Maybe when the kids are back from camp we won’t go see The Last Airbender after all. The kids love the original animated series (called Avatar: The Last Airbender, but to avoid confusion with the Cameron film they dropped the A-word), which I find to be smart, funny, and ultimately very deep. My daughter had always had doubts about a live-action version of the story, and according to Gawker’s roundup of the early reviews, it looks like she was right. This is Roger Ebert:

“The Last Airbender” is an agonizing experience in every category I can think of and others still waiting to be invented. The laws of chance suggest that something should have gone right. Not here.

And, incredibly, it gets worse. Then there’s the New York Times:

After 94 minutes — was that all? I could have sworn it was days — of muddy 3-D imagery and muddled storytelling, the idea that this is just the first “Last Airbender” seems either delusionally optimistic or downright cruel. An astute industry analyst of my acquaintance, who is 9 and an admirer of the Nickelodeon animated series on which the movie is based, offered a two-word diagnosis of its commercial prospects on the way out of the theater: “They’re screwed.”…

The problem — the catastrophe — of “The Last Airbender” is not in the conception but the execution. The long-winded explanations and clumsy performances are made worse by graceless effects and a last-minute 3-D conversion that wrecks whatever visual grace or beauty might have been there…. So the best way to watch “The Last Airbender” is probably with your eyes closed.

Apparently the 3-D is singularly bad. The Chicago Tribune calls it “the latest 3-D offering in theaters, yet barely functional in 2- or even 1.”

Even The Onion is not amused:

Shyamalan lets his unimpressive special effects do the work for him while coaxing performances from his young cast that make Jake Lloyd’s performance in The Phantom Menace look studied. [ed: OMFG OMFG OMFG] (Star Noah Ringer, who plays a messianic figure who might unite the warring forces, delivers his lines as if reading a book report, and his older co-stars don’t fare much better.)

And they’re not the only ones who think the acting is bad:

Newcomer Noah Ringer, who plays the title role of Aang, a messianic child with the power to manipulate the elements, is woefully miscast. Not because he’s white, but because the kid can’t act…. Ringer brings less than zero gravitas to the role. He makes the kid who plays Gibby on “iCarly” look like Sir Lawrence Olivier…. Making matters worse are Ringer’s young castmates. Playing Katara and Sokka, Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone are stiff and awkward. Short of a screen test, it’s hard to imagine less convincing line readings.

I admit I was a little taken aback by the whitening of the main characters (Katharine Hepburn’s niece as Sokka and Katara’s grandmother? really?) but that turns out to be the least of the movie’s problems, and the whole project will accelerates M. Night Shyamalan’s downward spiral. That’s a shame, because I really liked The Village (it kind of reminds me of my kids’ school), and you get the sense that he’s trying hard to do interesting things, even if he often fails. (As one commenter said, “so the twist is that it sucks? he’s done that one already.”) I think I’ll just watch the cartoons again.

[To the tune of Willie Nelson, “September Song,” from the album Stardust (a 3-star song, imo).]