Avatar: The Last Airbender Review – Restoring Balance
9 mins read

Avatar: The Last Airbender Review – Restoring Balance

It’s nearly impossible to view Netflix’s new live-action Avatar: The Last Airbender adaptation outside of the shadow of its predecessors–both the wildly successful animated series that birthed a beloved franchise, and the terrible big-screen adaptation from M. Night Shyamalan. Could another live-action adaptation avoid the movie’s pitfalls, even reliant as it is on child actors? Inversely, how could any adaptation make good on the stratospheric expectations of the original cartoon series that has attracted such a devoted fandom? With those questions at the forefront of my mind, I was surprised to find that Netflix’s Avatar is a delight. It owes much of its success to finding a careful balance between the sprawling scope of the cartoon and the too-truncated movie. It won’t replace the original animated series in the hearts of fans, but it’s sincere, respectful of the source material, and includes just enough additions and nuance to make the material its own.

For those unfamiliar, Avatar: The Last Airbender takes place in a fantasy world, primarily inspired by an amalgamation of various Asian cultures, consisting of four nation-states: the Fire Nation, Water Tribes, Earth Kingdom, and Air Nomads. Each has its own traditions and culture, defined in large part by the magical ability of some of their citizens to “bend” the named elements to their will. Waterbenders can make water float in midair or transform it into ice blocks, firebenders can manifest or breathe fire, etc. The four nations are held in check by the Avatar, the only human being who can bend all four elements, who is reincarnated into each of the nations sequentially. When the Fire Nation declares an imperialist war on all the others, the Avatar vanishes for 100 years, allowing a multigenerational conflict to burn its way across the world.

That may sound like a lot of lore to absorb upfront, and if Netflix’s adaptation has one major weakness, it’s that so much of the first episode is spent catching you up to speed. The lore dump of the first episode makes for occasionally clunky expository dialogue, and that’s a lot to ask of the primarily child-forward cast. It also seems overeager to establish some of its weightier themes early, which can make the affair feel gloomier than it should. It’s unfortunate that this first episode doesn’t put its best foot forward, because after those awkward early moments, the show quickly finds its stride.

The Avatar is a young Airbender named Aang, who is frozen in ice until he’s discovered by a pair of youngsters in the Southern Water Tribe, siblings Sokka and Katara. Those three are the key protagonists of the story, Team Avatar as they come to be known, and they’re pursued doggedly by a Fire Nation prince, Zuko.

If the animated Avatar: The Last Airbender was intended for kids around eight and up, this live-action adaptation seems geared more towards a young adult or teen audience. It’s more violent–there are multiple immolations complete with screams–but the violence isn’t particularly gruesome or gratuitous. It’s also surprising as a longtime fan of the cartoon to hear Sokka slip out the occasional word like “ass,” but that doesn’t feel out of place for his characterization in this adaptation.

Avatar: The Last Airbender
Avatar: The Last Airbender

One heavier theme of the series revolves around the pressure that Aang must be under, with so much responsibility falling on his young shoulders as the Avatar. It’s hard not to feel that the child actor, Gordon Cormier, is similarly being asked to carry a lot of this show. Despite a line or two of flat delivery in the aforementioned first episode, though, he rises to the challenge. His performance is full of life and playfulness and earnest optimism. Similarly, Kiawentiio Tarbell (Katara) takes a role that could be a fairly thankless voice of reason and imbues it with sparkling big-sister energy. Ian Ousley (Sokka) is especially a standout as the eldest of the three, managing to capture Sokka’s overconfidence and goofball energy while showing a lot of sweetness and vulnerability.

Meanwhile, the antagonists bring just as much if not more richness to their performances. Daniel Dae Kim as Firelord Ozai is terrifying–distractingly bad chin hair aside–as a brutally efficient ruler and strategist who uses his own children as pawns in his manifest destiny. Dallas Liu (Zuko) strikes an excellent balance between a fearsome foe seething with anger, and a hurt and scared child trying to live up to his father’s expectations. The best by far, though, is Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, who plays Zuko’s uncle, Iroh. Fans of the animated show already understand why Iroh is such a beloved character, but Lee’s live-action performance made me fall in love with him all over again.

This adaptation makes a choice, and I think a correct one, to show more of the Fire Nation’s inner workings, and that includes featuring much more of Princess Azula as played here by Elizabeth Yu. In the original series, Azula was scarcely seen in the first season, but in later seasons, she came to be known as essentially a living weapon–a powerful firebender and all-around sadist who Ozai could simply point at his enemies. The added screen time this early into the story gives her a more layered depiction, putting her competition with Zuko and her scheming machinations front and center. As an example, this live-action adaption sees Azula form a secret partnership with the preening and politically calculating Lieutenant Zhao (portrayed by Ken Leung, who gets to make a meal out of his scenes), creating a palace intrigue story that enhances our understanding of both characters at once. Azula’s sidekicks are also present but underused, one of the few elements that feels like fan service with no rewarding payoff.

It’s the actors themselves that make the best case for this live-action adaptation. Having a human actor interpret the material and wear it on their face and body language can communicate new ideas and accent the existing material in profound ways. At one point when Iroh tries to instill some fatherly wisdom, Zuko lashes out with a comment that’s unnecessarily cruel and biting. You can see the mixture of hurt and disappointment behind Lee’s eyes, as well as the sudden pangs of guilt in Liu’s. Elsewhere, Lee transitions seamlessly from an affable old teddy bear to a fiercely protective lion as tensions in a scene rise. Similarly, we get to see Aang having a few tender moments with his mentor Monk Gyatso (Lim Kay Siu), whose soft-spoken demeanor and protectiveness serve to mirror Iroh’s relationship with Zuko.

The season feels slightly abridged from the animated original’s first season, but not by much. Part of that is, at about an hour long, each of the eight episodes is twice the length of an animated episode. But it also combines stories and even ties familiar elements together in unexpected ways. The result is a season that flows like one continuous story, without one-off excursions or bottle episodes. Plus, this adaptation lightly adds new elements to certain characters’ backgrounds in ways that feel suitably aligned with the existing material but add new layers and nuances to events.

Perhaps most importantly, though, this live-action adaptation manages to nail the one element it absolutely couldn’t afford to do without: the kineticism of the fight scenes. On this point, it was especially hard not to think back to the Shyamalan adaptation, in which fights were often stilted and stiff. One of the most iconic elements of the Avatar series is how the various bending forms, all inspired by real-life martial arts, incorporate moves and elemental manipulation into one smooth action that looks both believable and fantastical. This live-action version captures that beautifully, with varied fight choreography that expresses the uniqueness and fluidity of each bending form, and mostly wide shots that let you appreciate the elegant movements of the martial arts. Watching benders clash against each other, or occasionally, against a skilled opponent with no bending powers at all, is a real treat.

It all reaches a climax that feels mildly melodramatic in many of the same ways that the first season finale of the animated series did, albeit slightly more earned by laying some important groundwork earlier in the season. And like the original, it does rely partly on a love story subplot that felt too rushed to be as meaningful as it was clearly meant to be. But I was glad to find that Avatar: The Last Airbender also captures the show’s heart, with characters grappling with ideas like patriarchy, generational trauma, pacifism, and the power of human connections. The finale brings several relationships and stories to a satisfying conclusion, while setting the stage for what’s to come next. Against all odds, I can’t wait.

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