Wednesday, June 30, 2010

"The Last Airbender": Do We Take Our Kids?

By Martha Nichols for Adopt-a-tude

As I watched the trailer last weekend for The Last Airbender with three eight-year-olds, two of whom were Asian adoptees, I knew I was doomed. Even as they hissed at each other that Aang's tattoo was wrong—where's the blue arrow??—they were hooked by the special effects, just as they were meant to be.

M. Night Shyamalan's summer action extravaganza is set to open July 1, gunning for a big holiday weekend. The first review I read this morning was in the Boston Globe, and others are popping up online as I type. What's the initial verdict? Ty Burr of the Globe writes:
"The Last Airbender is dreadful, an incomprehensible fantasy-action epic.... The film probably should have stayed a cartoon; live-action kills it dead."
I should be doing a gleeful air-dance like twelve-year-old Aang, the movie's namesake and Dalai-lama stand-in. In Salon and elsewhere, I've been writing for months about the casting controversy—three of the four main characters from the anime-inspired Nickelodeon cartoon series are played by white actors in Shyamalan's movie—as have many Asian-American activists, including cartoonists like Gene Yang.

Today Roger Ebert tweeted a link to what he calls "The best writing I've seen on the racist casting of 'The Last Airbender.' Devastating." It's by Vietnamese blogger Q. Le at Floating World.

We should feel vindicated.

Well, of course I do. It seems that Shyamalan's auteurish blindness about casting white actors in Asian roles represents benighted moviemaking throughout. Burr says of Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone, who play the brother-sister heroes Katara and Sokka, that their "crime, again, isn't that they are Anglo but just painfully dull."

Here's the thing: My son—an adoptee born in Vietnam—broke into tears two weeks ago when he thought I was going to forbid him to see the movie. He knows I've been railing in print against the racism implicit in the casting, so he assumed he'd be sitting at home while his friends all streamed to the theater and Airbender parties.

This is one of those unlovely damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't, white-adoptive-parents-trying-to-be PC quandaries.

I assured him he could see it if he wanted to; that anything else would be unfair. I have strong opinions about it, I told him earnestly, but they don't have to be your opinions. It's OK, it's OK, it's OK.

No, it's not.

In fact, I wonder what his opinion will be. We'll do our best to boycott the film this opening weekend— activists and others are calling for a boycott of at least the first two weeks in order to put a dent in Airbender's take—but I doubt we'll make it past July 4, considering that he wants to go with friends.

Or as my husband wryly put it this morning, "If it's a real dog, we better not wait more than one weekend."

Here's the other thing, though: It won't just be a matter of suffering through a reeking mess for two hours. The main media spin will be the trials of M. Night Shyamalan—so gifted! so much potential!—what curse is the great director suffering under?

Burr's review begins like so: "The Last Airbender has had more bad karma than almost any movie deserves." He details its "litany of disasters," from the cartoon's main title (Avatar) being ripped off by James Cameron to pissed-off fans to the last-minute 3-D forced on the film to the director's string of flops. Burr notes that it would have been great if Shyamalan had overcome the odds, perhaps like young Aang himself, to produce a winner.

Scott Mendelson writes in his Huffington Post review, "As a film from the man who once wrote and directed such films as The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, it is a heartbreaking tragedy, a 'sign' that perhaps the once-great M. Night Shyamalan is truly 'broken'."

So Shyamalan the Fallen looks like the main review focus, rather than the persistent whitewashing of Hollywood films. I confess to my own secret hope that The Last Airbender would be good, even awe-inspiring. At least then my Asian son and I—not to mention other parents and fans of all races and creeds, adoptive or bio—could have had a real discussion about whether casting decisions should reflect the racial and cultural referents of source material.

If Peltz, for example, had turned out to be a great Katara, then I'd be willing to eat a few words. But given that it sounds like "great" doesn't describe anything here—as Christopher Kelly ends his review in the Miami Herald, "It's a little early to be saying this, but I'd wager good money that you won't see a worse movie this year"—I'm left with the utter cluelessness and cynicism of Hollywood. Of the lousy 3-D, Burr of the Globe writes, "I've got winking-Jesus postcards that look better."

Which means The Last Airbender deserves every bit of its rotten karma. I'd lead with "One bad decision begets another...and another...and another."

Like Fire Lord Ozai and his evil daughter Azula, give me some real opposition, please. Otherwise, where's the fun?

The best outcome may be that a few of the money-people behind movies wake up. When I watched the trailer with my son and his friends last weekend, we were in a theater to see the re-make of The Karate Kid—a movie with people of color in all the main roles.

My advice? Despite the postcard-romantic scenes of China in the new Kid, it had a lot to offer my kid. If you can avoid the Airbender juggernaut, don't let it give Jackie Chan a run for your money.

This is a revision of a post that also appears on Open Salon.