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Did the 'Airbender' adaptation ever have a chance?

By Brandon Ancil, CNN
The characters Aang, Katara and Sokka, from left to right, undergo substantial changes from their TV series beginnings.
The characters Aang, Katara and Sokka, from left to right, undergo substantial changes from their TV series beginnings.
  • "The Last Airbender" movie is adaptation of animated TV series
  • Some fans of show boycotted movie because three lead actors are Caucasian
  • Movie is being panned by many critics
  • Movies

Atlanta, Georgia (CNN) -- "An agonizing experience," wrote Roger Ebert.

"Colossal folly, the fiasco of the summer of 2010," said Roger Moore in the Orlando Sentinel.

Merciless reviews are rolling in for M. Knight Shyamalan's latest work "The Last Airbender," and if critical reaction to the film is any indication, the casting controversy that had some "Airbender" fans boycotting the film may be an afterthought. See's interview with M. Knight Shyamalan.

"It wasn't what I expected," 22-year-old Jake Sims said on his way out from a midnight showing in Atlanta, Georgia. "I'm a fan of the series; I've watched it. This just didn't do justice to the characters. It wasn't nearly as good as the series, but OK if you've never heard of 'Avatar' -- this 'Avatar,' I mean."

"Avatar: The Last Airbender" was an animated television series that ran for three seasons starting in 2005 on the cable network Nickelodeon.

The series takes place in a world of magic and mysticism where humans are separated into four racially distinct nations, each identified by their dominance of a natural element. A select few from each nation are known as "benders," or people who have the ability to manipulate their nation's element.

A legendary leader in this world is the Avatar, a reincarnated being who is the master of all elements. The show follows Aang, a potential avatar who is found to be the last Airbender on earth after his people, the Air Nomads, are wiped out by the Fire Nation.

Aang is on a journey to master all of the elements and bring peace to the world.

The show appealed to fans from a broad range of ages and interests, showcasing martial arts, action, mysticism and comedy. The show also dealt with themes like redemption, internal struggle, honor and friendship.

Like many beloved entertainment franchises, fans are dedicated to "Avatar."

Although the animated series has ended, the "Avatar" world is thriving. With the close of the TV series, fans began writing "Avatar" fan-fiction with alternate storylines and created role-playing discussion boards online.

Some fans of the show said they boycotted the movie because the three lead actors are Caucasian. Blogs like "Angry Asian Man" and sites like attacked Shyamalan and the film's parent company, Paramount, for white-washing a franchise that was overtly Asian in appearance and sensitivity.

"We tried to be as careful as we could not to directly base anyone's culture on a [real world] culture because we wanted to borrow ideas," said head "Avatar" series writer Aaron Ehasz. "The series is clearly Asian inspired with obvious Chinese influences. In the case of the water benders, they are definitely based [on] ... indigenous cultures, a la Inuits, but also indigenous people like those portrayed in the movie "The Whale Rider."

In fact, to be culturally sensitive in the production of the animated series, Ehasz said the team had a consultant, whose "job was to read the scripts and essentially make sure they were culturally sensitive."

In an interview with Shyamalan hit back at critics, pointing a "race-bending" finger at them.

"I'm always surprised at the level of misunderstanding, the sensitivities that exist," he said. "As an Asian-American, it bothers me when people take all of their passion and rightful indignation about the subject and then misplace it."

While Ehasz was responsible for crafting the characters millions watched, he was left out of the creative process of the film. "I made up the middle of this movie and the ending of this movie, and I have zero credit on this movie," he said.

Longtime fans like Robbie Park say that lack of involvement was a big mistake.

"That guy should have been with them; the movie team. There were plenty of parts of the movie where there were holes," he said.

While some fans said they enjoyed the big effects -- like the element bending and martial arts -- some fans missed the characters that kept them watching the show.

"Aang was funny and serious and Katara was weak but strong," said 26-year-old Nicole Martin. "None of that came through like it did on TV."

Dr. Caroline Ruddell, a professor of animation and cinema at St. Mary's University College, said that TV-show fan reaction to the movie will likely be an issue for its box office success.

"When things like anime or animation are exhibited or remade into live action, it's always going to be very difficult. So many of the live action versions of comic books have been panned because their fans are very hard to please," she said.

Regardless of his involvement in the film, Ehasz said he hopes "the characters I built come through in this movie, regardless of casting."

"I hope this is a huge artistic success. I hope that fans who watched the show get something out of it. I hope that this is a way that the show lives on and comes stronger," he said.

Eugene Rivers, special to CNN, contributed to this report.