Don’t even consider seeing this live-action fantasy-adventure unless a) you’ve been watching the animated Nickelodeon television series, or b) someone with you is familiar with the storyline. Otherwise, it makes absolutely no sense, except that it’s obviously the first chapter in a hoped-for future franchise.
In this mythological world, there are four Nations marked by the elements: Air, Water, Earth and Fire. Within each nation, certain individuals have the telepathic ability to control their particular element. However, only an Avatar can not only control all four and also communicate with the Spirit World.
As the story begins, Katara (Nicola Peltz) and her brother Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) from a Water tribe discover a mysterious boy, Aang (Noah Ringer), trapped in a bubble of ice. He turns out to be the last Avatar, a.k.a. a Chosen Child. All the other Air Nomads and Avatars have been slaughtered by Fire Nation troops commanded by vicious Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis), who has shamed and banished his only son Prince Zuko (Dev Patel), until he can deliver the last Avatar to his father. Unfortunately, young Aang ran away from his Buddhist-like monastic teachers before he was able to master the four disciplines, so he must meditate and recall his lessons in order to defend the Water Nation against a new Fire Nation attack.
Writer/director M. Night Shyamalan – who succeeded with “The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable” and “Signs” but floundered with “Lady in the Water,” “The Village” and “The Happening” – fails grievously here. There are long expository speeches and the young actors are wooden to the point of being almost inert, reciting their lines by rote. To their credit, Dev Patel (“Slumdog Millionaire”) and Aasif Mandvi (Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show”) rise above the mediocrity that surrounds them. Some CGI visuality is memorable, particularly fantastical creatures like Aang’s airborne, six-legged bison buddy, lifted from Hayao Miyazaki. And the last-minute 3-D, converted from 2-D, doesn’t offer much. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Last Airbender” is a faltering 3, filled with incoherent inconsistency.