Review: ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’

Netflix’s Adaptation Of The Timeless Cartoon Delivers On Nostalgia, Representation, And Kickass Bending!

I have to preface this review with my unabashed love for Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender cartoon/anime (I still consider it an anime even though I’m in the minority of that logic). Not too many cartoons are on my “greatest of all time” TV lists, but the tale of Aang and “Team Avatar” facing off against the Fire Nation absolutely is on my list. In fact, thanks to streaming, it’s one of the shows that I will rewatch at least once every two years, right up there with Breaking Bad, The Wire, 24, and all the greats. Needless to say, Avatar: The Last Airbender holds a special place in my heart. It made me nervous that Netflix was commissioning a live-action adaptation of the beloved cartoon, especially after that atrocious M. Night Shyamalan adaptation that was downright unwatchable. To make matters worse, the original creators left the Netflix production due to “creative differences” and some character beats from the cartoon were already announced to change. So how would Netflix’s version of Avatar: The Last Airbender go?

Debuting almost 19 years to the day after the premiere of the original cartoon, Avatar: The Last Airbender delivers on almost every level and is a worthy adaptation of the beloved classic. For the uninitiated, Avatar takes place in an alternative world where there are four nations: Earth, Water, Air, and Fire. In this world, a select group of people from these nations have the ability to “bend” the elements. People from the Water Tribes can manipulate water, Air Nomads: air, Earth Kingdom: earth, and the Fire Nation: fire. While people from each nation can control the elements of their nationality, only “The Avatar” is gifted with the ability to control all four elements. The Avatar is a role/title that changes generationally and across all four nations. When one Avatar passes away, he/she is reborn in another nation. The goal of the Avatar is to establish balance not only between the nations, but also between the physical and spiritual world. The latest reincarnation of The Avatar takes the form of a young kid named Aang (Gordon Cormier) who is an airbender, but when The Fire Nation dipped their toes in imperialism, Aang was lost for and remained lost for 100 years.

During the 100 years that Aang was missing, the Fire Nation led by the ruthless Fire Lord Ozai (Daniel Dae Kim) went on a campaign of conquest across the planet, leaving the world on the brink of war. In the south, Southern Water Tribe members Katara (Kiawentiio) and her big brother Sokka (Ian Ousley) are basically the “elders” of their tribe as most of the fighters left their village to fight The Fire Nation. They happen to come across Aang, who has been hibernating frozen in an iceberg for the last 100 years. They have to fill Aang in on the last 100 years and quickly befriend him and join him to complete his training on the other elements so he can defeat the Fire Nation and save the world.

At the same time, Aang’s arrival has peaks the interest of Prince Zuko (Dallas Liu), Fire Lord Ozai’s son and recently banished member of The Fire Nation. Zuko cannot return home unless he captures The Avatar and delivers him to his father, so he is determined to capture Aang so he can return back home. Teaming up with his tea-loving uncle Iroh (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee), Zuko leads his naval battalion for a season-long game of cat and mouse with Aang, Katara, and Sokka. “Team Avatar” as they named themselves, are now on a quest to help Aang go out and save the world from the Fire Nation. Each episode is a new adventure for them to get into as they travel in search of clues to help Aang learn the skills he needs and discover what it means to be The Avatar.

Avatar: The Last Airbender nails so many crucial elements from the cartoon in such a way that will make even the most jaded fan smile. The set decoration and CGI (for the most part) are flawlessly copied from animation to live action. The world-building that existed in the cartoon is also available in the live-action show, complete with the choices for merged animals like tiger seals, turtle ducks, giant moles, and of course Appa the flying bison or Momo the winged lemur. Just like the cartoon, the cultures of each elemental nation are on full display, and unlike other live-action adaptations, Avatar: The Last Airbender is a cast primarily of people of color. In the cartoon, most of the characters were either of Asian, South Asian, or Indigenous descent, and that carries into the Netflix adaptation.

Avatar: The Last Airbender’s biggest test is whether or not the bending looks realistic. It’s one thing for the cartoon to have people shooting fire out of their hands while fighting someone who can turn water into ice daggers, or an earth bender causing earthquakes and throwing dirt at their enemies, but in live-action, that could be a disaster. However, I’m happy to say that the bending is awesome, is done in very creative ways during fights, and it never gets old. There are plenty of breathtaking fight scenes that not only look great, but aren’t over-bloated CGI monstrosities as the world is completely believable.

In addition, each of the performances delivers. Team Avatar does most of the heavy lifting as we get to spend so much time with them. While some folks are upset about the lack of Sokka’s initial sexism, you will barely notice it as each character has great character moments, especially Gordon Cormier as Aang as he wrestles with not only being The Avatar and how that conflicts with his pacifist upbringing, but also he, Kara, and Soka are all young kids who have to go on a quest to save the world, while they probably would rather want to be going out and playing. The decision to introduce Fire Lord Ozai and Princess Azula before their introduction from the animated series helps establish them as dangerous foils for Team Avatar. Daniel Dae Kim (yes, I know he’s the Internet’s new “Zaddy” thanks to him being shirtless on the show) is terrifying as the ruthless leader of the fire nation, and Elizabeth Yu as Azula shows just how evil she will become thanks to her ambition and ruthlessness to appease her father. But fan favorites Prince Zuko and Uncle Iroh are pitch-perfect in their casting. Dallas Liu plays Zuko’s anguish perfectly, and fans know how his character arc is going to be over the series and it’ll be interesting to see him fulfill that role. But just like in the cartoon, Uncle Iroh is the MVP. The “Dragon of the West” who loves his tea is such a perfect role for Paul Sun-Hyung Lee as his star continues to climb with each pop culture role he gets.

While Avatar: The Last Airbender is a great adaptation, at times it does feel like Disney’s live-action adaptation of The Lion King, in that not much of the story is changing from one medium to another, it just looks prettier. The first season of the show pretty much covers “Book One: Water” from the cartoon. The cartoon had twenty 20-minute episodes to cover the subject, the first season of the show has to truncate it into eight 45–53-minute episodes, and it feels we could have had 1-2 more episodes to help flesh everything out. In addition, while the bending CGI was awesome, sometimes the mythological creatures could have done another rendering pass. Momo and Appa looked great, but it’s not surprising that some of the CGI animals were sparingly used for cloudy day or night shots to help cover deficiencies in the CGI department.

Avatar: The Last Airbender’s first season ends with a bunch of story setup for the second season, to the point that after you finish binging, you’re going to be mad that you have to wait a couple years for the second season. There’s a reason they adjusted the timeline of “Sozin’s Comet” from the cartoon so that the story can take longer (and the teen actors don’t look like grown adults by season 2), and it’s because Netflix is in this for the long haul. While the cartoon was only three seasons, I can see them trying to stretch this show for 4-5 seasons, and as an Avatar fan, bring it on. Bring on Aang, bring on Kora, hell even give us prequels for other Avatars! If they can keep up the awesomeness of the first season, Netflix will have a hit for the foreseeable future.

Avatar: The Last Airbender is currently available on Netflix.