku, who warns him that he must learn all four arts by the time Sozin’s Comet arrives, just as the moon enhances the water benders, Sozin’s Comet grants the fire benders more power while in the sky. Before Aang can learn any more from the former Avatar, they are interrupted and all four are captured by Zhao’s forces.
Zuko and Iroh learn of the Avatar’s capture at the Fire Temple.
Zhao tortures Aang and his friends, looking for the location of the Moon Spirit. Sokka, when seeing his beloved Yue being tortured, submits, and tells Zhao.
Before Zhao can present the Avatar to Fire Master Ozai, a masked figure breaks them free and helps Aang escape. This warrior, dubbed the Blue Spirit, is revealed to be Zuko, who did not wish Zhao to claim the reward for the Avatar’s capture. Aang says they could be allies, that he will need someone to teach him fire bending, but Zuko rejects him, tries to tie him up, but Aang escapes, and rejoins the others.
They sail back to the Northern Water Temple, Yue upset with Sokka for his betrayal, while Katara’s arm has been scarred by Zhao’s burning.
Zhao and Ozai launch all their fleets to the Northern Water temple. Ozai is disappointed in Zhao for letting the Avatar escape, tells him not to fail in this battle. Zhao suspects it was Zuko who freed Aang, and confronts Iroh. Zhao wants to kill Zuko for his betrayal, but says he will spare the exiled Prince’s life if Iroh joins him in his attack on the Northern Water Temple, as he has excellent tactical knowledge of the Temple. Iroh agrees. However, Zhao orders his men to kill Zuko during the attack.
The Fire Nation fleet arrives at the Northern Sea temple, and the battle ensues, during which Katara saves Master Pukka’s life with her bending skills. The main assault is a distraction as Zhao leads his men to find the Moon Spirit.. Iroh saves Zuko from the assassination by Zhao’s men, and helps him sneak into the Temple to kidnap the Avatar, but begs him not to; he tells Zuko that they could run away, and reveals the reason that Ozai is Fire Lord is because their father knew Iroh respected the spirit world.
Zhao battles his way into the sprit pool cave, but finds Aang waiting for him. They battle, but Zuko interrupts them, and helps Aang defeat Zhao. Aang argues with Zuko, that they should be friends, they fight well together. However, Zhao, badly hurt but still alive, kills the Moon Spirit, known as Tui, turning the moon red. The water benders lose their powers, and the Fire Nation dominate the battle. The death of the Moon Spirit knocked Aang out of his physical body and into the spirit world, where he meets the Ocean God (whom he has seen before but never recognised).
Aang battles the Ocean Spirit, Laa, who blames the Avatar for the death of Tui, for selfishly running away and allowing the Fire Nation to overrun the world. Aang admits he was wrong, that he is sorry. Meanwhile Zuko steals Aang’s unconscious body, but is confronted by Iroh, he tells Zuko he does not need to do this, and asks if his father’s acceptance is worth all this devastation. Zuko agrees with Iroh. They return Aang to the spirit cave, and Iroh, seeing Yue, says she has a part of the Moon Goddess within her, that she can restore the balance and become the new Moon Goddess. There is a teary goodbye between Sokka and Yue as she gives her lifeforece to the Moon Goddess fish.
Yue appears in the spirit world, and defends Aang’s actions to Laa. The Ocean Spirit says he will help Aang complete his final training in water bending. He joins Aang’s spirit. Aang wakes up in the physical world, in the Avatar State, his eyes and tattoos glowing. He uses his mastery of water bending to combat the Fire Nation. Laa wants revenge, but Aang stops him from destroying the retreating fleet, saying there has been enough killing. However, Zhao is still alive, and tries to kill Aang, but is thwarted by Zuko and Iroh. Laa says he wants his revenge, and breaks out of Aang’s body, dragging Zhao to the bottom of the ocean. Zuko and Iroh take their leave as the Northern Water Tribe celebrate.
Ozai is enraged to hear of the absolute failure of the mission, and of Zhao’s death at the hands of Zuko and Iroh. He has them classed as traitor’s, and charges his daughter, Azula, to kill her brother and bring the Avatar to Ozai.
They hold a funeral for those that died, including Princess Yue, sailing their bodies away on individual ships. Appa has recovered, and the trio head for the Earth Kingdom so that Aang may learn earth bending. Aang looks into the sky, wary of the warning about Sozin’s comet from Roku.
The final shot is of Toph Beifong, awaiting the Avatar’s arrival.