Much Better Than You Thought It Would Be

Netflix’s live action Avatar: The Last Airbender series never seemed like a good idea. Why even try to remake one of the most beloved animated series of all time, especially after someone else had already attmpted once and did it so badly the fandom agreed to erase it from its collective memory?

Well, Netflix is seemingly addicted to this live action remake concept, so here we are. They want a megafranchise, drawing from multiple seasons of the original show and potentially even more from Korra, and it all starts here. And despite a mountain of skepticism, including from myself who counts the original as one of my favorite shows ever, I have to say Netflix’s Avatar: The Last Airbender is much better than I thought it would be. By the end, I genuinely enjoyed it.

Throughout the show, you can tell this is made by a cast and crew that have a lot of love for the source material. Yes, yes, I absolutely read all the interview quotes that made it sounds like they were changing, subtracting or adding stuff that sounded bad. It seemed like a lot of red flags to me. But in practice, I don’t think those changes overwhelm the whole, and the entire thing is very much an attempt at a love letter to the animatied series. There are countless scenes and lines that are identical to the original, even if some structural changes are made for the sake of the adaptation. I didn’t find anything especially damaging.

It is not as good as the animated series. Of course it isn’t. This is painting the Mona Lisa with colored pencil, where it may be great in its own right, but it’s just an entirely different medium that could never live up to the original masterpiece. So I think you have to grade on a bit of a curve here. I don’t know how superfans will react to the series, and I’m sure many of them will not be forgiving of aspects of it. I also don’t know what this will do for “onboarding” new fans who haven’t seen the original, which is how I approached Netflix’s One Piece adaptation (which was good!). Here, all I can say is that as a fan, I thought they did a solid job.

The biggest success here is casting. Many remarked how eerily similar the casting choices looked to the animated characters, but in terms of channeling those characters, it really works. Right off the bat, I have to say the most impressive performance is Dallas Liu as Prince Zuko, who portrays rage masking rejection expertly throughout the entire series. He is joined by again, another perfect casting choice in Paul Sun-Hyung Lee’s Iroh, whose only fault is that he’s…tall.

While they take more time to warm up, Ian Ousley’s Sokka and Gordon Cormier’s Aang are great, and anchor the series. No, Sokka is not on as much of a “girls are bad” kick here, but he still struggles with the same sort of insecurities that led to that mindset, and he is Sokka. I think Cormier’s Aang starts off a touch rocky with his line delivery, but as the show progress, so does he, and for an Aang that needed to be as young as he is, Cormier ends up filling the role expertly. Again, ahead of release there was this concern they were making Aang darker and more serious than the original show, and that is something that is just not true in this version. Yes, he’s got the weight of the world on his shoulders, but he’s still that goofy kid at his core.

The Fire Nation crew is great. Daniel Dae Kim is terrifying as Fire Lord Ozai. Ken Leung is great as the sniveling, scheming Commander Zhou. I did think Elizabeth’s Yu as Azula could have been a miscast at first, as she is one actress that does not really resemble the original character, but she’s got that fire, no pun intended. By the end, you’ll believe in her capacity for cruelty.

You may notice the singular omission here is Kiawentiio’s Katara. Of all the characters, she landed the least well for me. There’s nothing bad about her performance, but given what a cornerstone Katara is on the show, I just wasn’t getting the same kind of energy from her. She shines in the climactic fight of the series, but before that, she doesn’t feel as on point as most of her castmates. Perhaps that could change in future seasons (which I would say the show deserves).

The visuals are mostly good. There are many moments where things get a bit too green-screeny for my tastes, sailing on boats, riding Appa. But then sometimes the VFX are great. Appa himself is animated amazingly. The cityscapes are gorgeous. And while no, you will never beat the furious animated bending fights from the original show, these are really quite good for being live action.

Another thing working for the show is its pacing. Looking back, it was truly insane for M. Night Shyamalan to try to pack an entire season into a single film, but here? There are eight episodes that are usually around 50-60 minutes. The first season of the show had 20 episodes that were closer to 20-22 minutes each. If you do that math, there’s almost the same or even more time to tell the story than the original book 1 had, and it allows the show to breathe.

It’s hard. I know that no matter what, this show will not please everyone. It really was almost an unfair task to have people try to reproduce such a beloved series. But while this pattern has been hit or miss on Netflix especially, I would consider this a hit. My rather low expectations have been exceeded, and I’m genuinely interested to see how they handle the next two books of the original. Give me Toph. And after that? Sure, give me Korra. Let’s do it. It ain’t my money.

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Pick up my sci-fi novels the Herokiller series and The Earthborn Trilogy.

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