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.
August 20, 2012 @ 2:59 pm
That and apparently you can imprison earthbenders in a prison made of earth, and all you have to do to free them is remind them they are EARTH benders (you know, that stuff you are surrounded by), and they will do a weird group dance number.
August 20, 2012 @ 3:38 pm
There’s definitely many problems with the movie, but overall, for me, the thing that ruins the movie the most – is the TV show. You compare them and realize there’s no real point in watching the movie when the TV show is so much better.
Plus, I definitely agree about the shiny bits – both with the cultural appropriation and with adapting the TV show. It really felt like when they made the movie, they sat in a conference room and wrote down all the great PLOT points from season 1 that they needed to include and wrote a script from that but never bothered to list the great CHARACTER points that help make the show great.
Really, it’s sort of like the Cliff Notes version of season 1 – with some cool illustrations. Hits the main points, tells you who the characters are, and generally prepares you to pass a test on the story, not actually entertain you. Most of the facts with none of the joy.
August 20, 2012 @ 8:16 pm
I personally like to pretend this movie doesn’t exist. When movies are made from other types of media that I am a fan of, I try to go into the theater with the idea of not comparing the two, but rather seeing if it is a good movie in its own right. Sadly this one fails… majorly.
By the way, I really enjoy these blog posts. I discovered avatar a couple yrs ago and have re-watched it through several times. Its great to read about something I love being written by someone who loves all the same stuff about it that I do.
August 21, 2012 @ 1:33 am
I’ve noticed that people who have never seen the series can enjoy the movie, but I’ve never heard the reverse. I had liked the commercials (very pretty!), but I think the only way I could ever see the movie, at this point, would be if I could somehow treat it as entirely independent from the series. Not sure how that would work…
Jim C. Hines
August 21, 2012 @ 7:49 am
I think you’re right. As a generic fantasy movie, it’s … not great, but I’ve seen worse. It’s when you know what it could and should have been that it becomes utterly unforgivable (in my opinion).
Jim C. Hines
August 21, 2012 @ 7:50 am
Heh. I had the same thought about Cliff Notes — if you want an outline of things that happen in the first season, the movie will fill you in on most of those. But when you compare the experience and the power of the show to the movie … yeah.
August 21, 2012 @ 4:47 pm
… Viewing the approach of this movie, a friend and I comforted ourselves with the idea that he was making the Ember Island Players version.
August 21, 2012 @ 7:02 pm
That’s a much more positive way to think about it, thanks! *grin*
August 22, 2012 @ 5:08 pm
You’ve certainly piqued my curiosity about the series. I’m trying to think of someone I can finagle into watching it with me.
Your comment about the college kid w/ mall-bought Native American paraphernalia struck a chord with me. Forgive the link, but it reminds me of this:
And he’s not the only one I’ve seen/heard of. It’s wrong of me, I suppose, but I simply cannot stop laughing.
Jim C. Hines
August 23, 2012 @ 8:46 am
Wow. That’s certainly … interesting.
August 24, 2012 @ 7:24 pm
my fiance and I made a deliberate decision not to see the movie, even for free on netflix, but we have friends who saw it and were kind of amazed at how bad it was. Other than Mulan I honestly can’t think of any kid’s movies off the top of my head that have Asian/Asian American main characters. My only hope is that by the time we start a family my kids will be able to see themselves on the big screen. 🙁
Jim C. Hines
August 24, 2012 @ 10:53 pm
I hope so too…