The Last Airbender Movie and Cultural Appropriation

Last week I talked about the first season of Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Well, my son had been curious about the live-action movie, and when I saw it was on TV this weekend, I recorded it so we could watch it together.

I had heard some of the controversy about the casting choices. (I’m not going to rehash the racebending fail here, but seriously, Hollywood – WTF??? And every time we saw Katara and Sokka or their grandmother, I kept wondering why M. Night Shyamalan thought this movie needed white people playing Inuit dress-up.)

Overall … I’m just going to quote my son, who said, “Well, I guess there were some parts I kind of liked.”

This was almost a beat-for-beat imitation of the first season of the cartoon, but with all of the magic and wonder and brilliance sucked out of the story. I did like a lot of the visuals, the way the movie brought to life the images from the cartoon. There were some good set pieces, and I liked seeing live-action bending. But all in all, this movie perfectly demonstrates that there’s more to telling a good story than just an idea or an outline of plot points.

As I was watching, my thoughts kept going to some of the more egregious instances of cultural appropriation in storytelling, by which I mean those stories where an author takes the “shiny bits” from other cultures and uses them in his or her story without any real understanding of that culture. This was driven home again and again as I sat through the movie, particularly by the fact that they couldn’t even pronounce the main character’s name right.

Shyamalan had some shiny bits: the big fire-nation ships, Sokka’s boomerang whipping around, Aang’s glider, nifty scenery pieces like the water tribe city, and of course, lots of bending. And it all somehow managed to be both flat and hollow (which I would have sworn was a physical impossibility).

What makes Aang work in the series isn’t just his responsibilities and his pain; it’s his joy. Aang plays. He creates fun and joy and delight, even in the midst of tragedy. That’s part of his power. When that Aang tells Zuko he thinks they could have been friends, you feel it. Dang, do you feel it. But when Noah Ringer says it, it’s empty and boring.

It was interesting seeing Appa and Momo brought to life, and there were one or two vaguely amusing scenes with Appa, but once again they were just there. You don’t see Aang’s love for his animal companions. You don’t get any sense that Appa is Aang’s one remaining connection to his past. You could erase Momo entirely from the movie, and absolutely nothing would change.

And then there’s Zuko and Iroh. Oh, M. Night Shyamalan, no. We see hints of Zuko’s depth and conflict, but they’re fleeting. Momentary flashes to torture us with what could have been. And Uncle Iroh … such an amazing character in the cartoon. Confident and strong, at peace with his tortured past, so incredibly protective and loving of his nephew. He’s amazing. Like Aang, he has learned to find joy. Having lived through war, he’s learned the value of peace, but push him too far or threaten his nephew, and he will end you.

And for Iroh, M. Night Shyamalan brings us … some guy sprawled out getting a foot massage from a girl. A man who stands there and watches the moon spirit get stabbed, and then lashed out with impressive but utterly ineffectual firebending, which only makes him look more useless.

Shyamalan has said he’s a fan of the show, that his daughter dressed up as Katara for Halloween, and that he and his family used to watch Avatar together. During development, the creators of the show talked about how Shyamalan respected their material (source).

Maybe he is a fan, I don’t know. All I can say is that watching this movie gave me flashbacks to college and that white kid who filled every wall and surface of their dorm room with Native American stuff they bought from the mall.

Stealing shiny bits isn’t enough. Sure, it might look pretty, but when you don’t understand or respect the source of your story, you’re left with a shallow mockery.