By Jeff Giles
April 16, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT
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STARRING Noah Ringer, Nicola Peltz, Dev Patel, Jackson Rathbone
DIRECTED BY M. Night Shyamalan
WRITTEN BY M. Night Shyamalan

The director M. Night Shyamalan has a supernatural knack for casting kids. He coaxes performances that feel real, even as the kids in question see dead people or hear aliens on the roof. His latest, The Last Airbender, is unlike anything he’s ever directed. It’s not an unnerving thriller with a twist ending, but an epic fantasy and (hopefully) the first part of a trilogy. Still, The Last Airbender has a spiritual tint, just as The Sixth Sense, Signs, and all Shyamalan’s movies do. And if the film works, it’ll be because its young cast does a lot of heavy lifting: busting out some tricky martial arts; fighting in battles where air, water, and fire are weapons; and delivering us from evil, amen. As Shyamalan says of his star, newcomer Noah Ringer, ”It’s very difficult for a 12-year-old to carry an action movie.”

Shyamalan adapted the film from Nickelodeon’s animated show Avatar: The Last Airbender. (He had to drop the first part of the title — seems someone else was using it.) Ringer plays Aang, who must unite the Air, Water, and Earth nations against the genocidal Fire Lord. Aang is aided by a spirited girl (Nicola Peltz) and her brother (Twilight‘s Jackson Rathbone), and hunted by a disgraced Fire prince (Slumdog Millionaire‘s Dev Patel). Last year, on the set, Shyamalan seemed both elated (”That they’d let me make such a diverse, Buddhist, tentpole summer movie — it’s unbelievable!”) and jittery (”Yes, I’m nervous. I’m scared to death, which is a prerequisite for being a director, I think”).

Now that the film is nearly finished, he’s back to his old upbeat self: ”Look, it’s gonna sound so biased coming from me, so take it with a grain of salt — but it’s my best movie.” Shyamalan credits the young cast for the film’s heart. Of Peltz, who’s 15, Shyamalan says, ”I’m probably a poor director to direct her because I think she’s just amazing.” And as for Ringer, now 13: ”He cares about justice and human rights — he’s literally incapable of hurting another human being.” But when evil is on the march? ”He’s a brilliant martial artist and he’s ready to fight.”

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