Thus Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) and his sister Katara (Nicola Peltz), members of the Water Tribe, are startled by Aang (Noah Ringer), a 12-year-old airbender who emerges from an icy embryo in the sea near their village. Aang has serious skills; might he be the One?
Certainly Prince Zuko (Dev Patel), son of Fire Lord Ozai, thinks so, as he tries to catch and vanquish the elusive martial artist who conjures whirlwinds to defeat his opponents. Unbound by gravity, Aang darts past and levitates above those who would capture him.
The fantasy is made complete by Appa, a six-legged bison resembling a tamed version of one of Maurice Sendak's Wild Things. Appa transports Aang to places where he can learn how to bend water, earth, and fire and thus achieve universal equilibrium.
Unfortunately, this all proceeds at a supersonic tempo, with Shyamalan's directorial finger stuck on the fast-forward button. Significant plot points whiz by in this movie equivalent of speed-dating.
The production design (by Philip Messina) is jaw-dropping and encyclopedic in its cultural references. The kingdom of the Northern Water Tribe resembles a dream Angkor Wat; the hall of avatars is a fantasia on the terra cotta warriors of Xi'an; the palace of the Fire Lord is Alhambra meets Taj Mahal.
The evocative costumes (by Judianna Makovsky) are likewise eye-popping, ranging from coarse nomadic cassocks to silky robes with delicate embroidery.
Similarly, the special effects (courtesy of Industrial Light and Magic) are unusually effective, especially when Katara conjures water balls and plays soccer with them.
All might have been even more effective were Messina's imaginative worlds and Makovsky's vivid costumes not drained of life by a 3-D retrofit that debases their obvious artistry into diorama cheesiness. (In other words, see this in 2-D.)
In sum: Loved the look of the film, hated the 3-D, thought some of the performances clunky and felt that way about the dialogue, too.
Shyamalan compresses a ton of plot exposition in every line and the resulting heavyosity is too much for the younger actors to carry. At many points I was reminded of Harrison Ford's crack to George Lucas on the set of Star Wars: "You can type this [stuff], George, but you sure can't say it."
Though Rathbone falls short of bringing Ford-style levity to his Han Solo role, Ringer is nimble as Aang and Patel Shakespearean as Prince Zuko, emotionally torn between trying to please his tyrannical father (Cliff Curtis) and following his own heart.
There's been a lot of bloviating in the blogosphere about how Shyamalan whitewashed Airbender by casting Caucasians Rathbone, Peltz, and Ringer.
Whitewashed? Apart from the film's look, the film's biggest strength is in the performances by Patel (Anglo-Indian), Curtis (Maori), and Aasif Mandvi (Anglo-Indian). One can lob many gripes at Airbender, but lack of ethnic diversity is not one of them.
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl/