M. Night Shyamalan has a massive plan in mind for “The Last Airbender” — a patient film trilogy that presents a fantasy epic and also grows progressively darker as its young characters (and actors) mature in front of moviegoers.
That brings to mind both “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and the “Harry Potter” franchise, and, as you might imagine, that has stirred excitement among executives at Paramount Pictures who would love to have a magical franchise that pulls in billions of dollars at the box office. But because the stakes are so high, there has also been considerable behind-the-scenes hand-wringing because of a nasty fan backlash on a touchy subject — race and casting.
Check the venting and venom we heard in more than 100 comments that followed an “Airbender” post in January. Here’s how one reader summed it up: “I am one of the many who is seriously disappointed that characters who are non-white have been cast with white actors. Only the villain is allowed to be played by a person of color. I expected better of Mr. Shyamalan.”
Shyamalan has responded to the threat of revolt. In a breakfast meeting with a circle of journalists and bloggers, the director said he has always cast his films with an open spirit, and that anime, such as the source material for “Airbender,” is about blurring the race boundaries of the real world and embracing something more uplifting.
Here, for instance, is how he was quoted by Meredith Woerner at io9.com in a lengthy post that goes deep into topic of the planned mythology and clearly reveals the filmmaker’s passion for the property:
“Here’s the thing. The great thing about anime is that it’s ambiguous. The features of the characters are an intentional mix of all features. It’s intended to be ambiguous. That is completely its point. So when we watch Katara, my oldest daughter is literally a photo double of Katara in the cartoon. So that means that Katara is Indian, correct? No, that’s just in our house. And her friends who watch it, they see themselves in it. And that’s what’s so beautiful about anime.”
He also says:
When I was doing “Sixth Sense,” if you literally read the script he [Cole Sear] has dark hair, black eyes. I always pictured the kid from “Searching For Bobby Fisher” as the lead for “Sixth Sense.” And I said, “We are not hiring any blond L.A. kids, OK? Don’t even bring them in.” Then Haley [Joel Osment] came in and I said, “You’ve got the part.” How can you not have him play this part?
That’s always been my lean. I have hopes of what I want them to be, my hope was that the movie would be incredibly diverse. That when we look back on all three movies, that it is one of the most diverse movies of all times. And that is the case when you watch the movies. And it’s not an agenda, like when you see a picture of a kid’s school and they have everybody on the swings. It’s not like that.
There’s a lot more in Woerner’s piece, and “Airbender” fans (whether they be optimistic or angry at this point) should check it out. Again, you can find it here.
We’ll have a lot more on this film (and, I suspect, this topic)
– Geoff Boucher
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Upper photo: M. Night Shyamalan. Credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times
Lower photo: A scene from “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” Credit: Nickelodeon