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Netflix’s Live Action Avatar: The Last Airbender Adaptation Leaves Fans Disappointed

Netflix’s ambitious venture into live action-adaptation with Avatar: The Last Airbender has been met with high expectations from fans of Nickelodeon’s beloved 2005 animated series. Despite the potential for a modern take on the fan-favorite franchise, and far from the disaster that was M. Night Shyamalan’s poorly received 2010 movie, Netflix’s reimagination of the series, led by Albert Kim as showrunner and writer, may leave die-hard fans wishing Netflix had left Nickelodeon’s show alone, as it fails to capture the magic that made the original a timeless classic. 

Jeff Igbokwe

Netflix’s ambitious venture into live action-adaptation with Avatar: The Last Airbender has been met with high expectations from fans of Nickelodeon’s beloved 2005 animated series. Despite the potential for a modern take on the fan-favorite franchise, and far from the disaster that was M. Night Shyamalan’s poorly received 2010 movie, Netflix’s reimagination of the series, led by Albert Kim as showrunner and writer, may leave die-hard fans wishing Netflix had left Nickelodeon’s show alone, as it fails to capture the magic that made the original a timeless classic. 

Avatar: The Last Airbender is set in Asiatic, a world where certain individuals are able to control one of the four classic elements being water, earth, fire or air using a technique called “Bending”. Aang (Gordon Cormier) is able to bend all four elements, and is prophesied to become the “Avatar,” bringing balance to the world from the Fire Nation, led by the Fire Lord Sozin (Hiro Kanagawa). With his new companions Katara (Kiawentiio Tarbell) and Sokka (Ian Ousley), Aang sets out to master the four elements while being hunted by the exiled Fire Nation Prince Zuko (Dallas Liu), who aims to regain his honor by capturing the Avatar.

One thing you may notice about the show is that you can tell that it was created by a cast and crew who have a lot of love and respect for the original cartoon. If you have even seen still images of the cartoon, it is obvious that Kim has clearly made an attempt to remain faithful to the source material, making the show look as if someone has brought the cartoon characters to life. 

There are instances where certain moments from the cartoon are recreated with precise detail, for example, the cartoon’s original pilot is essentially remade in live-action. 

However, one of the biggest issues with the show is that it has been confined to 8 poorly written and watered down episodes as opposed to 20 minute chapters like the first season of the cartoon had. The condensed adaptation of a series can be unforgiving. Unfortunately, Netflix sacrifices crucial character development and world-building as they have to wrap up the first season within eight episodes.

The first couple of episodes run at a very fast pace, seemingly combining arcs from the cartoon which occur separately. These instances leave glaring holes in the patchwork of the original story. For instance, in the Netflix version, Aang’s time in the South Pole is cut short. In the original, the scene where Aang and Katara slide down the ice on the backs of penguins is one of the show’s most iconic moments, and is key in building their relationship. While the live-action series gives the two a couple of playful moments together, the absence of this crucial scene means it takes a while for the Netflix version to start building their chemistry.

The writing is amateur at times, and there are instances where the show seems to stop in its tracks for entirely unnecessary exposition or to point out easter eggs for fans of the cartoon. There is a time in the pilot where a character recites the voiceover introduction as a callback to the cartoon if it were a regular thing to say in conversation, however it just feels forced. 

The choice of casting actors of Asian and Indigenous descent, just as they were depicted in the cartoon, is another positive of the show. In an era where representation and authenticity are rightfully prioritized, it is great to see characters portrayed as how they were originally intended to appear, a positive change from the whitewashed 2010 movie. However, there are still issues with the casting. Aside from Liu as Zuko, the younger actors fail to give convincing performances. The adult actors appear to have lowered themselves to what they feel is the level of the production, reciting lines as if they are just learning the English language.
While Netflix’s adaptation of the story is not unwatchable and can be enjoyed by fans of the original cartoon as well as newcomers to the franchise, perhaps Avatar: The Last Airbender did not need to be adapted again. The original cartoon is a beloved classic, and does not lack in any department. With the original cartoon also available on Netflix, I would recommend watching that instead.