Noah Ringer plays Aang, the pre-adolescent “chosen one” who was supposed to be the next “Avatar,” the one who would bring balance to the universe, but he decided to run away from his great responsibilities, and managed to get himself encased in ice for 100 years, along with his pet flying bison (who looks like a cross between a Pekingese and a platypus). Apparently he didn’t like the idea that a Jedi, er, Avatar, could only exercise his great natural powers if he remained never married, and forever childless. (Maybe he’s on to something there. We all now know that required celibacy can produce some lamentable pathology.)
In the absence of the Avatar, the universe has descended into chaos. The people of fire have been conquering the people of air, earth, and water, and subjugating them mercilessly. In fact, the King of the Fire People was so enraged at his only son that he burned, and permanently scarred, his face, but Prince Zuko (Dev Patel, who catapulted to fame as the lead actor in “Slumdog Millionaire”), instead of rebelling against his impervious father, has decided instead to try to win back his favor by capturing the vulnerable-looking but powerful Avatar.
Fortunately for Aang, he was freed from his ice-prison by a couple of friendly siblings, Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone). They are of the Water People, and she is a water bender who needs practice (her comical ineptness being a source of childish humor). Once they discover that Aang is the Avatar, the Last Airbender, they are eager to help him overthrow the reign of terror of the Fire People.
But there’s a problem. Aang dropped out of school before he had completed his training, and now all his teachers are gone, as well as the entire school (destroyed and razed by the Fire People). So Aang and Katara find some water-bending teachers, and that instruction comes in handy during the big battle with the Fire People.
Yes, the siege is violent, but somehow somewhat bloodless, as well. The invaders are repulsed more than slaughtered, and even the sinister bad guy survives, now even more determined to succeed, by anointing his only daughter to reign after him. (Obviously they are setting up a sequel.)
The 3-D action is well-suited for this kind of fantasy fable. Though the story drags in places, and seems unduly complicated for a child’s tale, the best part is that the casting is solid, and the teenage actors really do carry this film. Try taking a child with you, and see the wonder of a new world appearing through their marveling eyes.
RONALD P. SALFEN is pastor, Grace Church, Greenville, Texas.