SET IN A STRIKINGLY IMAGINED world full of magic and kung fu, Nickelodeon's Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of those too-rare American cartoons that's heartfelt, funny, weird, and cool. It's also one of those too-rare American cartoons that's about people who aren't white—just as its world is steeped in Asian and Inuit cultures, Avatar's diverse, well-crafted characters give heft to what could otherwise be a boilerplate story of a young hero's journey.
At first, the fact that Hollywood's version of Avatar (now dubbed The Last Airbender, which likely makes James Cameron smirk a little) features a whole lotta white people seems merely disappointing, if hardly surprising. (In grand Hollywood tradition, the bad guys are allowed to retain a decidedly swarthy tint.) But director M. Night Shyamalan hasn't just whitewashed Airbender's cast—he's also sucked all the color and personality out of what should've been a hell of a movie.
It shouldn't be surprising, I guess, that Shyamalan fucked this up: His last movie featured Marky Mark fleeing from homicidal houseplants, and convinced even his most stubborn fans that he'd forgotten everything that made his early work—The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs—remarkable. But even with lowered expectations, Airbender is impressively shitty: entire scenes seem to be missing; a clumsy voiceover pounds out clumsier exposition; half-assed 3-D makes everything look like a pop-up book. Somehow, Shyamalan's taken a story about magic kung fu—magic kung fu, for fuck's sake—and made it boring.
This is broken, terrible stuff—and while it'll probably make anyone who watches it go to absurd lengths to avoid the cartoon on which it's based, maybe a few intrepid viewers will dare to check out Airbender's source material. Christ, I hope they do: Five minutes in, the cartoon will erase all memory of whatever the hell this thing is.