For the past few weeks, my husband and I have been watching Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender between our Netflix DVD rentals. So far, we’ve made it half-way through Book 2. My husband knew about the show years before, but I wasn’t aware of it until I saw a preview last month for M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender, which piqued my curiosity, thanks to my hopeless affinity for movies involving any kind of psychokinesis.
I have to say: I’m thrilled that there is a kids’ TV series out there (canceled though it may be) that blends Eastern and Western values. There’s that familiar American go-get-em, believe-in-yourself-and-you-can-fulfill-your-dreams attitude, as well as a healthy feminist strain throughout. But the show also promotes less familiar virtues, like flexibility and balance within oneself and in one’s interactions with others. It shows the complex humanity of all kinds of people, which breaks down that too-easy black-and-white paradigm with which our world is burdened. It shows the value of different kinds of people, from the lighthearted and transcendent Airbenders and the compassionate Waterbenders to the stolid Earthbenders and the passionate, impulsive Firebenders. That may, in fact, be the show’s greatest virtue: its lack of preference for one way or another, its ability to see the value and beauty of all cultures. I also love that the series addresses monism (i.e. the idea that everything is connected, the same and indistinguishable, and difference is an illusion) and the illusion of time (that it doesn’t exist beyond human perception). Those are heavy concepts — for kids and adults — but they were handled in such a way that I think an 11 year old could grasp it. It’s a breath of fresh air to see that kind of thinking in an American show and is the reason I watch.
Because I’ve become such a fan of the show, I’m a little wary of the upcoming film adaptation. Judging from the previews, it seems like it’s going to be a typical superhero action film that includes little of the philosophy of the TV series. From the little dialogue that’s shown in the previews, it seems to latch onto the American go-get-em, believe-in-yourself aspect of the series, but doesn’t make time for the Eastern philosophical aspect. Granted, you can’t really rely on previews to show exactly what the film is about, and they would naturally want to focus on the action and visuals as much as possible to appeal to a larger audience. I just don’t want them to do what was done to The Golden Compass — very little exposure to or explanation of the nature and philosophy of the world, but a lot of suspense and fighting. I’m afraid that two-thirds of the movie will be chase scenes or fighting sequences, rather than the journeys and discoveries of the characters that make the show meaningful. Still, I do plan on seeing the film (in 2-D? 3-D?) and am looking forward to it; I’m just not going to get my hopes up. If all else fails, it promises to at least be a visually stunning film in its own right. And who knows? It could end up being more meaningful than I anticipate. And I’d rather risk having a pleasant surprise than a disappointing experience.
Update: The movie wasn’t meaningful in the slightest. In fact, it was worse than I ever imagined. A voice-over actually narrated the action as it was happening and the plot was choppy and full of holes. The best I can say about it was that it was visually appealing. I think Shyamalan should stick to directing and let someone else write the screenplay from now on.