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Avatar: The Last Airbender Review: Netflix Version Falls Short

by California Digital News

Hollywood loves nothing more than gnawing on the bones of preexisting IPs. Whether a reboot is good or not, it will almost certainly be lucrative. When it comes to Avatar: The Last Airbender, the industry powers that be should’ve learned their lesson the first time. In 2010, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko’s Nickelodeon show, widely considered one of the greatest animated series of the 21st century, was adapted by M. Night Shyamalan in The Last Airbender. That film is widely considered one of the worst movies of the 21st century. (We’re talking a 5 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating). Unfortunately, it didn’t stop Netflix from making its flesh-and-blood-and CGI adaptation. The best thing to say about it is at least they did a better job than Shyamalan.

Like the original, Albert Kim’s version of Avatar: The Last Airbender is a fantastical adventure tale set in a world divided into four elemental cultures: the Water Tribes, the Earth Kingdom, the Fire Nation, and the Air Nomads. Within each, certain people called “benders” are gifted with the ability to manipulate their native element, whether they use it to fight, heal, build, or fly. Then there’s the Avatar, an eternally reincarnated chosen one who can bend all four, tasked with maintaining balance among humans and spirits alike.

When Avatar begins, Fire Lord Sozin (Hiro Kanagawa) has declared war on the world. He sets out to conquer his adversaries one by one, beginning by wiping out the Air Nomads in an attempt to end the Avatar cycle forever. One hundred years later, the world is still without a defender, and the Fire Nation is steadily gaining ground. Turns out our MIA hero, a 12-year-old Airbender named Aang (Gordon Cormier), has been frozen in an iceberg for the past century. That is, until Katara (Kiawentiio) and Sokka (Ian Ousley), a teenage brother and sister from the Southern Water Tribe, unwittingly thaw him out.

After an icy start, the three hop aboard Aang’s flying bison and head north so the inexperienced young Avatar can learn to bend the other three elements and possibly save the Northern Water Tribe from a dire fate. En route, Katara works on her water bending, Sokka makes out with a few ladies, and Aang comes to the aid of various folks they meet along the way. But it’s not all smooth bison-riding for our trio. They’re being pursued by Zuko (Dallas Liu), the exiled prince of the Fire Nation, who can only return home once he’s captured the Avatar. Zuko and his Uncle Iroh (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee) are themselves dogged by Commander Zhao (Ken Leung), a Fire Nation soldier determined to seize Aang himself—and take down the Northern Water Tribe, as a treat. Meanwhile, Zuko’s dad and sister hatch their own plots from the palace.

Series creator Kim (Nikita, Sleepy Hollow) and his team are aiming to avoid the gravest sins committed by the 2010 movie. First and foremost, the characters in the East Asian and Inuit-inspired animated series were played almost entirely by white or Indian actors. Netflix’s Avatar, on the other hand, features a cast reflecting the cartoon’s world. It’s a welcome and essential change. The show also tries to hew closer to the vibe of the original with its colorful costumes and production design, gravity-defying action sequences, and sense of humor and wonder. The operative word here is tries because, unfortunately, the effort shows. DiMartino and Konietzko were initially attached to the adaptation, but they pulled out in 2020 citing creative differences. And after eight awkward, uneven hourlong episodes, it’s easy to guess what their objections were.

Like Aang’s air bending, the original 22-minute series felt effortless in its top-notch character arcs, worldbuilding, fight choreography, and wit. It managed to balance lighthearted road-trip capers, edge-of-your-seat thrills, and heavy subjects like familial trauma and the moral cost of war. This version, on the other hand, is weighed down by stiff acting, slow pacing, robotic dialogue, touch-and-go CGI, and more exposition than an army of earthbenders can handle.

Avatar: The Last Airbender | Final Trailer | Netflix

The first episode, in particular, is so lore-heavy and repetitive that newcomers to the world of Avatar will likely find themselves halfway between befuddled and bored. (In one particularly awkward scene, Sokka and Katara’s grandmother recites the explanatory dialogue from the cartoon’s opening credits word-for-word). In an apparent nod to fans, the show attempts to recreate a few of the cartoon’s most iconic scenes shot-for-shot: A raging Aang leveling the Southern Air Temple with his bending, Zuko shooting vivid gouts of fire from his wrists in an otherwise colorless world. But these sequences only highlight what’s been lost in translation. There are things an animator’s pen can do that digital effects simply can’t.

While there are a few genuinely impressive set pieces, such as an acrobatic prison break and a terrifying encounter in the Spirit World, most simply feel inert. A climactic water bender-on-water bender showdown at the North Pole is about as thrilling as watching two kids having a splash fight in the shallow end. Also, watching adults bully and attack a cartoon child is one thing, but witnessing, say, an elderly King Bumi (Utkarsh Ambudkar, slathered in an unnerving amount of old-age makeup) hurl boulders at a real-life child is hard to stomach. These shortcomings could be forgiven if the basics were in place. But there isn’t much to work with in the terrible writing and acting that seldom rises above the level of small-town community theater.

A few performances rise above the muck. As a sympathetic antihero with an epic character arc, Zuko is the original series’ most iconic character. Though he’s hamstrung by the script, PEN15‘s Liu does a decent job of conveying the Fire Prince’s inner conflict, particularly in flashback scenes opposite a sinister Daniel Dae Kim as his calculating, abusive father, King Ozai. Once he settles into his role, Ousley provides some much-needed comic relief as the wisecracking Sokka. Most of the other actors flounder. Many of the younger performers seem lost, while the adults simply look bored.

In the end, it’s hard to say who this version of Avatar is for, exactly. Fans of the original will be disappointed with the show’s charmless, uncanny-valley riff on the world they know and love. Newcomers may be put off in general. There’s an argument to be made for live-action versions of beloved animated series; Netflix’s own One Piece, for example, is a rollicking remix of the classic anime that gleefully embraces its cartoonishness. Avatar: The Last Airbender tries so hard to heft the weight of its legacy that it ends up sweating bullets.

Avatar: The Last Airbender premieres on Netflix on February 22

Correction: An earlier version of this review mistakenly stated there are 10 episodes. There are eight.

This story originally appeared on The A.V. Club.

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