Netflix’s “Avatar: The Last Airbender” Proves Some Stories are Better Left Animated


Aanji Sin ’24

After a long delayed and even longer anticipated expedition from camera to screen, Netflix’s live-action adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender finally hit the streaming service on Feb. 22. Fans have been clamoring for a proper revitalization of the beloved series for years; the original animated series premiered nearly two decades ago, is hailed as one of the greatest animated series of all time, and has so far only been succeeded by one underdeveloped, whitewashed film adaptation by M. Night Shyamalan that fans tend to keep firmly shut out of mind. As a consequence, the expectations for the series’ live-action rendition were blisteringly high, but unfortunately a combination of lazy writing, hasty pacing, and just plain stiff acting has the series falling fast and flat.

As an Avatar fanatic since childhood, I was not without my hopes for the series. Like many other fans, a part of me naïvely wished for a complete one-to-one remake of the original animation: the exact same characters, every moment both iconic and ordinary, a script that was just as funny and thoughtful and conscious. But all of that flew out the window when the news broke of original creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko leaving the project in its early stages due to “creative differences,” namely an ambition to mature the original content in its violent content and overall tone. And the end product proved to me what I worried about back then: that there isn’t a single possible readapted version of Avatar that could hold a candle to its source material because the original series is a seriously, truly perfect piece of media.

Avatar: The Last Airbender takes place in a world where people possess the ability to control, or “bend,” the four major natural elements: water, earth, fire, and air. The Water Tribes, Earth Kingdom, Fire Nation, and Air Nomads existed in harmony with one another until the Fire Nation began to wage a war intent on world domination. The Avatar, the only bender who can wield all four elements and keep peace between the nations, disappears when the Air Nomads are wiped out as the war begins. 

One hundred years later, the young Avatar, Aang of the Air Nomads, is discovered preserved in an iceberg by a pair of siblings from the Water Tribe. The three of them embark on a journey for Aang to fulfill his role as the Avatar, master all four elements, and finally put an end to the Hundred Year War. On their way, Aang is hunted by Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation, who vies to bring the Avatar to his father in order to absolve his banishment and restore his title as heir to the throne.

I’ll start with what’s good about the remake because I’m fair like that, and also because this will be very brief. My favorite part of the series was Zuko, which was pleasantly surprising to see that they nailed one of the best written characters in history (and the first fictional crush I ever had). Dallas Liu delivers a fantastically studied performance that emulates Zuko’s brooding yet impassioned core while adding a necessary flair of his own. His dynamic with Iroh (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee) beats out the main trio as the heart of the series. 

Zuko and Iroh remain the most consistently high-quality aspects of the show, while other facets shine in some places but fail to impress in others. The visual effects of the elemental bending are beautifully done, in particular the fire bending. Hand in hand with this are the choreographed action sequences, the artistry of which excels when the creators aren’t worried about adapting the same animated sequence to a tee. Aang and Zuko’s hand-to-hand skirmish in episode three, “Omashu,” and Kyoshi’s devastation of the enemy in episode two, “Warriors,” depict altercations completely original to the live-action plot and thus open an area for creativity to blossom, whereas fights such as Katara’s memorable showdown with a waterbending master in episode seven “The North” feel overly rehearsed and bland — places where the creators’ attempt to maintain fidelity to the original animation hurts more than helps.

The tension between the live-action’s desire to fly free or stick to its source material’s established greatness is palpable throughout all eight episodes. It chooses its moments, but ultimately its demise stems from the live-action’s innate inability to capture the magic of the animation’s in its piss-poor script. 

The pacing of this series is unlike any trainwreck I’ve ever witnessed, racing at top speed through multiple episodes at a time, then chugging to a crawl at the most inconsequential of moments. The three consecutive episodes of “Omashu,” “Into the Dark,” and “Spirited Away” cram at least six different scenarios and storylines from the original series and half-heartedly attempt to weave all of them into a followable plot. It’s as if the creators cherry picked the original’s most dramatic and showmance-y moments, and then wrote around those moments to create a plotline that was similar, but different enough to cry ingenuity. Still, if you’re going to rewrite a story and do it differently from the first time, at least do it in a way that’s coherent.

The writing also extends to a trite and lackluster script, filled with exposition-heavy dialogue and cheesy, soulless one-liners that attempt to bear the weight of a narrative surrounding genocide and war. Not only that, they also fail to replicate the charm of the characters fans know and missed on their screens. 

Even though the main cast of young actors struggle to deliver the perfect depictions of such beloved characters, most of them are talented enough to hold their own (Gordon Cormier as Aang and Elizabeth Yu as Azula come to mind), and it’s evident that a more thoughtful and intentional script would bring out better performances. However, some characters feel far past the point of return, most notably Kiawentiio Tarbell’s Katara, whose passive and meek writing siphons all traits of righteousness, compassion, and anger that made Katara the heart of the original animation.

While the visual effects of the bending are an impressive feat, the rest of the series’ atmosphere is a CGI and lighting nightmare. The only way I can describe it is that it looks like an ad for a Disney California Adventure ride: shot entirely on a production stage without a lick of natural light. It most likely had a negative impact on the actor’s performances as well; as my suite mate who watched the pilot with me despite having absolutely no previous Avatar knowledge remarked, “It must be hard to act well when the only things you have to react to are green screens.”

In recent years, the ongoing sludge of mediocre sequels, remakes, and live-action adaptations has felt endless and disheartening to wade through, and this newest installment of Avatar is yet another attempt to elevate animation to a “superior” art form that fails to do so. This adaptation only stands to prove the necessity and intent behind the animated format of the original, and how it successfully underscores one of the series’ central messages: that whatever darkness exists in the world, it is a worthy endeavor to do everything you can to spread happiness and peace in every tiny corner of it that you can. 

This is what Aang embodies, what set Avatar apart from other fantasy franchises out there, and what the whimsy of animation can get across to the viewer alongside its larger depictions of war and colonization. By “maturing” the content and elevating its format to a live-action, this message is effectively zapped out of the project, leaving behind the shell of yet another war story.

It’s clear that after two unimpressive adaptations, the reason why it’s impossible to make a satisfying rendition of Avatar is that it simply doesn’t need one. And the changes that the live-action attempts — the rushed storylines, the tempering of character motivations, removing “outdated” messaging — feels like pulling out layers of a Jenga tower haphazardly and expecting the whole thing not to topple over in the process. 

The original animation was a small, perfectly contained piece of work — only three seasons and 61 episodes — with all of its elements slotted together and sanded down with intentionality and precision. Why mess with perfection? Sure, you can keep making adaptations of Avatar for fans who just want to have fun, but for a lot of us, these continuous disappointments just push us back towards the comforting embrace of the original series, instead of hasty storytelling and CGI spectacle.

Both the live-action and animated series of Avatar: The Last Airbender are now streaming on Netflix.

Image Source: Ella Lehavi ’24

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