Saturday, 11 June 2011

Atlas Of Imaginary Worlds 14: World Of The Elemental Benders

Back in March, along with the 9-year old who lives in my house and his mother, I watched the movie, 'The Last Airbender' (2010).  This movie had been panned by critics who saw the special effects as poor and the story as very confused.  It was portrayed as the nadir of director M. Night Shyamalan's career.  Everything was apparently wrong with this movie, with even 'The Guardian' complaining that the word 'bender' (misused as an outdated derogatory term for transvestites and homosexuals) was used too much in the movie.  The movie is based on the very successful 'Avatar: The Legend of Aang' (2005-8) animated television series which ran for three seasons.  It was aimed at 6-11 year old children though was one of the most successful series for under-14s run in the USA.

The series is heavily influenced by various Asian cultures, the word 'avatar' being used in the sense that it is in Sanskrit, to be a reborn descendant of a previous incarnation rather than the way we tend to use it as a substitute for an individual operating in a different realm.  Interestingly, there are also elements of Western culture, notably the focus on the four elements: air, earth, fire and water, in contrast to the five Chinese elements, earth, fire, metal, water and wood.  The stories are set in an imaginary world, which I look at in more detail below, with tribes that are associated with one of the four elements.  Each tribe has 'benders', people who can manipulate their particular element for defence or offence.  Those bending different elements use different martial art forms: for air it is Bāguàzhǎng; for earth it is Hung Ga kung fu; for fire it is Northern Shaolin kung fu, notably with projecting kicks and for water is it Tai Chi.  There is reference to a person's chi (in Japanese ki) being able to keep them warm.

Each generation an avatar comes, a person with ability to manipulate all four elements, though originating in turn from among one particular type of people.  S/he is also able move into the spirit world to speak with the various spirits who control aspects of the world.  Whilst this seems somewhat like Shintoism, you have to remember that in the West, especially in Classical epics, heroes went into the Underworld to speak with the dead or the as-yet unborn.  In the movie and the television stories, the current avatar is Aang awoken from where he was frozen in ice.  He is the sole remaining airbender following the massacre of all other airbenders.  The key antagonists are the Fire Empire, with steampunk technology, and populated in the movie by people looking like those from our Indian subcontinent.  The earth people appear Chinese; the water people are Anglo-Saxon/Nordic in the South living like Inuit and in the North like Russians or Swedes of the 18th century and the air people, of whom we only see monks and nuns who are airbenders seem to be Tibetan or Khmer, as their culture seems Buddhist; this is poignant given that Aang wanders passed numerous shallow-buried skeletons in the movie in a location looking like Angkor Wat.

As to the movie's story being too complex, I would say if it can be followed by a 9-year old, then it is not overly complex.  Basically it is as follows:  the Fire Empire wants to conquer the world; a boy with powers is revived and helped by friends to gain powers; a son of the Fire Empire ruler tries to capture the boy to win back the affection of his father; both this son and the avatar are opposed by a power-hungry general; there is a climax in which the avatar beats the Fire Empire forces besieging a city and the emperor's son escapes, so setting up events for the sequel (this is supposed to be a trilogy).  The special effects are fine and are certainly as good as anything you would see in the 'Narnia' movies, in fact, used in a more imaginative way.  I think the key thing which upsets reviewers, especially in the USA, is that 'The Last Airbender', like 'The Golden Compass' (2007 which has people's souls manifested as animals) and 'Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief' (2010 featuring a demi-god son of Greek god Poseidon, growing up in contemporary USA) draw from concepts outside the Anglo-American interpretation of the Judaeo-Christian approach.  The Narnia movies (2005-10) and 'The Lord of the Rings' movies (2001-3) laud and even the Harry Potter movies (2001-11) appear to fit into.  In many ways these other movies bring a refreshing approach to fantasy rather than rehashing very tired concepts, yet that seems to open them up to harsh criticism, judging them on a different basis to fantasy movies from the kinds of contexts that so many reviewers seem to feel are the only acceptable ones. 

'The Last Airbender' is certainly far from being Shyalaman's nadir and in fact even as an adult I am interested to see what happens next, but I fear no sequel will never be made as too many reviewers have done a good job of burying this movie as they did 'The Golden Compass'.  I do also think that many UK-US reviewers have an issue with movies in which Asians are the lead characters; they have to be either poor people eliciting sympathy as with 'Slumdog Millionaire' (2008), comic characters like Jackie Chan's roles in Hollywood movies or the baddies as with Jet Li's roles in movies he has made in the West.  How long that attitude will be permitted in a world in which China and India wield such economic might remains to be seen.

Anyway, setting aside my view of the movie, I was interested to see what the world featured in 'The Last Airbender' looked like.  Maps of this world, for which I can find no name, feature in the movie and I was able to find a number online shown below.  Doing a search I found a number of interesting versions from a website called 'Deviant Art' but I avoided those as it seemed to be something pornographic and I worried that in some perverse way this setting was being suborned for inappropriate uses.

Maps of the World of the Elemental Benders

This one shows the different elements bent in the different regions.  Red is the Fire Empire, blue are the water nomads, beige is the earth regions and white are the air regions, though from what I know of the story all but one air bender has been killed, I assumed along with many of the people of these regions.  The water regions are polar, the other areas temperate or tropical.

A slightly different map including the symbols for the different elements next to the regions where they are predominant.

These maps show us locations appearing in the television series and the movie.  The Fire Empire laid siege to Basing Se for 100 days without success and in the movie goes to attack the main city of the water tribe of the North, but is defeated due to the intervention of Aang the Avatar who by this stage has mastered water bending in addition to air bending.

Looking at these maps we see classic elements of fantasy worlds which I discussed at length back in 2007-8.  There are the compulsory inland seas at the centre of the main continent.  Other features remind me of other fantasy locations.  The Fire Empire reminds me of Melnibone in the Elric series by Michael Moorcock:  The two polar regions look like distorted versions of Antarctica in our world.  Seeing the movie, I had wondered if it was set on our world in some distant future after significant geological changes.  We see a strange flying rodent creature large enough to carry people, reminiscent of the animal that carries the hero in 'The Never Ending Story' (1984) and there is a lemur-bat creature reminding of some of the envisaged evolved creatures in 'After Man: A Zoology of the Future' (1981) and the other similar books that followed.  The landscapes are pretty varied something the movie makes good use of and it is often difficult to tell when what you are seeing is not part of New Zealand and where it is CGI-generated, especially with the air monasteries.  This is an interesting fantasy series which adds another fantasy world to the canon.  In my view, if you have a child 11 or younger, ignore the view of the critics and rent the movie on DVD; you may find that, like me, you pretty much enjoy it too.


Anonymous said...

I think you've missed the point in a few areas. The main reason the adaptations you listed failed was due to them being unfaithful, badly directed, badly written or just plain bad and has nothing to do with them being "outside" the judeo-christian norm. In fact for "The Last Airbender many fans wanted to see a fully asian cast, as they felt it would be closer to the original series. Instead what was delivered was a cast where the heroes were whitewashed and the "villains" were of Indian heritage. This was made even more apparent by two of the main characters Sokka and Katara, seemingly of a culture akin to the Inuits in the television series, they had dark skin. In the movies they were, as I said earlier, played by caucasian actors, as was their grandmother, while every other background character in their village looked like they were of Inuit descent.

I disagree with your point also because the original series itself was largely based on Eastern mythologies and cultures and was hugely popular, thusly if the movies failed for the reasons you claimed them too would't the series have faced similar criticism and disregard. So I honestly have no idea where you pulled that idea from, it makes little sense.

Rooksmoor said...

Thank you for your robustly put viewpoint. I do not think you can judge the series and the movie on the same bases. As with 'Transformers' the market is very different. Far more adults watch the movie adaptations than would ever watch the television series.

I agree with you entirely with the portrayal of the villains in the movie as being the 'other', i.e. of an Indian background and that was one of the difficulties I was highlighting. Of course, with the story not all of those on the villainous side are as villainous as it at first appears.

You are right that the 'good guys' are 'whitewashed'. This is a common trend when dealing with 'alien' cultures. It is a device to allow a white audience to engage with the alien. As seen in 'Avatar', 'Dances with Wolves', 'The Last Samurai', 'District 9', etc. we are not permitted to see the story from the viewpoint of the 'other', we have to have the conduit of a white man to apparently allow us to engage with the other culture.

Of course, those of us who enjoy foreign movies do not need such conduits, but it is clearly felt by Hollywood that this is necessary for their target audiences, which seem to be by default, cineplex audiences in middle America, unsurprisingly.

I do not think we are as far apart as you make out. I like the concept of the series because of its use of Easten lore and my irritation was raised by the watering down of this for the movie, which seems to be your line as well. I think audiences are more sophisticated than the movie makers tend to think, but they are wedded to the patterns they have developed over decades. There is less 'risk' taken nowadays with Hollywood movies than there even was in the 1970s.

My hope is that more Japanese and Indian directors will come to stories like these. 'Howl's Moving Castle' is based on a novel by a white British woman, Diana
Wynne Jones but made by Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki and I felt that gave it a very different, better character than if a US director had taken it. Similarly I would love to see a version of 'The Last Airbender' made in Mumbai.

Rooksmoor said...

Just to amplify my initial point. Children are far more accepting of diverse cultures in series they watch than adults are. After all many children's stories feature fantastical creatures as the heroes, so they are far more used to seeing things from very different viewpoints. Adults are far less tolerant of diverse perspectives and want to see things they can engage with far more easily from their own cultural and viewpoint backgrounds. This is why the movie received criticism that was not levelled at the series.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reply, but I still have a bit of an issue with one of your arguments. The original series, have you actually seen it? While originally it may have been marketed at children, the first six to eight episodes specifically are very much set towards a younger market, the show in itself has a much wider range of viewers. I myself am nearly twenty, and was seventeen-eighteen when I was watching the series on television. Many fans that I know are far, far older than the six-eleven age group you've quoted. The most common I found, being active on the forums, were around the fourteen-twenty five age group. With the youngest being around eight and the oldest being over fifty, it is one of the most diverse in age fandom I have ever been a part of. I am aware that the younger audience members would not have been able to be active on internet forums (but you never know these days). My point still stands that adults watch, and enjoy, the series just as much as children, perhaps more. So I still think that the movie has just as much to answer for absolutely bungling a great concept.

I know that Hollywood has the problem of making a non-caucasian person the "hero", and honestly I wish they'd let go of their prejudice and focus on making good movies instead.

Rooksmoor said...

Anonymous, again, I think we are not as far apart as you suggest. Yes, I watched the series alongside the boy I mention in this posting, with him being around 7-8 at the time. I also discussed the series with the father of a 10-year old boy who also watched it with his son. I enjoyed the freshness of the approach of the story, one reason why I was keen to see the movie. I think it appeals to British men who were brought up watching the 'Monkey' series in the 1970s, which though more comical in style, had some parallels. It is based on 'Journey to the West' and its heroes are all East Asian: the monkey god, a humanised pig, a river demon and a Buddhist monk. It features lots of elements of Buddhist beliefs as well as lots of martial arts combat and magical element; Monkey himself flies on a cloud he can summon and has a staff which can grow to massive proportions.

My point of argument is around the different way in which movies and television series run at times apparently appealing particularly to children rather than a broader audience, i.e. Saturday mornings rather than early on Saturday evenings with series such as 'Doctor Who' designed to straddle, generations. You do not read newspaper reviews of such children's series in the way you do of movies, even 'children's movies'. The fact that I picked up all the comments about 'The Last Airbender' movie from the quality, liberal 'The Guardian' newspaper is striking, given I have never seen them mention the television series.

Thus, given the different context that movies are viewed in compared to television series, especially ones foreign to the UK, I was not surprised, but like yourself, frustrated that there was not an ability to tolerate a greater ethnic diversity among the heroes in the movie. I see this as being Hollywood playing cautious. If you remember the fuss that was caused around a Hispanic family being at the centre of the 'Spy Kids' series of movies, you can probably understand why. However, as you highlight, Hollywood's fears are stuck well in the past and they should be far more accepting of a diversity of leading characters in the way that the children in the audiences are.

Coming from a generation that ran around the playground pretending to be Lin Chung and the other 107 heroes of 'The Water Margin', I think such a shift in Hollywood's attitude is long overdue.

P.S. An interesting documentary on stereotyping of Arab characters in Hollywood movies that a friend of mine introduced to me is Jack Shaheen's 'Reel Bad Arabs', published as a book in 2001, but now available in movie version (2006) on YouTube directed by Jeremy Earp.

Anonymous said...

Okay, fair enough, thanks for clarifying your arguments. Honestly when it comes to the Last Airbender I get a bit heated, as it was a massive let down for me in more ways then just it being badly made/written/acted.

I actually don't remember a problem with the family starring in Spy kids, as at the time I was around about nine years old. I pretty much just accepted them as the main characters, which pretty much proves your point about children generally being more accepting.

P.S - Sounds interesting, I shall look that up :)

Rooksmoor said...

I don't think it was a 'problem' per se, but I did read in an interview with Antonio Banderas who plays the father in the Spy Kids movies that he felt it marked a departure for Hollywood that the family at the centre of the action were Hispanic. In Britain it always seems odd that the Americans distinguish 'Hispanics', which basically means people of Spanish background from 'European' Americans as actually in Europe no-one would say Spaniards were not European.

I think I enjoyed 'The Last Airbender' movie much more than you did anyway. I found the series dragged on too long; the story took ages to develop. However, I know that appeals to the target age demographic, you only have to watch how epic the 'Pokemon' series are.

Anonymous said...

Yeah I think you definitely enjoyed it more than I did. For me it was like having my fingernails removed with rusty pliers. The acting was terribly wooden and the dialogue was horrendous. Even if I wasn't a fan of the original series I would not be a fan of this film. The effects were decent.

I think on your second point we'll have to agree to disagree. I don't think that the series is too long, or drags out too much. In comparison some anime series are way longer and drag out for what seems like millennia. Avatar: TLA is short only twentyish episodes per series and every so often they have a episode that can be considered "filler" but generally they flesh out the characters and make them way, way more interesting.

Besides as you yourself mentioned they cannot be directly compared, at least in terms of this. A movie is always going to move faster than a series, they have less time to tell the story.

If you prefer wooden, one dimensional characters and stunted acting to brilliant, fleshed out characters with interesting well told backstories then that is your prerogative.