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Avatar the Last Airbender (Live Action, Netflix 2024)

By Matthew Palmer

In a fantasy world inspired by a mix of non-Western cultures, there are four nations, each tied to one of the traditional Western elements: The Fire Nation, The Earth Kingdom, The Water Tribes and The Air Nomads. Each nation possesses a mystical martial art, ‘Bending’, which allows them to manipulate their element in spectacular fashion. Charged with maintaining the balance between them all and the mysterious spirit world that exists alongside them is the Avatar, a perpetually re-incarnating spiritual leader with the power to bend all four elements.

Aang, a happy-go-lucky thirteen-year-old, is the one who is burdened by that responsibility, but he disappears, and Fire Nation ruthlessly attacks the other nations, convinced of its own superiority. One hundred years later, Aang is found frozen inside an iceberg near the south pole by Katara and Sokka, a pair of siblings from the Water Tribe. They must all work together to travel with Aang so that he can learn all four elemental bending disciplines and save the world. Along the way, they are pursued by the exiled prince of the Fire Nation, Zuko, whose honour depends on capturing Aang and ending the biggest threat to the Fire Nation’s tyranny.

If you’ve been a fan of Avatar the Last Airbender since its release (or close to it), the knowledge that the series turns 20 years old in 2025 will feel somewhat like having your face stolen by Koh (that’s an inside joke). At the time, I don’t think anyone expected what started out as a well-made episodic kids’ adventure show would come to be so fondly remembered for its world-building, emotional depth and well-developed characters. It is a modern classic, with a still active fan base and tie-in media (like last year’s official licensed RPG) still being published.

After the much-derided 2010 film, which tried and failed to squeeze the 20 half-hour episodes of the first season into a little over 90 minutes, the established fanbase was not encouraged by news of a new Netflix adaptation, this time in the form of an eight-episode series. Even more concerning was that the original creators (Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko) left the project mid-way through development. It’s an unenviable task to adapt such a beloved work, especially when the weight of the internet’s reaction is bearing down on you like a Fire Nation battleship. Can this adaptation live up to the expectations of the fan community? Is the show worth watching for those who are not familiar with the original?

The answer, like the balance between the four nations, is complex. The animated Avatar is, at its heart, a kid’s adventure show, initially aimed at an audience of 7-13-year-olds (or thereabouts). The darker tone of the live-action adaptation is clear from the moment Fire Lord Azulon burns a spy to death in his throne room less than ten minutes into the first episode. This adaptation is clearly aimed at a teen or older audience. Gone is the lightness of tone, goofy antics and slapstick humour. Instead, our three protagonists must confront the reality and complexity of war. The colourful adventures in exotic locations have been replaced with a world visibly suffering the effects of a hundred-year war. Instead of learning an array of lessons about self-development, the creators have chosen to emphasise Aang’s personal responsibility for the state of the world, the balance he was meant to preserve. While it is admirable for the creators to strive to make this a mature story for broad appeal, this tonal change has two broadly negative impacts on the story. The first is that the constantly serious tone robs some of the pivotal moments of the story of their impact. When a show with a light tone goes serious, you can feel the impact more than when a serious show becomes more serious.

 The second issue is that many characters who were supportive and welcoming of Aang in the original are bitter and scarred by the effect that the war has had on them. A prime example of this is the Mad Genius king of Omashu, Bumi. Here, instead of a cunning trickster mentor, putting Aang through a series of trials to help him understand the value of thinking outside the box, he is tired and defeated from constant war and seeks to vent his frustrations on Aang, to the point of trying to get him to choose between saving his own life or Bumi’s, under the justification that as Avatar, he will have to make difficult decisions. I’ll remind you here that the protagonist of this show is thirteen years old.

Over the course of the series, many other characters seek to put Aang to task for his prolonged absence and blame him for the state of the world, even some of the previous incarnations of the Avatar, when he communes with them for guidance. Given the darker and more realistic tone that the show is aiming for, this could be reasonable, if not for one thing. In this version, Aang does not run away from home as in the original. Here, after receiving the news that he is the Avatar, Aang goes for a ride on his flying Bison (the much-underused Appa), clearly stating that ‘He just needs to clear his head.’ While doing so, he is caught in a storm, and the Avatar powers save him from drowning by sealing him inside the iceberg. He does not choose to abandon his home; he suffers an accident while doing something mildly irresponsible. As a result, Aang’s journey feels like it is accompanied by a constant stream of people gaslighting him into taking responsibility for something happening to him that he could not possibly predicted. This all comes from characters that originally helped inspire Aang to be the hero he was meant to be.

It’s also clear that the creators have a list of characters, events and stories from the original that they wish to bring into live action. They make an admirable attempt at this, but it does result in episodes feeling overstuffed with conflicting elements. The two-episode period in which the characters are in the Earth Kingdom City of Omashu tries to cover at least five stories from the original at the same time. As a result, none of them get the time devoted to them that they need, and I’m sure that their presence will not have the desired impact on viewers who are new to the franchise.

The show is not without merit, however. The production design is excellent. The costumes and sets are fantastic translations to live action. The cast is fantastic; Gordon Cormier embodies the spirit of Aang and has a fantastic range for such a young actor. Ian Ousley does a great job bringing Sokka’s trademark humour to show, which is sorely needed. Kiawentiio Tarbel lights up the screen as Katara, with all the genuine warmth and emotion that the character needs as the group’s heart.

The show also does a sterling job of adding original scenes to the story, especially concerning Zuko, expanding his relationship with his wise uncle and companion in exile, Iroh, and showing us more of his relationship with Fire Lord Ozai, his father, played with detestable sociopathy by Daniel Dae Kim. In the moments when the show lets its characters up for air and trusts its story, it is at its strongest. Episode 6, ‘Masks’, is the high point of the series, balancing Aang’s capture by the fire nation with flashbacks to Zuko’s abusive childhood and eventual exile.

Unfortunately, for this fan, those high points were not enough to save the adaptation overall. The action, fight scenes, and special effects could never measure up to the scope of what is possible in animation. The vastly different and more serious tone was not what I was looking for from this franchise, one I have always associated with its sense of fun and lightness of tone. It may be that those coming to the story for the first time may enjoy the show, but if they are tempted to then seek out the original, they may experience some major cognitive dissonance over the differences between the two.

Should the Netflix gods grant this show a second season, it may give the creators time to trust their story and not try so hard to pander to superficial elements of the original. I hope they get that opportunity despite my mostly negative review. After all, the original show allowed its creators to grow and layer deeper storytelling over its three-season run. Creators these days do not often get that opportunity, but the potential is here in the cast and in the story. I hope the cast and the crew get the chance to either draw on the strengths of the original or find their own more confident identity.

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