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M Night Shyamalan. is an odd choice to direct a special effects-laden adventure based on the popular Nickelodeon animated TV series, Avatar: The Last Airbender.

After all, this is the filmmaker who allowed us to see dead people in The Sixth Sense, created a modern day superhero in Unbreakable and allowed an enraged Mother Nature to slaughter most of mankind in The Happening.

The Last Airbender is a very different beast: a big budget journey of discovery, punctuated by sprawling battle sequences on a similarly grand scale to The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, that relies heavily on spectacle rather than substance or Shyamalan's famed narrative twists.

The writer-director juggles the myriad technical elements.

But occasionally, unconvincing digital effects, looking more like a cartoon than live action, let him down.

Moreover, some of the performances are more wooden than the gargantuan sets, creating repeated moments of unintentional hilarity that cuts through the dramatic tension.

The worst offender is a seemingly innocuous line from a village elder about her young charge being "the last bender" for miles.

Orphaned siblings Sokka (Rathbone) and Katara (Peltz) find a young boy called Aang (Ringer) frozen in the ice near their village.

The tyke is covered in strange tattoos and the siblings surmise that Aang must be the Avatar, destined to manipulate the four elements (air, water, earth, fire).

No sooner have the children arrived back at their village than outcast Prince Zuko (Dev Patel) from the Fire Nation and his soldiers capture Aang and hold him hostage aboard their ship. Thankfully, the prisoner escapes and begins the journey back to his temple, accompanied by Sokka and Katara.

Meanwhile, Zuko's father Fire Lord Ozai (Curtis) entreats trusted Commander Zhao (Mandvi) to find Aang and prevent the boy from achieving his destiny.

The Last Airbender screens in 3D in selected cinemas.

But the increasingly popular format was an afterthought, so don't bother paying the additional ticket prices for the honour of wearing those uncomfortable plastic spectacles.

A caption card at the beginning reads Book One: Water and it quickly becomes apparent that this is the first film in a potential series.

But it's hard to see subsequent chapters ever making it to the big screen.

Ringer is a likeable hero, struggling to comprehend his preordained path, and Patel wrings as much pathos as possible from his underwritten role as the exiled prodigal son.

Watery special effects aren't convincing and a pivotal scene in which one character sacrifices their life for the good of mankind fails to bring a tear to the eye.

"Aang will begin to win hearts, because it's in hearts that wars are won," proclaims one sage.

Regrettably though, in the battle for our hearts and minds, Shyamalan comes up short.


ADVENTURE: Noah Ringer as Aang in The Last Airbender, Dev Patel, right, as Prince Zuko and Nicola Peltz, above, as Katara
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Wales On Sunday (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Aug 15, 2010
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