Netflix series outdoes 2010 film but doesn’t excel

Emily Fritz | A&E Editor

Young actor Gordon Cormier (Aang) said earlier this year that he was excited for the live-action Netflix adaptation of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” to re-engage original viewers.

But fans of the 2005 Nickelodeon cartoon have approached the adaptation with understandable hesitancy, having been burned by M. Night Shyamalan’s live-action film attempt in 2010, which had a white-washed cast and condensed 20 episodes into a 103-minute feature film.

Announced in 2018, the streaming giant’s attempt at a live-action was fraught with controversy as both creators of the original series, Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, left the project in 2020.

“When Netflix brought me on board to run this series alongside Mike two years ago, they made a very public promise to support our vision. Unfortunately, there was no follow-through on that promise,” Konietzko said on Instagram in August of 2020.

The original show is “widely hailed as one of the greatest animated series of the 21st century, an ambitious, anime-inspired saga that blended gorgeous world-building and thoughtful storytelling,” according to Entertainment Weekly.

After being trapped in an iceberg for 100 years, 12-year old Avatar Aang must master all four elements (water, earth, fire, air) to defeat the firelord and end the 100-year war. Between him and his friends, the group helps numerous communities while showcasing stories of empathy, anti-imperialism and connection.

Now with the eight episodes and a $120 million budget, fans new and old are divided on whether or not the live-action series can be deemed a success. Comparatively, the Netflix attempt is “objectively better” than Shyamalan’s.

The cast, which better represents the Asian and Indigenous inspirations of the show, is far better in portraying the beloved characters. Cormier, Kiawentiio Tarbell (Katara), Ian Ousley (Sokka) and Dallas James Liu (Zuko) set up the foundations of the show, but the writing prevents them from following their original arcs.

Liu is a strong cast in the way his role was written, but the character comes off as more of a sulking teenager than the anger-driven antagonist that fans grew up with.

Ousley’s character is much more approachable and keeps the dorkish charm of the Water Tribe warrior, but the character’s development arc is lost to the rewrite.

Perhaps most disappointing was Tarbell’s adapted character. Katara’s trademark was always helping people in need and protecting those she loves. Instead, Netflix’s Katara backs away from many conflicts due to inexperience.

Cormier is a commendable Aang, but there were many times that his line delivery felt awkward and his expressions seemed too choppy.

The mechanics of element bending also seemed to suffer. The original animations utilized various martial arts such as Tai Chi (water), Hung Guar (earth), Northern Shaolin (fire) and Baguazhang (air), to cement the mechanics of the fantasy world.

“Every bending battle … is sluggish,” wrote Kelly Lawler of USA Today. “[T]he actors’ move out of sync with the poor-quality effects.”

Contrary to the original plot of season one in the animated series, Aang didn’t learn any waterbending. Instead, he utilized the element only while in the ‘avatar state’ (when he isn’t in full control of his body or actions but draws upon his past lives and experiences.)

Compared to similar young adult hero adaptations like Disney+ Rick Riordan’s “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” series, Netflix strayed a little further from a 1:1 adaptation of the original source material.

All in all, the entertainment company was pleased with audience reception, renewing the live-action show for not one, but two more seasons.

“The live-action reimagining of the beloved animated series will return,” Netflix said in a press release, “to bring The Legend of Aang to its proper conclusion.”