I enjoyed it. It wasn’t nearly as good as the cartoon (more detail later), but taken on its own, for what it was, I thought it was OK. Not great, but certainly not deserving (IMHO) of the bashing it has received, especially relative to that other recent “Avatar” movie, which I thought was pretty bad (way worse than this).
It hit the main points of Season (Book) 1 of the cartoon. They obviously trimmed out a lot of detail, but that’s too be expected when condensing 20-something episodes down to a movie-length tale.
Keeping in mind the fact that I liked it – here are two of my nitpicks, followed by a general rant that isn’t specifically about this movie.
I’m not sure how prevalent this complaint is outside geek circles, but there is quite the controversy surrounding this movie in regards to the racial makeup of the cast. [Here's a brief overview of the main problem]
I think the problem as it relates to the main characters is definitely a bigger (perceived) deal to people more familiar with eastern or Asian cultures who were very aware of the ties that were present in the original cartoon (not as much in the movie), whereas it may not even occur to most other people, probably largely due to the manga-esque eye styling in the toon.
That being said, the voices for the main characters were spot-on, so that helped quite a lot. To be honest, I took much more of an exception (in regards to “racebending”) with the fire nation casting, but let’s not get off on that tangent.
Humor / Darkness
This was by far the biggest departure from the source material. The cartoon contained healthy doses of humor, usually coming from Sokka and sometimes uncle Iroh (my fave in the toon). In stark contrast, I can’t remember a single joke or humorous scene in this movie.
Even Aang is much more light-hearted (at times) in the toon. Sure, there were serious moments when he reflected on the reality of the things that had happened with the appropriate level of somberness, but in the movie they may has well just have changed his name to “Angst“. And this goes across the board for the whole story; I think when it came to chopping stuff out they just decided to eliminate all sense of happiness, which I don’t think was entirely necessary and definitely makes it a significantly different experience.
The biggest problem that has been bothering me about this started well before this film was released (or even made). It’s the general concept of re-doing stories that have previously been told (well, in many cases) in animated form, as if animation is somehow not quite good enough, and that something can only be really big or significant as a live action feature. I call BS.
Taking this as an example, while it was OK, I’d strongly recommend to anyone that they get the DVDs of the cartoon series and watch those instead, and maybe only follow up with the live action version if they’re interested. I have the feeling that for a lot of people who see this version first, it might turn them off from the cartoon, which would be a shame, since it’s so much better.
Just in case you don’t believe me on that yet, here’s exhibit B: Transformers. I don’t know about you, but personally I think the recent live action versions have been steaming piles. Yes, I know the original cartoons were essentially just long toy commercials… and yes, I realize that they want to show off their cool, ever-evolving special effects powers by putting stuff on the screen that’s more “believable”. The problem is that they often end up going overboard at the expense of story-telling. In TF, the millions of interlocking and spinning gears on each character may have been “impressive”, but for me, it just wasn’t as good as plain old boxy robots; sorry.
Now I also know that the reason they do it is because the dollars prove that most people do not share my position on this (with rare exceptions like Pixar), but I guess that’s really the primary target of my rant: people who for some reason can’t grasp the idea that great stories might be available in animated form, so they won’t even pay attention to any of them until someone “live-action”‘s them up. The problem is that conversion is almost always for the worse. I’m sure I’m forgetting some, but at the moment I can’t think of a single case in which the live action was better (IMHO) than the original cartoon.