Netflix’s ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ is an Adaptation Under Fire

Netflix’s live-action revival of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” is a practice in give-and-take — what it gains in faithful character adaptations, it loses out in poor writing

In today’s wasteland of children’s entertainment — plagued by shortened attention spans and sensory-focused media — what does it take to produce a children’s show with heart? 

Netflix’s new live-action adaptation of “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” released Feb. 22,  braves the task 19 years after the animated Nickelodeon original premiered. Rooted in Asian influence, the fictional world of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” segregates different kingdoms by the elements in their command. Only the Avatar, the savior of the world, can bend all four — water, earth, air and fire. 

The adaptation covers the original series’ first season titled “Book One: Water.”

A society singed by the imperial force of the unsparing fire nation, the Avatar — the only hope for peace — has been frozen in an iceberg for 100 years. The 2005 series unfurls with the emergence of the not-so-mystical Avatar, a 12-year-old boy named Aang, from the iceberg. A fitting metaphor for the show, the children’s cartoon presented an underdog’s tale in a dreamscape of anime-inspired stylization — on the surface. Layered beneath is a biting commentary on neocolonialism and autocratic rule. 

Yet, where the original opens with an iceberg, the remake opens with a mass slaughter — the evisceration of the Air Temple, Aang’s home. The approach signals the first signs of the series’ confusion over its intended audience. Forced to overcome the plight of an aging fanbase — the child-audience of the original is now in their twenties and thirties — it maintains the buoyancy of the children’s cartoon but falters in a commitment to actualizing imperialistic brutality.

Altogether, the series marked as “Family Watch Together TV” on Netflix warrants the question —  is this still a show for kids?

Netflix’s response, crafted through the eight episode series, seems to be one of uncertainty.

Aang, played by Gordon Cormier, preserves the youthful whimsy of the character with added emotional strain. Mourning the loss of his people to the oppressive fire nation, the adaptation is deliberately forceful in conveying Aang’s grief, specifically through the loss of his mentor Monk Gyatso, played by Lim Kay Siu. The burdens impressed upon Aang — maintaining the legacy of the Avatar and saving the world — are made more severe than ever. 

Perhaps the biggest strength of the children’s cartoon — one that still compels its fiercely loyal fanbase into adulthood — is its triumphing characters, dubbed “the gaang.” Captivating viewers, characters like Katara, Sokka  and Zuko — children forced to forfeit their childhood and endure the loss of their people — merge forces in the name of peace. Defying unfair circumstances, the group is an empowered collective hungry to end a centuries-long war. 

Yet, this “Avatar” is a give-and-take of sorts. While some characters are rendered successfully, others are lost to frail performances and mawkish writing. Longtime fans of the show point to the absence of  Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante, the creators of the cartoon who abandoned the remake due to “creative differences.”

Kiawentiio Tarbell as Katara is notably passive, functioning as a compliant afterthought rather than an initially-vengeful heroine. The might of the character is lost to the overpowering delivery of Dallas James Liu as Zuko, the honor-deprived villain on the hunt for the Avatar, tortured by his father’s disdain. 

An unspoken actor throughout the show is the green screen — which is relied upon shamelessly. An underperformer, many scenes morph into a mess of ridiculously under-considered backgrounds.

If this was just a show for kids, perhaps one could forgive the clichés. But it’s not. 

The impact of remaking “Avatar” tantalizes a franchise 19 years in the making. Alongside new viewership, Netflix haphazardly juggles the weighty expectations of a generation raised by the original.

In the eyes of the longtime viewer, this remake never could’ve been a success. But for those freshly introduced to the world of “Avatar,” the show has merit. Its politics are as fierce as ever, emphasizing the mercilessness of the empire. The fire nation is conveyed with a haunting keenness for warfare savagery with Daniel Dae Kim effortlessly embodying the bloodthirsty dictator Firelord Ozai. The powerlessness of its subjugates, emphasized through the water tribe, is all the more realized in the live action rendering. 

Still, the adaptation is not meant to be looked upon with a fine-toothed comb in which audiences parse through the miniscule imperfections incongruent with the masterwork.

This “Avatar” is the classic hero’s journey retold in contexts nodding to Tibetan monks, Thai and Japanese kingdoms and Arctic Indigenous communities, according to Variety. Like the original, it undertakes themes under-explored in children’s entertainment — and does so smoothly. 

“Avatar: The Last Airbender” is now streaming on Netflix.

Featured image courtesy of Netflix

Hanna Houser

Hanna Houser