Review in a Hurry: In a martial-arts world divided into four elemental kingdoms—fire, water, air and earth—a kid with the ability to manipulate all the elements has the power to bring peace. Unfortunately, he was frozen in ice before he could learn to control anything other than air, and you'll be frozen catatonic by the most boring summer-action epic in ages.
The Bigger Picture: Director M. Night Shyamalan is, of course, best known for slow-burn, low-key suspense films that end with dramatic twists. And that probably makes him exactly the wrong person for a would-be epic like this adaptation of the popular animated serial Avatar: The Last Airbender (a show frequently mischaracterized as "anime," despite being made in America).
There's no major twist as such here—unless you count a minor setup scene for the sequel that probably won't happen—but The Last Airbender is extraordinarily plodding and dull for most of its run time, delivering a decent final battle sequence too late for many in the audience to care.
More Lord of the Rings à la Asia than Nicktoon by way of Japanimation, Shyamalan's take introduces us to unremarkable stiffs Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) and Katara (Nicola Peltz), who live in an arctic village and who one day discover would-be Golden Child Aang (Noah Ringer) and his giant six-legged air-bison Appa stuck under the ice. Noticing the arrow-shaped tattoos on his head, they deduce that he is the reincarnation of the Avatar (pronounced mostly herein as "ov-a-tar," presumably so as not to confuse him with a Na'vi), but soon must give him up to the evil Fire Clan, led by Prince Zuko (Slumdog Millionaire's Dev Patel).
But when the kid's air-bending skills and kung-fu get him out of trouble, Zuko is disowned by his father and replaced as bad-guy leader by The Daily Show's Aasif Mandvi, who seems to have hogged all the available Red Bull from craft services. Meanwhile, Sokka and Katara must take Aang to the capital city of the Water Clan, so he can learn the first of the three new skills he's supposed to be able to master. Along the way, Katara explains everything via intrusive and sometimes contradictory voice-over (for example, she refers to Aang by name prior to actually asking the onscreen Aang what his name is).
Considering that Shyamalan gave us Haley Joel Osment, you might expect him to work well with child actors, but apparently not. Peltz and Ringer are appalling at emoting; it's unfortunate that the one element people apparently cannot manipulate in this world is wood, as that would be the only way to extract a decent performance.
And if the soporific dialogue and somnambulant pacing weren't enough, there's the alleged 3-D, an effect mostly done after the fact, and seemingly only done on the CG effects. For most of the movie's scenes, you can take the glasses off and see a largely unblurred image.
Angry Asian advocacy groups have protested the fact that some of the characters have been cast against racial type, but there's no need to boycott this movie because of perceived insensitivity. Boycott it because it's crappy.
The 180—a Second Opinion: In the scenes where Aang actually does bust out the computer-enhanced martial arts, stuff gets fun. Shyamalan seems to know how to stage an action scene; he just doesn't seem to want to do it very much, and that's the problem.