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I didn’t know what to expect when I went to see “The Last Airbender.”  I knew it was a cartoon on Nickelodeon and that it was M. Night Shyamalan’s newest release.  That was about it.  Knowing that M. Night was the director put the chances of “The Last Airbender” being good at a 40/60 split-with the good being at the 40 percent level.  At the time I didn’t know if the director had written it as well.  If I had, those odds would have gone down to 30/70.  And I would have been wrong.  Very wrong, I’m happy to say.

I don’t know if it was having lower than normal expectations or just knowing that it was modeled after a kids’ cartoon that made the resulting product such a pleasant surprise but surprise and entertained I was!  Yes, it’s still basically a children’s fantasy project but there’s nothing childish about “The Last Airbender.”  Think of it more as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” for kids with a twist of “The Never Ending Story.”  More to come on that later.

The story itself can be a little confusing at first.  Set in a mythical time and place, 4 nations representing Earth, Wind, Fire and Water were living in harmony when the Fire nation waged war against the others.  Avatars are able to control one of those elements but only one has the power over all elements.  A small boy named Aang (Noah Ringer)
is the latest in a long line of those special Avatars.  During his training he gets angry and storms off, never to be seen or heard from again.

One hundred years of war have passed when a brother and sister unknowingly discover and release Aang.  Together they all embark on an adventure to put the Fire Nation back in place and restore peace.

Taking cues from the animated series, the movie is a stunning combination of real life martial arts battles mixed seamlessly with CGI worlds of wonder.  I saw it in 3D and the image was crisp and clear.  In spite of all the fantasy, there wasn’t a big use of the 3D element to enhance thrills so you might save yourself some money by seeing it in 2D.  I don’t think you’d miss much.  The costumes and sets were lavish and had an Asian/Mongolian feel to them.  The art direction is impressive.  No matter what you think of M. Night’s talents as a writer, he is a very good director.  His knack for composing compelling imagery really gets to shine in “The Last Airbender.”

While the cast is very young and inexperienced, they do an impressive job.  Keep an eye out for the girl who plays Katara.  As the feisty waterbending sister who finds Aang, Nicole Peltz is a real winner.  And surely Jackson Rathbone as her brother Sokka has a bright future, too.  Though he is fairly underused in this role, he gets to take a bigger bite out of screen time with his appearance as Cullen clan vampire Jasper Hale in “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse”.  What an opening weekend he’s going to have!  He can’t lose!

The rich fantasy world in “The Last Airbender” even includes a huge fury creature that takes the kids from nation to nation by flying and swimming!  That just added to the coolness and was oddly reminiscent of “The Never Ending Story.”  Kids are sure to love this epic tale of good vs. evil where kids are the heroes.  And parents are sure to be entertained by this kid movie that reaches up to them not down.

“The Last Airbender” manipulates 3 & 1/2 Red Vines for being a quality epic film for families

LADIES ROOM LOWDOWN:   I saw this movie at the new Picture Show theatre in Paradise Valley Mall.  With black leather like seats and $1 hot dogs this new theater is super cool!
And hey, keep an eye out for M. Night Shyamalan’s super quick cameo.  His Hitchcock like appearance includes one line but with a hooded cape on, he is easy to miss!

A preview of this movie was provided to me by the studio but it in no way effects my unbiased review.