Netflix’s Avatar: The Last Airbender sparks but never blazes as bright as the original

When Netflix unveiled its plans to adapt Avatar: The Last Airbender in 2018, fans were both intrigued and cautious. The prospect of a live-action rendition of one of the most cherished animated series of all time sparked curiosity, alongside a healthy dose of skepticism. For many, it represented an opportunity to rectify the missteps of M. Night Shyamalan’s ill-fated 2010 venture. However, for purists, the idea of adaptation felt akin to sacrilege. After all, the original show, which aired on Nickelodeon from 2005 to 2008, is revered as a masterpiece of animation—a captivating blend of intricate world-building and profound storytelling, addressing weighty themes like morality and self-determination with rare grace.

As the Netflix debut drew nearer and fan debates raged on social media, a consensus began to emerge: Could any live-action iteration truly capture the essence of the beloved animated series? And, at the very least, would it fare better than its cinematic predecessor?

Netflix’s Avatar ultimately occupies a middle ground. Arriving over half a decade after its initial announcement, the series boasts a fresh creative team and a youthful, enthusiastic cast of newcomers. The outcome is a delightful yet imperfect adaptation—one that undoubtedly surpasses the shortcomings of the 2010 film, yet falls short of reaching the soaring heights of its animated inspiration.

Avatar: The Last Airbender. (L to R) Gordon Cormier as Ang, Kiawentiio as Katara, in season 1 of Avatar: The Last Airbender.

In Hollywood, the trend of bringing beloved animated IPs to life in live-action form is nothing new, and Netflix has had its fair share of successes and disappointments in this realm. The latest entrant into this arena is the new Avatar adaptation, which adheres closely to the original series while opting for longer, hour-long episodes. Drawing inspiration from real-world Asian and Indigenous cultures, the Avatar universe is comprised of four nations—water, earth, fire, and air—each inhabited by individuals with the ability to manipulate or “bend” a specific element. However, the peace is shattered when the Fire Nation wages war against the other nations, resulting in a century of conflict after wiping out the peaceful Air Nomads. Amidst this turmoil, hope emerges in the form of the Avatar—a powerful being capable of mastering all four elements and reincarnating across generations. The current Avatar, a spirited 12-year-old airbender named Aang (portrayed by Gordon Cormier), faces the daunting task of balancing global responsibility with the challenges of adolescence.

Emerging from a 100-year slumber at the South Pole, Aang embarks on a journey to master all four elements, accompanied by his waterbending friend Katara (played by Kiawentiio) and her resourceful brother Sokka (portrayed by Ian Ousley), who injects the series with his memorable wit. Together with Aang’s faithful flying bison Appa, the trio navigates the landscape while evading pursuit from the exiled Fire Nation prince Zuko (Dallas Liu), driven by his quest to capture the Avatar and earn his father’s approval, Fire Lord Ozai (portrayed by Daniel Dae Kim). The camaraderie among Team Avatar’s youthful members is palpable as they engage in lively banter and forge deep bonds while journeying across the skies on Appa’s back. Noteworthy is the casting’s commitment to authenticity, with a deliberate choice to exclusively cast Asian and Indigenous actors. Cormier’s portrayal of Aang captures both the character’s sense of wonder and the weight of his monumental responsibilities, skillfully balancing moments of levity with the series’ more profound themes—a true homage to the original.

Despite the show’s endearing lead performances, its primary drawback lies in its visual presentation. Adapting a visually stunning animated masterpiece like Avatar into live-action seems to have dulled its vibrancy in certain aspects. One of the original series’ defining features was its rich world-building, showcasing Team Avatar’s adventures across diverse landscapes, from icy oceans to bustling cities and lush forests. However, the Netflix adaptation, while retracing these same steps, falls short of capturing the original’s allure. Swapping hand-drawn animation for CG spectacle, the series employs StageCraft “Volume” technology, popularized by Star Wars and Marvel projects. Consequently, it sacrifices its unique visual identity for a glossy, formulaic sheen that fails to stand out amidst today’s television landscape.

Amidst this visual letdown, there are occasional bright spots. In one instance, Aang and Katara practice waterbending beside an actual river, their interactions with the environment adding a touch of authenticity. However, such moments only serve to accentuate the show’s overreliance on the Volume technology.

Despite these visual shortcomings, the storyline remains faithful to the original series, albeit with a few thoughtful adjustments. Notably, the inclusion of Zuko’s volatile sister, Azula (played by Elizabeth Yu), early in the narrative adds depth to the Fire Nation subplot. Azula’s relentless pursuit of her father’s approval and her Machiavellian schemes to outdo her brother intensify the familial dynamics within the Fire Nation. Moreover, Daniel Dae Kim’s portrayal of Fire Lord Ozai exudes a menacing paternal authority, offering insight into Zuko’s internal struggles and his quest for acceptance. Dallas Liu delivers a compelling performance as the conflicted young prince, torn between loyalty to his father and the wisdom imparted by his Uncle Iroh (portrayed by Paul Sun-Hyung Lee).

Avatar: The Last Airbender - Dallas Liu as Prince Zuko

When Bryan Konietzsko and Michael Dante DiMartino, the creators of the animated series, initially spearheaded the Netflix adaptation, fans were hopeful for a faithful rendition. However, their departure in 2020 due to “creative differences” cast a shadow over the project. Albert Kim stepped in as the new showrunner, expressing his deep admiration for the original series, a sentiment evident in the live-action adaptation. Many iconic moments from the animated series are faithfully recreated, from the bustling streets of Omashu to the mystical landscapes of the Spirit World. The series is brimming with Easter eggs that will undoubtedly thrill fans, including nostalgic nods and beloved characters like the cabbage merchant making a return.

Despite its meticulous attention to detail, the new Avatar raises an important question: Who is its intended audience? With promises of a “slightly darker” tone, the series aims to appeal to both nostalgic millennials and a new generation of young viewers. However, a successful adaptation requires more than just nostalgia; it needs to offer a fresh perspective or thematic depth. While Netflix’s Avatar remains faithful to its source material, it lacks a distinct identity of its own. Without a compelling reason to differentiate itself, it inevitably falls short in comparison to the original series.

In the realm of adaptations, the most successful ones offer a unique interpretation or expand upon the original narrative. For instance, Disney’s live-action adaptations vary in quality, with innovative films like Pete’s Dragon standing in stark contrast to uninspired remakes such as The Lion King (2019). Similarly, Netflix’s Avatar must strive to carve out its own path rather than merely imitating its predecessor. Otherwise, it risks being overshadowed by the beloved animated series it seeks to emulate.

Despite its flaws, there are glimmers of promise in Netflix’s Avatar adaptation. While the visuals may lack the vibrancy of the original series, the bending sequences are a marked improvement over the previous live-action attempt, offering exhilarating displays of elemental mastery. The cast delivers standout performances, infusing every interaction and battle with energy and depth. The young protagonists effortlessly navigate both the weighty themes of the narrative and the physical demands of action-packed sequences.

As I immersed myself in the eight episodes of the season, I couldn’t help but envision the potential growth of actors like Cormier and Liu, especially as they confront the challenges of future plotlines. Additionally, the anticipation of beloved characters like Toph Beifong making their debut on screen adds to the excitement.

Netflix’s Avatar is akin to its titular hero, Aang—still in the early stages of its journey, yet brimming with potential. Like Aang, who draws wisdom from past Avatars while forging his own path, the series can learn from its predecessors while charting a unique course forward. With time and development, it has the opportunity to find its own voice and carve out a distinct identity, offering fans a fresh perspective on the beloved world of Avatar: The Last Airbender.

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