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Avatar the Last Airbender Aang Sokka Katara.JPG

'Avatar: the Last Airbender' Is Not Active Torture

By Chris Revelle | TV | February 26, 2024 |

By Chris Revelle | TV | February 26, 2024 |

Avatar the Last Airbender Aang Sokka Katara.JPG

There’s a scene in an episode of 30 Rock in which Liz asks Cerie, “Do I look okay?” and with a perfect grin, Cerie replies, “That’s exactly how you look.” This moment echoed in my mind as I watched the live-action Avatar: the Last Airbender series on Netflix. It’s like some version of this exchange occurred in regard to nearly every aspect of the show during its making. I can picture a flustered creative going to their manager for a check: do these costumes look okay? Does this CG look okay? Does the blocking and fight choreography look okay? Does hair and make-up look okay? How about the shot composition and color correction? Does that all look okay? There’s only one response here: okay is exactly how it all looks.

As a huge fan of the original series, I went in with expectations so low they were subterranean. I’ve seen how badly a live-action adaptation of this story can go. Stacking things a bit more in this series’ favor, I am not categorically opposed to live-action adaptations of animated works. While I agree they can often be lazy IP-expansion exercises, they can also be interesting reinterpretations like with the more successful One Piece, also on Netflix. Each medium has different things to offer; it all rests on how those different strengths are used to bring out new dimensions in the story. I was open, perhaps even eager to like this series which makes me a little sad that I can’t pick a stronger side of the fence to fall on here, but Avatar is unremarkable, neither great nor terrible. I can muster neither warning nor recommendation. There are worse ways you can spend your attention. The show is not active torture.

This is not to say that it’s good. It’s truly not. It’s just that as an adaptation of a beloved animated series, this new version merits a two-lensed approach: how is Avatar as an adaptation of the animated series, and how is it as a fantasy series on its own? I feel it’s important to view it this way because it’s possible to reach success in one lens and not in the other; a show or film can function wonderfully as an adaption but fail to stand on its own without the source material to fill in the gaps. To wit: if Netflix’s Avatar were an entirely original concept, it would stand as an unremarkable and bland fantasy series that covers any seams in the CG by shrouding the animation in night-time as often as possible. However, it’s the third iteration of a story that was simply sublime the first time around as an animated series where cloaking CG isn’t a concern, so what would otherwise be shrug-worthy Netflix shlock is all the worse for falling short of an earlier high water mark. Again, this isn’t to say it’s secretly good, it’s to say that, like windchill, it makes what’s not great seem even worse.

Perhaps it’s because it’s made with TikTok in mind, but the look of the series feels jarringly fake. The magic of the animated series was that everything could, in theory, look exactly the way the creators wanted it to. Physics could be defied, lighting could bend at a whim, and just about any supernatural thing could happen in a wide world of possibilities. With the live-action series, the attempt to capture the same magic falls short. This isn’t a unique failing. It’s very hard to translate the animated world to the live-action one without it feeling strange. That it didn’t land with Avatar leads me to wonder if One Piece is the exception that proves the rule: Netflix releases like these are brand exercises that seek to monetize proven IP and will deliver cut-rate experiences in the process. True to this feeling, this Avatar feels distractingly uncanny; I have no idea if this was edited, color-corrected, or animated by AI, but the hollow, depthless nature of the shots sure feels like it. As our own Allyson Johnson noted, it’s all quite flat. This can’t be chalked up to the difference in medium alone, it’s a failure to use that difference effectively, and that failure leads to wondering why we’re even doing this. That deflated feeling, that thinness pervades the whole experience.

Watching this with my partner, who is only remotely aware of the original series, I kept wondering how this must be hitting. He reported that it felt like a simplified fantasy world akin to most forgettable fantasy media and that he’s seen worse production values than this. As he put it, “I’ve seen worse floating balls of water.” He also said that the characters appealed to him and that Aang, in particular, is charming. While the writing overall is middling-to-meh, the main characters are faithfully executed and it’s a testament to the actors that they turn in overall engaging performances. Additionally, even if they’re shot and lit flatly much of the time, the costumes are colorful. It’s refreshing at least that the “real is brown” ethos didn’t permeate here. The wigs and false beards are pretty tough. You can tell what’s real and what’s not when the fakes are so brassy. This is a problem for Iroh, a particularly rich and complex character in the cartoon who is forced to emote through a veritable thicket of nylon fibers.

If I am inclined to compare this series to the original unfavorably, then to be fair, I’ll compare it to the other live-action outing. In this regard, Netflix’s Avatar is a significant upgrade. Many of the complaints you may have had with the Shyamalan disaster (bad casting, wild departures, absurdly rushed pacing that abbreviated seasons of events, etc) are improved upon on Netflix. It’s not as rushed here, it cuts a little less from the story for the sake of pace, they didn’t cast a ton of white people. It should be noted though that it’s truly great to see actors of Inuit and Asian descent in the roles. Whatever qualms I have about the series, it’s nonetheless an important benchmark to meet. Netflix’s Avatar is in some ways stridently faithful to the original series in terms of laying out plot beats and world-building, though sometimes the way they do this works against them.

The animated Avatar had a remarkably organic way of unpacking its world and much of that rested on starting our perspective with two teens in a boat bickering about how to catch fish. The cartoon series understood that before we can dive into the fantasy politics of Avatar’s world, we need to be emotionally invested in our lead characters bringing us into that world. Netflix’s Avatar plonks the viewers in the middle of the Fire Nation’s invasion of the Earth Kingdom and their eradication of the Air Nomads, utilizing the earliest moments of the series to explain the world and its geopolitics via quick action cuts and wordy exchanges between people in wigs. It’s a difficult place to access this story, especially for someone unfamiliar.

I understand the desire to put a different spin on a story people have heard before, but the changes made in this adaptation serve to cloud and impede access to the emotion. The moments when those emotions do connect with the viewer are due to the efforts of the actors who push through the noise. Of particular note are Gordon Cormier as Aang whose smile and eyes twinkle quite charmingly and Kiawentiio as Katara who balances spunk with sensitivity quite nicely. They both consistently deliver energy that pops and that’s no small feat in something as blandly written as this series. Unfortunately, the writing is quite stilted and clunky, especially in expository moments. It’s difficult to feel I’ve rightly and clearly witnessed the performances for how uninspiring the script and direction are.

The series is not devoid of effort or ideas, it’s just that it’s all so wanly presented. It lacks a new take or a new angle, which makes the adaptation aspect of the series feel hollow. It also lacks an internal logic, style, or structure apart from its progenitor to be truly great in its own right. Where this leaves the series is in a hinterland of mediocrity. Netflix’s Avatar: the Last Airbender could be a lot worse, but it’s the ways it could’ve been better that really sting. Without an incredible animated series inspiring it, this series would be exactly okay, unremarkable in almost every way. The fact is, we saw how good this series can be when it was animated, so while Netflix’s Avatar: the Last Airbender is the best live-action adaptation we have, it’s difficult to muster much love or much scorn. It’s an exercise in IP-extension, but it’s not the worst IP-extension project we’ve seen, and much worse is to come. Zazlav and JK Rowling are so excited to bring a Harry Potter series to life and I’m sure the cash-grab shallowness of it will put this one to shame. At least you can say watching Avatar didn’t put money in a transphobe’s pocket.