Netflix Series More Water Than Fire

Netflix Series More Water Than Fire

M. Night Shyamlan’s 2010 film The Last Airbender may be the gold standard for how not to translate a beloved property from one medium to another. Though Shyamalan covered much of the plot of the first season of the animated fantasy epic Avatar: The Last Airbender, he misunderstood nearly everything else about the show, from casting white actors in roles that were designed to be Asian or Indigenous (and getting terrible performances out of them) to something as easily avoidable as mispronouncing half the characters’ names. 

The movie was a self-inflicted wound on almost every level, and the worst-case scenario for this kind of adaptation. But there’s rarely much, if any, upside to trying to remake work that’s widely considered a masterpiece. If the planets align perfectly, maybe you’ll be told that you did an acceptable job, even if the original is obviously much better. If you mess up a few components, the knives will come out for you. And if you botch more than a few, well… see the 2010 movie. Or, preferably, don’t.

The original Avatar cartoon, which ran on Nickelodeon from 2005-08, is a classic no matter how you want to categorize it: as a cartoon, as a kids show, and as a rip-roaring adventure series with enough ambition and depth to be appreciated by audiences of any age. Created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, the series took place in an Asian-influenced parallel world, divided up into four nations, each of them featuring some citizens with the ability to telekinetically “bend” one of the four fundamental elements: water, earth, fire, and air. In each generation, an Avatar is born, who can control all four elements, bridge the gap between the human and spirit worlds, bring balance to both levels of reality, and act as both a fierce warrior and a profound sage.

The title character is Aang, a 12-year-old boy who accidentally gets frozen in the ocean right after learning he’s the new Avatar, and right before the Fire Nation begins an open war to conquer the remaining nations, and to exterminate every last Airbender to prevent the new Avatar from interfering in this plan. A century later, Water Tribe siblings Katara and Sokka inadvertently rescue Aang from his icy prison, and travel the world with him as he trains in the other elements, battles Fire Nation soldiers, and tries to stay one step ahead of the disgraced Prince Zuko, who believes capturing the Avatar will win back the respect and love of his father, Fire Lord Ozai.

Like Aang trying to master his many powers and responsibilities, DiMartino and Konietzko had to figure out how to incorporate many big ideas, influences, and genres into a weekly 24-minute package that could be fully appreciated by, and appropriate for, a grade school audience. They did it well enough to earn ratings and acclaim, make a slightly more mature sequel series called The Legend of Korra, get various comic book spinoffs to both shows, and, on occasion, inspire live-action filmmakers to take a stab at the title. 

Netflix just premiered a new live-action Avatar: The Last Airbender, whose eight-episode debut season covers the plot of the cartoon’s first year. Though DiMartino and Konietzko were initially involved in the development of it, they left the project nearly four years ago over creative differences; in an Instagram post at the time, DiMartino acknowledged, “Netflix’s live-action adaptation of Avatar  has the potential to be good. It might turn out to be a show many of you end up enjoying. But what I can be certain about is that whatever version ends up on-screen, it will not be what Bryan and I had envisioned or intended to make.” Despite various teaser images and clips that seemed like faithful recreations of characters and moments from the cartoon, it was hard not to worry that we were headed for another Shyamalan-level catastrophe.

Fortunately, the Netflix show isn’t that. In the absence of the original creators, showrunner Albert Kim and his team have made a solid, fairly respectful adaptation of this tricky, tricky subject. Most of the roles are well-cast, the production values and special effects are top-notch, the action is lively, and many of the big emotional moments land well. No one who watches will consider it an abomination, whether they know the source material or are just clicking play because the algorithm told them to. 

At the same time, this new version makes a few iffy choices, and on the whole bumps up against the low ceiling that greets almost any such attempt at taking on an iconic work.

The promising aspects start with the effective mix of young unknowns and wily veterans stepping into these big roles. Gordon Cormier convincingly plays Aang as someone who would much rather extend his carefree childhood a few more years than embrace these massive new adult responsibilities. Ian Ousley finds the proper spot on the Venn diagram that allows Sokka to be comic relief but also a sincere character worth rooting for, and he has good sibling chemistry with Kiawentiio as Katara. (She’s weaker away from him, but grows into the role a bit more by season’s end.) Dallas Liu has to hit an even smaller target, since Zuko is both a relentless villain and a tragic victim of his physically and emotionally abusive father; he does it very well. On the adult side, Daniel Dae Kim is perfectly smug and sinister as Ozai. And if Paul Sun-Hyung Lee plays Zuko’s Uncle Iroh as a more overtly serious figure than the deceptively foolish, Yoda-esque character from the first show, it allows Iroh and Zuko’s relationship to become the most emotionally potent one so far in this version. And, perhaps as compensation for Iroh being less silly, Ken Leung plays the season’s other main villain, ambitious Fire Nation officer Zhao, with a dry, cutting sense of humor that his animated counterpart lacked. 

Beyond the performances, this Avatar looks fantastic. The bending is a hard thing to get right — the movie has a laughable moment where a half-dozen Earthbenders move together in furious union, the result of which is the tossing of one volleyball-sized rock — but the fight sequences here are thrilling in how they’re staged and shot. If they occasionally lean too much on bullet-time effects, at least you can always clearly see what everyone is doing, and how impressive these superhuman feats are. Some of the CGI creations blend more seamlessly than others with the flesh-and-blood actors — Aang’s giant flying sky bison Appa is better viewed from a distance, or in pieces, than all together — but on the whole they bring this awesome fantasy world to life. When, for instance, Aang and his friends approached the Earth Kingdom city of Omashu, I wondered if this creative team would be able to come close to the animated version: an impressive piece of production design, built on a mountain, with long and massive rock slides erected all over to transport goods from one area to another. It turned out to be every bit as cool in three dimensions as in two.

Dallas Liu and Paul Sun-Hyung Lee in ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender.’

NETFLIX

Where the Netflix show captures the style of the original, though, the substance proves somewhat more elusive. While the cartoon began with Katara and Sokka discovering Aang during a routine fishing trip, this one starts out on the eve of the Fire Nation’s genocidal campaign against the Airbenders. We see a furious battle between earthbending spies and firebending soldiers, and then get to spend a bit of time with Aang right as his teacher Gyatso (Lim Kay Siu) explains that Aang is the new Avatar. The Aang/Gyatso scenes do a better job of establishing emotional stakes for our hero than the cartoon, which took a few episodes to settle on a tone, and they also neatly convey what a joyful, inspiring kid this was even before he became the most important person in the world. 

But the emphasis on action — including an assault on an Air Nomad temple while Aang and Appa are away on the doomed flight that will render them popsicles for the next 100 years — is also something of a giveaway that this is meant to be a darker and more serious show, geared towards teenagers and up rather than the all-ages approach of the cartoon. (We frequently, for instance, hear firebending victims scream in agony as they burn just slightly off-screen.) The animated series didn’t lack for action — if anything, it reveled in the freedom to show both benders and non-benders (including Sokka’s warrior crush Suki, well played in an episode here by Maria Zhang) defy various laws of physics at every turn — nor for heavy moments. Yet it ultimately took its cues from Aang, who tried to put brightness and laughter out into the world whenever possible. This Aang certainly has moments like that (Gordon Cormier has an infectious, movie star smile), but the new series is more interested in his self-doubt than his silliness. 

At one point, Aang runs into Bumi (Utkarsh Ambudkar, under a lot of old age makeup), a boyhood friend who is somehow still alive (and reasonably spry) 10 decades later. Bumi has experienced a lot of loss since they last met, and resents Aang for having been spared all this tragedy. “You think like a child!” he insists at one point, prompting Aang to ask, “Is that really so bad?” The Netflix show obviously wants us to side with Aang, yet it seems more philosophically aligned with Bumi, even though the emotions resonate more when filtered through Aang’s optimistic, if naive, worldview, than with the general approach here.

If the tonal shift is by choice, the other issue is one that can’t really be helped in the modern TV economy. Recreating all those animated wonders is neither easy, nor cheap, which is why most series on this scale can only produce eight episodes per season. (In hindsight, it’s surprising that House of the Dragon was able to make 10 in its first year; reportedly, the HBO drama will only do eight next time.) Because all the installments are close to an hour long, the actual runtime is almost identical to the first animated season. But by dividing those 240 minutes into eight episodes rather than 20, much of what happens feels rushed. Like Disney’s recent Percy Jackson and the Olympians, this Avatar has to race through all the big events of an incident-heavy first volume. (Multiple unrelated characters, for instance, cross paths in the Omashu episodes, simply because that’s the only place where the show can fit them all.) As a result, some of the characterization has to be filled in more by the performances, or by prior knowledge from cartoon fans, than anything the actors are given to play.

Does the Netflix show need to exist, when the streaming giant is also hosting all three seasons of the cartoon, plus all four seasons of Legend of Korra? No, but that kind of logic hasn’t stopped Disney from generating a lot of money with beat-for-beat live-action remakes of its own animated classics like Beauty and the Beast, or Netflix from leaning hard in this direction with recent new takes on Cowboy Bebop (which the audience rejected) and One Piece (which at least earned a second season). As these things go, this new Last Airbender is entertaining enough to work for newcomers to this world, and respectful enough to remind the cartoon’s fans why they loved that world in the first place. 

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Most of all, it proves that this story can be told in live-action, provided the people involved have a much firmer grasp on the ideas than M. Night Shyamalan did.

All eight episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender are now streaming on Netflix. I’ve seen the whole season.

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