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Avatar: The Last Airbender

Netflix's Avatar: The Last Airbender misses the mark

As a kid, the 2005 Nickelodeon original series Avatar: The Last Airbender entranced me. We played out the story in our backyard, inspired by the numerous adventures Ange, Katara, and Sokka went on. My brother and I would imagine ourselves as airbenders, earthbenders, and even lightbenders (the ladder made up by us in the backyard). One day, I hoped to make a live-action adaptation of the show. My mother didn't like anime, yet I knew she would be attracted to the story. So, I envisioned a more mature, "live-action" version of the show, one that would be able to reach the masses.

When the first live-action adaption of Avatar was about to come out, I was so excited. I told all my friends who hadn't seen the series that this would be a must-watch movie. I even took them to the theater for the premiere. And then M. Night Shyamalan's atrocity of an adaption started, and all my friends could hardly bear it. Good luck getting them to watch the original after that. It was awful.

So the question is, why did I get excited about Netflix's 2024 adaption of Avatar: The Last Airbender, which just came out on Netflix? I should have known something was up after learning the show's original creators left the project due to creative differences. They didn't even do that with the Shyamalan's adaption. It took just a few minutes into the first episode for me to feel something was wrong. The showrunners seemed to think I needed to be told the context and the inner feelings of everyone. Watching Ange interact with his air teacher, Gyatso was stomach-turning. The writers don't seem to believe in subtext, telling us exactly how a character feels. On top of that, the dialogue seemed stale, and the blocking was horrendous.

In 2005, I thought one could create a better version of Avatar than a mid-budget half-hour Nickelodeon cartoon. Society has conditioned us to think "live-action" is somehow more sophisticated and legitimate than the cartoon version. Animation continues to be treated like a toy for kids to play with rather than a serious medium for adults. Yet, almost 20 years later, I consider the original Avatar one of the greatest television shows ever created. Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko crafted an original story and provided a masterclass on world-building. The original Avatar is that rare breed of TV where every episode builds on itself, and by the end, they set up a climax nobody should have any right to pull off. But they did! They stuck the landing with the series finale in a way that all film students should study. Maybe we should stop trying to mess with stories already created in the best medium they could be. So many elements of the Avatar story were made for animation. Each character was portrayed in a thought-through and precise way. The action was tailor-made for the medium, allowing characters to do things impossible in live action. Avatar's spirit world, magical creatures, and magic system require animation, even in the "live-action" versions. I keep using quotes for these "live-action" adaptions because they often require just as much animation as the original. From the looks of it, Netflix has a budget that completely dwarfs the show's original version, and a considerable amount of that goes to the CGI companies in charge of making Ange fly, benders bend, and characters like the Sky bison Appa just be present.

There is a way to adapt an already told story. Yet, Hollywood has not come close to understanding the nuance of good adaption. The reason. They are interested in profit above all else. Where Avatar: The Last Airbender has enough nuance to be explored in many different ways, this is not something Netflix seems comfortable doing. The result is an uncanny valley of an adaption where moments of unique material are weighed down by countless less organic efforts to stay anchored to the original. For instance, look at Ange's outfit in the header. The vivid oranges fit right at home in the animation version and yet comes across as over the top and too tailored in the adaption. The live-action version of Sokka is a massive miss because the humor we find so endearing in the animated version is far too exaggerated and out of touch in the new Netflix adaption.

Creation is challenging, and many examples from the cast and the creators of the new Netflix series show that they care about the source material and want to do the original show justice. Good adaptation requires more than this. Copying may suggest flattery, but it loses genuine connection. One can't copy a soul. Even as a kid, my brother and I didn't feel anchored entirely to the wonderful story we were experiencing on TV. We made our own characters and built on the framework of the original. Sure, our new creation, lightbending, required a few iterations to get right, but it's an example of someone building on top of what had come before.

After watching the earnest efforts of Netflix's Avatar: The Last Airbender, I'm left with a better appreciation of the original show. Just a day before, I had taken my original DVD copy of the show to my friend's house. She has a pair of 7-year-old twins, and we watched the first episode. Though we needed to fast forward some of the "scary" parts, I could see how entranced the twins were in the show. They begged their mom to watch another episode and were delighted when I told them the show was on Netflix. The Twins experienced something I consider priceless. They experienced a living world and wanted to know about those who inhabited it. I envy their journey. The story is truly one of a kind.

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1 Comment

As an animation student, It makes me sad that this medium is still not treated with the respect it deserves. It has become one of my motivations to show how beautiful animation is and how human it can be.

I didn't grow up with avatar (I was a baby when it aired), but it makes me happy that people enjoyed the show so much. I hope one day I can entertain people like that.

Thanks for writing this! I came from your other blog, you're an inspiration!

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