Avatar: The Last Airbender (2024) Review

Avatar: The Last Airbender
Four nations, divided by their affinity with and control over the elements — water, earth, fire, air — are at war. The last hope for peace is the Avatar — and the latest incarnation is a young boy named Aang (Gordon Cormier). With his companions Katara (Kiawentiio) and Sokka (Ian Ousley), Aang sets out to liberate the world from the Fire Lord (Daniel Dae Kim).

by Kambole Campbell |
Updated on

Streaming on: Netflix

Episodes viewed: 8 of 8

Live-action adaptations of cartoons are an often-fraught proposition. It’s not an inherently cursed concept: Netflix’s own One Piece has proved a popular interpretation of Eiichiro Oda’s beloved manga. But at their worst, the change in medium also brings with it the temptation to iron out the original’s quirks. Sadly, the new live-action take on Avatar: The Last Airbender, developed by Albert Kim (after the original creators stepped down, citing creative differences), mostly sheds the original’s cartoonish charm and dynamic presentation in favour of more self-serious fantasy — signposted by a charred corpse within the first few minutes.

Avatar: The Last Airbender

Barbequed earthbenders aside, many of the show’s attempts to appear more mature lead to a more simplistic take on the same material. The Last Airbender still loses a contest of subtlety with the original children-friendly TV show, leaving no subtext for discovery in its incredibly literal dialogue. Narrations unequivocally break down the themes of each episode. Much screentime is taken up by characters just talking about themselves. Aang’s (Gordon Cormier) monk teachers practically explain the emergent themes of the show and his character arc up front.

A rather drab and thinly sketched spin on well-worn fantastical tales of oppression and rebellion.

As it rushes through these long arcs to more quickly get the point across, the show somehow feels too long and too short at the same time. Each episode comes in at a sleepy, hour-long runtime, but there are only eight of them to recount the bullet points of the animated The Last Airbender’s first season. ‘Into The Dark’ is a key example of this, folding about four different episodes of the original show together into a chaotic, jumbled heap. Perhaps it’ll open doors for some people, but most of the time this comes across as an adaptation for people who already saw the Nickelodeon show, building a story to fit in references rather than to express something. The show’s narrative is shortchanged by choices that are often dull when not downright baffling, most of it unworthy of its performers.

Avatar: The Last Airbender

Occasionally, its stolid episodes are propped up by a few spots of enjoyable casting: Daniel Dae Kim is, ironically, cold as Fire Lord Ozai, while Ken Leung is fun as the conniving and cowardly Commander Zhao. Overall, at least as far as whitewashing is concerned, it is an improvement over the maligned 2010 live-action adaptation directed by M. Night Shyamalan. But regardless, the actual character work feels either thin or just plain, all feeling explained rather than felt.

Unfortunately, the action doesn’t do much to compensate for this. The number one difficulty in any adaptation of fantasy from drawings to flesh-and-blood people is that a lot of things can feel less natural if not executed well — an existential concern for a show about manipulating the elements. The Last Airbender’s action design is hit or miss: one fight in a marketplace, using various stall items, almost finds a sense of fun, while a later brawl between a waterbender and a firebender has some engaging momentum. But the rest feels limp, and often incoherent.

There are other issues. It’s besieged by wigs that range from mildly unconvincing to utterly terrible. The camera-work and lighting miss the flair of the animation, with potentially exciting set-pieces made unintelligible purely by how dark they are. Every now and then, it touches on some genuine grandeur through depictions of sheer scale in its physical sets and rendered settings. But there’s more often a disconnect between person and place, which frequently dampens the show’s impact. (At one point, Katara (Kiawentiio) thanks Aang for showing her the world, but most of this season feels like it takes place in the same forest.)

Taken on its own terms, the new show is a rather drab and thinly sketched spin on well-worn fantastical tales of oppression and rebellion — it’s not enough to simply be better than another attempt at adapting the same. But hey, here’s some good news: there’s a still perfectly fine animated version of Avatar: The Last Airbender, also on Netflix.

This adaptation is caught between impulses: it trusts its audience less than a children’s show did, while trying to be ‘The Last Airbender for grown-ups’. Some canny casting choices can’t rescue the show from uninspiring craft and tonal confusion.
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