I'll admit I am not a huge fan of Shyamalan's work. I think the man did superbly well with 'The Sixth Sense' and simply couldn't live up to that heart wrenching tale. (some of what I'm about to write is better articulated here: http://scifiwire.com/2008/12/is-m-night-shyamalans-last-airbender-casting-racist.php)
Now here is the crux of the matter - and it has as much to do with Hollywood as it does with Shyamalan himself as a *cough* director. Why Paramount Pictures would get him to write, produce and direct 'Avatar: The Last Airbender' is beyond me. Firstly, the movie content may not be all that bad in terms of a standard blockbuster which promises thrills and no substance. Again. Yet this is part of the point: this is adapted from the hit Nickelodeon animated series. The key word is 'adaptation' but I cannot abide the loose term of the word which somehow gives permission for Hollywood studios to literally leach the story of any value simply to get as many bums on the seats as possible: forget staying power or longevity. 'Adaptation' of a story loved by many - and for real reasons because the narrative encompasses good plot lines, character development and amazing settings as well deep, thought provoking themes - should not mean you can hash it any way the execs want. It should be respected. Yes, film is another medium from literature and television but if you are going to make a movie version, stick to what makes it great; you have a sure win formula - if its a hit TV series already, what have you got to lose?
Now this includes CASTING - possibly one of the many overlooked processes of film making, simply because Hollywood wants to saturate us with the same troupe of 'blockbuster' actors despite the fact they bear little resemblance to the role in question - since when did it become ok to adapt the character to the actor and not the other way around? It already smacks of disrespect because you're preparing to diverge from the story just to have a particular 'face'. Yet this speaks of various western films out there, so why is 'The Last Airbender' any different? Because it's a cast full of Caucasian or Middle Eastern actors, save Dev Patel. The story is actually one that includes a host of Asian and non-Western characters; clearly referencing Japanese, Chinese, South Asian, Indo-Chinese and Inuit cultures. What I think is blatantly appalling here is that if they are willing to cast Western actors in the roles, then how are the Eastern influences, which are so integral to the narrative, going to come across? Simply put - they won't. Oh, well in that case it's not going to have the right 'ring' to it. Moreover, it flies in the face of Eastern Mythology (from which the whole concept of 'Avatar' arises), and Eastern religion. Yes, people, I have used the word 'religion' (keep in mind, religion is acutely different in the eastern world than it is in the west). Oh but it wouldn't do to have the Eastern World throw their hands up on such grounds; we don't tend to make a fuss of the abuse of Buddhism over the last century, thanks to the Western spin on it. Though, it makes one wonder what it would have been like if the shoe had been on the other foot and the integral Western folklores that have arisen out of Levant religions had been so 'lightly' adapted. (Put more angrily in a Facebook post: 'The story will no doubt fail to highlight the important ethical and spiritual nuances the original tv series did. this might as well count at blasphemy, flying in the face of Ancient Eastern philosophy.')
At the end of the day, it's institutionalised racism, thank you Hollywood; they are assuming the story won't be consumable if they actually did the right thing and cast Asian actors, or at least American actors with Asian ethnicity. What a real shame that Shyamalan is in on it and doesn't have a back bone whatsoever. Taken from article: '"Sure the world of Avatar isn't our world. But here's something which pulls apart the argument of those who say casting white people for Katara and Sokka is OK. If there was a cartoon mythology based on African culture, and because of the magic, it was clearly not our world, does that mean when you make a movie about it that you'd hire white people to act on the subject matter, which is based on African culture? Or reverse that. If there was a cartoon mythology based on British culture and history, if you turned it into a movie, would you get Africans to play the main characters? I think the respectful thing to do is to hire people to play the characters who actually have something to do with the source culture the mythology is based on.'
The casting of Dev Patel is another huge blow for fans and the story itself, simply because Prince Zuko is probably one of the most interesting characters in the tale and it requires an actor with gravitas and nobility, and a certain rawness - none of which Patel has, for all his wide eyed, skewed Mumbai accented performance in 'Slumdog Millionaire'. Oh and did I mention that Zuko is clearly Far Eastern? He's not South Asian! I really would like to know what on earth the casting director was doing - or probably NOT doing because obviously they weren't doing their job, they just jumped on Patel's success with 'Slumdog'; what an utter disgrace. (This is a complete SELL OUT!) Lastly, the icing on the cake, as it were, is the casting of the title role itself, the character of Aang, who in the series is clearly Asian, possibly Nepalese or Tibetan which would have resonated better because the Air Nomads' culture is that of the Himalayan Buddhist cultures. I hope Shyamalan can face up to this disgrace and sleep in the knowledge that he sold out the Asians and has earned our disrespect.
No matter what the outcome (or superficial success) of "The Last Airbender", it will not live up to the TV show at all.