In the world of the series there are four nations, each based around the traditional elements of earth, air, fire, and water. Some members of the nations are known as "benders", those who posses the ability to bend their nation's element to their whim. Only the Avatar has mastery of all four elements; a super-being who is tasked with maintaining peace between the nations. As the story opens the last Avatar mysteriously disappeared over 100 years ago.
Uncontested by the Avatar, The Fire Nation has become the military power of the world and has amassed a large steam powered navy. Upon the discovery that the Water Nation harbors the last known Airbender, and who they believe to be the Avatar, they attack.
The first season of the show is the basis from which the movie is drawn. It begins with the fallout of
DVD cover art of the animated series
the Water Nation's discovery of Aang, a young boy who happens to be the last known member of the long-extinct Air Nation.
The disgraced and banished Fire Nation Prince Zuko discovers Aang, and seeing his one opportunity to regain his honour takes Aang captive. A few simple tests are done by Zuko's kindly Uncle Iroh to confirm that this boy is indeed the Avatar, but Aang escapes using his remarkable airbending skills, leaving Zuko to continue his pursuit and to try and keep this discovery from his conniving rival Commander Zhao.
Aang, along with Katara, a waterbending girl, and her brother Sokka, must accept and reclaim his place as the Avatar and stop the Fire Nation's campaign of war on the world. To do this he must master the other three elements under the tuition of a master, so the trio make their way to the Northern Water Tribe, a grand ice fortress that has never been breached by the Fire Nation.
Here Aang must master waterbending, and the mysterious spiritual power of the 'Avatar State' when his power is at its greatest. But the Fire Nation, having learned of the Avatar's existence, are amassing a huge armada of steam-powered warships to mount an assault on the Northern Water Tribe.
Writer/Producer/Director M. Night Shyamalan on the set of THE LAST AIRBENDER
M. Night originally became interested in the property when he was curious about his daughter insisting on being dressed up as Katara for Halloween. Out of curiositiy Shyamalan looked up this character and saw she was a cartoon, and decided to take a closer look at this show his children seemed to love so much.
Upon watching a bunch of episodes of the first series with his family the Indian-born Shyamalan became enamoured with the show's blend of martial arts action, Eastern-based philosophy and quality storytelling. Supposedly, at his wife's urging, he made several late-night phone calls to inquire about the status of the rights to adapt the series into film.
Soon after that, Shyamalan signed on to develop a live-action adaptation of the series. This was before the third and final season of the show had even began airing. But in that time Shyamalan spent time consulting with the show's creators, Bryan Konietzko and Michael DiMartino. Together they hashed out a workable story arc for the film trilogy, although the creators have played down their involvement in the film and receive no official credit in the writing of the film. But they retaining 'Executive Producer' credits.
In the meantime Shyamalan made THE HAPPENING for Twentieth Century Fox. A film that, despite dismal reviews, made over tripleits modest production budget in worldwide box office.
Pre-Production and 'Race-Bending' Controversy
Immediately after THE HAPPENING was released work on AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER commenced.
Everyone knew that the 'AVATAR' title would not be feasible in the wake of James Cameron's upcoming epic. So the title of THE LAST AIRBENDER was decided upon and production began in earnest. Once production began it was announced that they would be producing only one film at a time, a cautious approach after the failure of so many fantasy franchises in the wake of the tremendous success of LORD OF THE RINGS.
The first rumblings of fan dissent came with the inital casting of pop singer Jesse Mccartney as Prince Zuko. Fans were concerned that the cast may end up being 'white-washed' and the ethnicities of the show's characters would be ignored. The series was heavily based around various Asian and Inuit cultures, the inspiration of which heavily informs the design of the world and the characters.
Soon McCartney dropped out of the film to be replaced by Dev Patel, a British actor and martial artist of Indian heritage who gained world attention for his starring role in Danny Boyle's Oscar-winning SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE.
Fans' suspicions and anger at what they dubbed 'race-bending' boiled over with the casting of the very white Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone as Katara and Sokka, two Water Tribe kids who's dark complexion in the show came from the Inuit culture on which the Water Tribe was based.
Immediately the fans bombarded official and fan sites with petitions and protests that the film was racist, casting white actors in roles meant for Asian and Inuit actors. Shyamalan and producer Frank Marshall fielded these complaints publically, claiming that there was no prejudice in the casting process. This was something the fans didn't quite believe, especially with the additional casting of Arabic and Maori actors in the villainous roles.
Ironically there was little of that fanfare when Noah Ringer was cast in the lead role as Aang. Ringer, a 12 year-old Taekwondo champion, looked remarkably like his cartoon counterpart.
Like his scripts, Shyamalan's sets are extremely secretive to outside scrutiny.
Shyamalan directing his young actors.
Production began on the icy glaciers of Greenland to simulate the Southern Water Tribe for the film. From there the production moved to Pennsylvania, Shyamalan's home turf. There additional location shooting was done, as well as enormous sets, such as for for the Northern Water Tribe, were built in sound stages.
The Northern Water Tribe set.
Critical Reception and Box Office
Upon its release THE LAST AIRBENDER was roundly reviled by critics and fans of the series alike. With a mere 6% rating on RottenTomatoes.com the film was consistently derided for it's rushed, incoherent plot, flat performances and terrible dialogue.
Suki (middle) and the Kyoshi Warriors from the deleted sequence.
Fan reaction was possibly even more scathing, especially at the excising of the popular character of Suki and her band of fighting women, the Kyoshi Warriors, who become a major part of the plot in the subsequent story. While significant sequences involving the characters were shot Shyamalan said that he would not put those scenes on the DVD, instead putting them into the second film, should it even get made.
The film slowly made back it's $150 million production budget in the US before opening internationally and making a respectible $300 million . But with a reported marketing budget of $130 million it remains to be seen if this is considered profitible enough to continue to make the next two films.
Many pundits have compared this picture to THE GOLDEN COMPASS, another expensive fantasy franchise starter that failed to take off, leaving the rest of the series unmade.
Undaunted by the film's poisonous critical and fan reaction Shyamalan has mentioned that he has written a screenplay for the second film "that I am very happy with"
Shyamalan has also said that before he makes LAST AIRBENDER 2 he has a small psychological thriller (possibly with Bruce Willis) that he wants to do first, as well as overseeing his new low-budget horror shingle known as 'The Night Chronicles'.
Summer Bishil as Azula
At this stage a second film has not yet been greenlit by Paramount. But presumably it would follow the second season of the show as Aang and his friends move into the Earth Kingdom in order for Aang to master earthbending. There they meet 'Toph Bei Fong', a little blind girl who happens to be the world's greatest earthbender. Together they must foil the Fire Nation's plan to take over the mighty Earth Kingdom city of Ba Sing Se while facing a ruthless new villain in Prince Zuko's sister 'Azula', who is glimpsed in the final moments of the film.