Shya­malan tries to bend air, ca­reer

Austin American-Statesman - - AUSTIN 360 BETS - By Clau­dia Eller

M. Night Shya­malan is go­ing for the Happy Meal.

The di­rec­tor who be­came a prodi­gal Hollywood suc­cess with his haunt­ing sto­ries of the su­per­nat­u­ral be­fore stum­bling badly with his last two pic­tures hopes to stage a come­back with a movie in­volv­ing two giants of the con­sumer ex­pe­ri­ence: Nick­elodeon and McDon­ald’s.

Shya­malan’s lat­est film, “The Last Air­ben­der,” which opens to­day and will be re­viewed Fri­day, marks a sharp de­par­ture for the filmmaker, whose 1999 block­buster “The Sixth Sense” shot the then 29-year-old di­rec­tor to fame and for­tune. The fan­tasy ad­ven­ture story based on the Nick­elodeon an­i­mated TV se­ries ‘Avatar: The Last Air­ben­der’ is aimed squarely at kids and fam­i­lies, a genre and au­di­ence that the filmmaker has largely es­chewed.

Now, to get back on track af­ter the huge com­mer­cial and crit­i­cal dis­ap­point­ments of “The Hap­pen­ing” and “Lady in the Wa­ter,” Shya­malan is seek­ing the only re­demp­tion that Hollywood rec­og­nizes — a movie with fran­chise po­ten­tial and plenty of brand­name recog­ni­tion. He even met with the movie’s pro­mo­tional part­ner, McDon­ald’s, which is serv­ing up “Last Air­ben­der” Happy Meals, and shot and ap­pears in TV spots sell­ing “Last Air­ben­der” Flip video cam­eras.

The filmmaker, who en­vi­sions “Last Air­ben­der” as a tril­ogy, said the Nick­elodeon se­ries in­ter­ested him be­cause it lent it­self to “long-form sto­ry­telling” and en­com­passed ar­eas of per­sonal in­ter­est: mar­tial arts, mys­ti­cism and spir­i­tu­al­ity.

Nick­elodeon’s “Avatar: The Last Air­ben­der” aired from 2005 to 2008 and cen­ters upon Aang, a young avatar who con­trols the el­e­ments of wa­ter, fire, air and earth and holds the power to re­store peace to a wartorn world.

“The Last Air­ben­der” also rep­re­sents a big gam­ble for Para­mount Pic­tures. The Vi­a­com Inc.-owned stu­dio and sis­ter com­pany of Nick­elodeon fully fi­nanced the movie, in- creas­ing the risk should it per­form be­low ex­pec­ta­tions. With a pro­duc­tion cost of $150 mil­lion and a block­buster-size $130-mil­lion mar­ket­ing bud­get, “The Last Air­ben­der” is more than twice as ex­pen­sive as any of Shya­malan’s pre­vi­ous eight films.

And given Shya­malan’s re­cent misses, some have ques­tioned Para­mount’s wis­dom in hand­ing him such a large-scale project, es­pe­cially one de­signed to carry the stu­dio at the height of the pop­corn movie sea­son. But Para­mount Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Brad Grey said he’s not wor­ried.

“Like ev­ery filmmaker, Night has had his hits and misses, but I be­lieved in his vi­sion and that he could ex­e­cute it,” Grey said, adding, “It’s a bold step be­cause he had to cre­ate a po­ten­tial new fam­ily fran­chise.”

Af­ter sev­eral years of toy­ing with the idea of mak­ing a larger-scale movie, Shya­malan said he fi­nally set­tled on “Last Air­ben­der” af­ter watch­ing the Nick­elodeon se­ries on DVD with his then-7-year-old daugh­ter, who was taken with the “em­pow­ered” fe­male char­ac­ter, Katara.

He called Grey to pitch him the idea of adapt­ing the show into a movie.

“That be­gan a long odyssey and dance to get the movie of this scale ap­proved,” re­called Shya­malan. “It’s hum­bling to think of the amount of trust they had in what I was say­ing. This isn’t a small movie.”

There were other de­par­tures for the di­rec­tor from his past prac­tice.

“Last Air­ben­der” is the first film Shya­malan has made that wasn’t based on his own idea.

The movie’s ex­ten­sive vis­ual ef­fects and 3-D shots made it the most tech­ni­cally com­pli­cated pro­duc­tion he has over­seen. And the shoot­ing lo­ca­tion in in­hos­pitable Green­land was only the sec­ond time Shya­malan had shot a movie out­side his long­time home near Philadel­phia.

Zade rosen­thal

M. Night Shya­malan, front, meets with young ac­tors Jack­son Rath­bone, Ni­cola Peltz and Noah Ringer on the set of ‘The Last Air­ben­der.’ Writer, di­rec­tor and pro­ducer Shya­malan is aim­ing for a com­mer­cial suc­cess with ‘Air­ben­der,’ based on a chil­dren’s TV se­ries on Nick­elodeon.

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