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Why Waste Your Time On A Bad Movie? The Problem/Opportunity Of 'The Last Airbender'

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For the past several months, the most anticipated pop culture event of the year — in my household — has been M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender. The film is an adaptation of an acclaimed Nickelodeon animated series, an anime-style serialized epic (now concluded) that tells the story of Aang, a boy who can mystically manipulate the planet’s four elemental forces: earth, fire, water, and air. Together with his trusty friends Katara, Sokka, and Toph and a giant flying bison Appa, Aang must save the world from the megalomaniacal ambitions of the power-mad Ozai, the leader of The Fire Nation. Avatar is like Harry Potter built out of Asian culture influences. The best storyline involves Zuko, son of the evil Fire Lord, who undergoes a gradual, compelling redemptive transformation from enemy to ally. Think: Spike in Buffy The Vampire Slayer, minus the dark and kinky season 6 Buffy sex. If you’re not familiar with the show, I strongly encourage you to check it out: Avatar: The Last Airbender, as it’s called on Nickelodeon, would easily rank among my 20 favorite TV series of past decade. (See some video embedded after the jump.)

My kids would consider my appraisal too modest. My son, age 9, and my daughter, age 7, would tell you that Airbender ranks among The. Greatest. Things. Ever! They’re obsessed with the show, in the same way that I was obsessed with Star Blazers when I was a kid (and was obsessed with Lost as an adult). They’ve been pretty pumped for the Shyamalan movie, and I’ve been planning to take them to see it on opening weekend — that is, until I saw the first round of reviews, including opinions from Roger Ebert and our own Owen Gleiberman. All of them have been decidedly negative. Ebert gave it only a half star, blasting the movie by writing: “The Last Airbender is an agonizing experience in every category I can think of and others still waiting to be invented.” Gleiberman was less scathing, but concluded his review by saying: “The Last Airbender keeps throwing things at you, but its final effect is, in every way, flat.” He gave it a C. Rotten Tomatoes’ consensus opinion based on 59 reviews (56 of them rotten): “Despite flashy special effects, The Last Airbender squanders the potential of its popular source material on an incomprehensible plot, laughable dialogue, and a joyless sense of detachment.” Ouch.

Now, I always had some concerns about Airbender anyway, due to the curious, even offensive, casting choices. But now I’m really in a quandary. It sounds like the flick is going to be such a disappointment for my kids, I’ve been tempted to tell them about the disdain for the movie and encourage them to reconsider their desire to see it. Souring them on Shyamalan’s latest floppy folly would also save me from a wasted use of time — and save me the money. But maybe that’s selfish. Might it be crappy parenting, too? Perhaps informing my kids that the nation’s leading movie reviewers have deemed their dream-come-true to be a cinematic nightmare would rob them of a one-to-grow-on experience. Even if Airbender is enough to inspire my kids to throw spoiled fruit at the screen themselves, maybe I owe it to them to let them see the movie without the prejudice of other opinions and let them make up their own minds about it. After all, if you want to raise your kids to think critically about culture, you have to expose them to the good and the bad so they can discern the difference.

What do you think, Popwatchers? What would you do? Is a bad Airbender a good learning opportunity — or a waste of money? And in general: Is there a movie that you knew/were told was going to be bad but you felt you needed to see, anyway? If so, what movie was it, and why did you go see it?

Image Credit: Industrial Light & Magic