The four nations, Air, Water, Earth and Fire, are in utter turmoil. A hundred years ago, Fire Nation began waging a brutal war against the other three kingdoms, a war that continues to this day.
In a gambit to gain complete control over its adversaries, Fire imprisoned Earth's and Water's benders—individuals with the power to manipulate and control their kingdom's particular element. Worse, Fire's leaders set out to kill all of Air's benders, based on intel that a reincarnated avatar had been born into that tribe.
But they failed in that mission: The rumored avatar they sought to eliminate, the last airbender, is very much alive. He's a 12-year-old boy named Aang who's just beginning his training.
Aang is a once-in-a-generation avatar, and the only person capable of maintaining and restoring peace between the world's four kingdoms. Not only can he bend air, but he will eventually be able to control the other three elements as well. But when Aang discovers that being the avatar means he will never be allowed have a family, he shirks his responsibility and runs away … an event that plunges the world into war.
A century later, teens Katara, a waterbender, and her brother, Sokka, find the still-young Aang in the iceberg-covered wastes of the Southern Water Kingdom. (He's frozen and in state of suspended animation.) Katara and Sokka suspect Aang is the avatar, so they devote themselves to protecting and helping him. Unfortunately, Zuko, the firebending son of Fire Nation's evil king, is literally hot on their trail to capture Aang. He's accompanied by his wise uncle Iroh, who unsuccessfully tries to encourage his nephew to live in peace.
While fleeing from Zuko, Aang must come to grips with his grief over his own tribe's extermination. He must also face his cowardice—which led to the war—and his fear of the sacrifice associated with being an avatar.
And then there's the fact that Fire is still bent on annihilating all of its foes.
Katara and Sokka gladly shoulder the responsibility of protecting Aang. They guard him loyally as they journey together to the Northern Water Kingdom, where they hope to find a waterbending master to teach Aang that discipline. Along the way, Aang matures enough to recognize his failings and begin to correct them. He eventually does take on avatar responsibilities that require much self-sacrifice.
Aang exhorts a group of discouraged, war-torn earthbenders to live according to the honor, skill and power that are their birthright. Katara offers encouragement for Aang in tough moments. And Sokka vows to die for his sister if necessary. A woman says that wars are won in people's hearts. A young woman claims there is no love without sacrifice. And many of the characters in the film are willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of others. Aang spares Zuko's life, telling his enemy that they could be friends.
An elaborate subplot involves Zuko's deep estrangement from his father because the elder man wrongly perceives his son as weak. That part of the story illustrates, in a fractured way, how important father/son relationships are.
The movie also offers a positive father-figure foil in the character of Iroh. The veteran general embodies all the virtues that virtually every other character from Fire Nation lacks: humility, gentleness, thoughtful introspection. Accordingly, Iroh urges Zuko to put aside his sense of vengeance to marry, have a family and live a "blessed life."
Aang was raised and trained by monks, so it's no surprise that Buddhism and Eastern philosophies are the shaping spiritual forces in this film. The Last Airbender posits a world in which one person in each generation, the avatar, holds the key to maintaining the world's balance and peace. Aang grapples with the implications of such a heavy spiritual mantle. At first he flees. But when he sees the cost, he embraces the destiny that he can neither shirk nor escape.
Doing so means learning to master the elements. Several times, Aang seeks out "spiritual places" to train and learn. Water, he learns, is said to "teach acceptance," and he is told to allow his emotions to flow like that element. Growing into his identity as the avatar also requires slipping into trance-like meditation, where he communicates with a dragon spirit that gives him guidance in several key moments. The dragon spirit also tells Aang that by repressing his emotions he's preventing his true power from emerging. When the avatar is in deep meditation, his eyes and an arrow-shaped tattoo on his head glow a ghostly blue.
As for controlling the elements themselves, benders do so with dramatic body movements that bring to mind the Eastern discipline of tai chi.
Aang, we're told many times, is the latest incarnation of the avatar. If Aang is killed, he'll simply be reincarnated as the avatar in another person's body. This point is reinforced when Aang visits a temple that has statues of all the avatars—hundreds of them—who've come before him.
In order to prevent Water from increasing its power at night, Fire kills the moon spirit, which has taken the form of a fish. (An evil Fire general yells, "We are now the gods!" as the spirit dies.) A Water princess, however, sacrificially offers her own soul to resuscitate it, since the moon spirit did something similar for her when she was an infant. When the princess dies and her spirit lives again in the sacred fish, harmony and balance are restored to the world.
The Chinese concepts of chi, as well as yin and yang, are mentioned a couple times. Sokka talks about a miracle. Destiny is said to be repeated—the nations are said to be linked by it. People are said to have a specific purpose in life that they must discover.
Romantic sparks fly as soon as Sokka and a beautiful Water princess lay eyes on each other. They hold hands and kiss briefly.
There is little bloodshed in the film's multiple choreographed fight scenes, many of them martial arts based. But characters kick, punch, bash and slash at one another continually.
Several large-scale battles show soldiers on both sides engaged in close-contact warfare with knives and swords, scenes broadly reminiscent of, though not quite as intense as, the epic battles in The Lord of the Rings movies. Likewise, various benders in these battles unleash fire from their hands, create rumbling earth or ice walls, or cause tumultuous wind storms. Fire and water balls are thrown as weapons. Fire Nation cannons belch flames. Several characters are sheathed in ice. One evildoer is encased in a ball of water until he drowns.
When Aang discovers that his people have been wiped out in the war, the camera pans across a field of skulls and skeletons. Before he realizes where he is, he steps on and breaks a bone. Fire has menacing ships that plow through ice—and at least one of them goes up in flames during a massive explosion. In this blast it's thought that Zuko dies. An old man pulls a knife on Aang. Men in a dungeon hang from chains on their wrists, as does Aang.
Crude or Profane Language
Drug and Alcohol Content
A toast is made.
Other Negative Elements
Zuko's father favors his daughter and publicly humiliates Zuko.
Nickelodeon's wildly popular cartoon series Avatar: The Last Airbender originally aired from 2005 to 2008. At its high point, the series attracted more than 5 million viewers in the U.S. alone, and scores more fans in many different countries around the world. Now, Nickelodeon (and Paramount), with help from director M. Night Shyamalan (The Happening, Signs, The Sixth Sense), hope to harness that popularity as they launch the big-screen, live-action version of the franchise.
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Shyamalan calls The Last Airbender a "diverse, Buddhist, tentpole summer movie." And in a separate conversation with Relevant magazine, he added, "This movie is meant to make you believe, and indoctrinate you that there's magic in the world, and wake you up and make you think you're a kid again."
If there are two words in those quotes that deserve our attention, they're Buddhist and indoctrinate. Indeed, The Last Airbender is so thoroughly drenched in Tibetan Buddhist concepts and Chinese religious imagery that it practically feels evangelistic with regard to Eastern spirituality. Aang's meditation scenes, for instance, are nearly as frequent as battle sequences. And the film definitely emphasizes, perhaps even romanticizes, the idea that there are helpful spirits lurking out there just waiting to be contacted for guidance.
You can find some obvious parallels here to themes in the Christian story, too. Just as King Herod had infants killed at the time of Jesus' birth, for example, the Fire Nation wipes out Aang's tribe in order to prevent a future avatar from existing. And Aang sacrifices his own desires for the sake of the people he serves and saves, just as Jesus did. In that sense, Aang functions as an agent of redemption.
But we wonder how many folks who see this movie will be parsing this story's non-Christian spiritual worldview from that perspective. Especially the many young fans who are its intended and mostly likely audience. As Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan noted, "More than most films, Airbender is made for a 10-and-younger audience and a 10-and-younger audience alone."
Which begs the question: Does the 10-and-younger set really need a new film franchise encouraging them to slip into trances and talk to dragon spirits?