Monday, November 29, 2010

A Great Movie and a Movie That Grates

Toy Story 3 and The Last Airbender (both 2010)

I recently had the opportunity to sit through a double-bill of two blockbuster movies released in theaters this year. Both had large budgets, veteran film-making crews, and audiences familiar with the tales. But where one was a magical journey involving a makeshift family, the other was a loud, ugly mess. The movies I’m speaking of are The Last Airbender and Toy Story 3 (guess which was the ugly mess).

It was very informative to watch these two films back to back. Where Airbender got everything wrong, Toy Story 3 got it right. The Toy Story movies have always benefited from the lead voices of Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, as Cowboy Sheriff Woody and spacey spaceman Buzz Lightyear, respectively. Unlike the casting decisions of other animated movies, Hanks and Allen were not cast simply for their marquee value, but because they were perfect for these characters. The voice actors for all the other toy characters are spot on as well. In Toy Story 3, I was surprised it was Ned Beatty breathing life into Lotso, the huggable bear with less than huggable intentions, but he was the right choice.

Airbender, which is based on a popular Nickolodeon cartoon series, is set in mystical countries with a heavy Asian bent, but all the main (child) characters are Caucasian. In the beginning, we see an Eskimo-like village where all the elderly people appear to be Inuit, but the adolescent lead actors – a pair of which come from this very same village – are all white kids who looked like they took a bus from the local galleria. The characters in the original cartoon are all Asian, but you can see the studio execs saying, “We don’t feel Asian actors would carry the movie in most major markets, so all the good kids need to be Caucasian, mmm-kay?” It’s at this point that writer/director/producer M. Night Shyamalan should have quickly removed himself from the movie.

Toy Story 3 tells a simple enough story: the little boy Andy is now grown up and heading off to college. What will happen to all his old toys? Will they be disposed of with the garbage, tossed in an old box in the family attic, or perhaps given away to a kid or kids who will play with them? Airbender tells us there are four nations who control the elements of fire, water, earth and air. We see each nation has helpfully color-coded itself so we can tell them apart from one another (the fire nation wears red, the water nation blue, etc). There is the mystical chosen one who can control all four elements, so everyone wants this dude. The trouble is they found a martial artist for the lead (Noah Ringer), instead of an actor. This kid is terrible (which shows you how good Haley Joel Osment was in The Sixth Sense under the guidance of the same filmmaker, Shyamalan).

I’m just going to say it: The Last Airbender is a stupid movie. If the lead kids were terribly interesting actors that might have helped to elevate the thing, but the fact is they were all flat and unappealing. They all looked like they would comfortably fit on any Disney Channel series. Jackson Rathbone, who played Sokka, the young Han Solo/Madmartigan-wannabe NEVER blinked his eyes. It was unnerving at first, then annoying, then just totally silly (it was suggested a drinking game be centered on his unblinking peepers). I never once believed in any of these characters. I was watching actors act (unlike, say, in the Harry Potter series where all the characters are so vividly brought to life).

The scenes of characters “bending” or manipulating the elements were laughable. Apparently to control the elements you have to do a ton of martial arts flourishes – basically a lot of shadow boxing. With all the different styles of martial arts out there, you’d think that perhaps each element would have its own style: something extremely fluid for water, short quick movements for fire, and something “heavy” (or at least less fluid) for earth. This was not the case as each bender seemed to be doing the same flourishes for their respective element.

Toy Story 3 showed us that by keeping the story and characters first and foremost on everyone’s mind, the third outing for a franchise need not be a dull retread. I liked that it was a simple story – apparently one idea for TS3 was that the toys go to China or Hong Kong to save a malfunctioning Buzz. That sounds like something any studio would do, but Pixar wisely jettisoned that idea and kept things close to home (literally and figuratively). They kept the main group of Andy’s toys, but added a few new key characters in Lotso and Ken (Michael Keaton, doing an outstanding job as the lone male action figure in a line of girl’s toys). They even managed toss in an homage to Cool Hand Luke's infamous "spends a night in the box" speech!

That’s not to say Toy Story is all talk and emotions. There are some great action sequences, including a conveyor belt scene that was top notch in terms of pacing, but it also packed an emotional punch.

The Last Airbender left me annoyed and angry that I’d wasted 2 hours watching another failed big budget studio fantasy effort. Toy Story 3 made me laugh and smile and even brought a tear to my eyes at the end, so this double bill wasn’t all bad.