‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ series review: A step up from the film yet misses mark by miles

“Let go of the past or you will never have a future.” This aphorism isn’t only a vital lesson for Aang, the youthful hero of Avatar: The Last Airbender – it also broadly delineates the challenge faced by the creators of its live-action adaptation. The original animated television series set a high bar, capturing hearts and smashing viewership records. This same franchise was then subjected to a film by M Night Shyamalan, which not only disappointed critics but also performed so dismally at the box office that subsequent sequels were abandoned. Now, after more than a decade, Netflix has brought forth a live-action series that, while eclipsing the movie in quality, still falls disappointingly short of the enchantment that the cult-animated series offered.

In the world of Avatar: The Last Airbender, societies are delineated by the elemental forces their members can telekinetically manipulate, a skill known as ‘bending.’ There are benders of fire, water, air, and earth, but only the Avatar, a demigod-like entity, can bend all elements. The unforeseen revelation that 12-year-old Aang (Gordon Cormier) is the latest Avatar launches his momentous journey. The Fire Nation’s ruthless quest for power and the resultant extermination of all airbenders, save for the Avatar himself, leads to Aang being accidentally cryogenically frozen for a century until Katara (Kiawentiio) and Sokka (Ian Ousley) awaken him. The trio then embarks on a quintessential quest to thwart worldly destruction.

ALSO READ: Review of M Night Shyamalan’s 2010 film, ‘The Last Airbender’

It is crucial to address why the animated series became a phenomenon. One reason includes the show’s jovial nature, something expected from animated content. The series’ attempt to cater to both the original young audience and adults simultaneously however causes it to fall into an identity crisis. Companionable jests and nostalgic scenes, like Aang’s animated series antics, are embedded within but ultimately, the series struggles to firmly define its tone and does justice neither to the fantasy world it seeks to recreate nor the mythical creatures and magical elements that enliven it – a similar issue faced by Disney’s live-action retellings.

The series unfolds at a frenetic pace, yet manages to feel drawn out, even with a runtime exceeding seven hours. Fundamental questions about the lore – the reason behind Aang’s selection as the Avatar, the significance of the mysterious comet, and the inherently aggressive nature of the Fire Nation – remain underexplored.

Casting-wise, Netflix seems to have learned from the original film’s missteps, which faced backlash for whitewashing characters despite the source material drawing heavily from East Asian and Inuit cultures. Cormier convincingly captures Aang’s effervescent spirit and sense of duty, while Dallas Liu presents a compelling Prince Zuko, exiled and desperate to capture Aang to regain honor. The narrative creates a rich, parallel pathos for Aang and Zuko, whose destinies have similarly been mapped out since childhood. However, the complexity of their arcs feels diluted on screen.

The series does feature applaudable action sequences, and the season culminates with a visually striking finale, but the quality of visual effects fluctuates throughout. Meanwhile, themes such as war, imperialism, genocide, and female empowerment – gracefully woven into the animated series – seem ripe for deeper exploration here, given the presumably older target demographic. Instead, the series settles for over-explication and foreseeable plot turns.

Predictability also hampers narrative tension, with the trio’s overarching safety rarely in doubt, resulting in low stakes for the viewer. The story is also weighed down by flat secondary characters and lackluster development of the central trio’s interpersonal relationships.

Just last year, Netflix skillfully adapted One Piece into live-action, raising hopes that Avatar: The Last Airbender might undergo a similar transformation. However, despite strong performances and certain impactful sequences, the live-action Avatar series appears to have missed the heart of what made the animated version a classic. Perhaps some worlds, just like some elements, are too complex to be reshaped.

Avatar: The Last Airbender is currently available for streaming on Netflix, where it continues to strive for the legacy of its animated forebear.

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