TV Show ReviewsJosh Reviews Netflix’s Live-Action Avatar: The Last Airbender

Josh Reviews Netflix’s Live-Action Avatar: The Last Airbender

I have never quite understood the instinct to create a live-action version of a beloved animated property.  Disney has made this a core of their moviemaking business in recent years, and even when I’ve enjoyed the live-action versions, I’ve never felt they had much reason to exist.  The original animated versions are so good!!  Those always remain first in my heart.  So, first things first, I don’t think there’s a strong creative reason why Netflix’s live-action version of Avatar: The Last Airbender needs to exist.  If you were already a fan of the original three-season animated show (as I am), then you’d probably much prefer a new story set in this universe, rather than a retread of an old one.  And if you’ve never seen the original animated Avatar: The Last Airbender, then my strong advice for you is to go watch the original.

All that being said, I had fun watching this eight-episode live-action (and CGI) version of Avatar: The Last Airbender.  The show was made with a lot of love and fidelity to the original series.  Lots of changes have been made, of course, but all of the main characters have been brought to live-action life in a way that hews very closely to the essence of their original animated characters, and this first season is a faithful — albeit dramatically condensed — adaptation of the story told in the first season of the animated show.  This Netflix show looks great.  The characters, props, settings, and creatures all look terrific — very faithful to the look from the animated show, nicely brought to three-dimensional life.  They haven’t dumbed down the show in any way (quite the contrary, they’ve tried to make it a little more intense and adult — more on that in a bit).  The casting is very strong.  At the end of eight episodes, I found myself quite liking these versions of these characters, and eager to see where their adventures take them from here.  (The original series was created by created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko.  This live-action version was developed by Albert Kim.)

If you’re not familiar with this series, Avatar: The Last Airbender is set in a fantasy world divided into four nations, each based on a different element: water, earth, fire and air.  Certain people in each element’s nation have the ability to “bend” that element — controlling it with their minds.  In each generation, an “Avatar” is born with the ability to bend all four elements; this Avatar is tasked with keeping balance in the world and peace between the four nations.  But 100 years before the show, the Fire Nation wiped out all of the Airbenders and almost killed the young Avatar, who had not yet mastered his powers.  (He wound up frozen in ice.)  A century later, the Fire Nation controls most of the world.  Two kids from the Water Tribe, Katara and her brother Sokka, find and release the young Avatar, Aang.  They band together to try to help Aang learn the skills he needs to become the Avatar, hopefully before the Fire Nation can wipes out the final elements of resistance to their rule and fine and kill Aang.

This new live-action series’ main weakness — other than its’ not needing to exist in the first place — is that, at only eight episodes long, everything moves way too fast.  I was pleasantly surprised by how faithful the overall thrust of this first season was to the original show’s story.  Netflix has announced that this show has been renewed for seasons two and three, so clearly the idea here is to make a three-season show that tells the same story as the three-season animated show.  That’s cool, but trying to smush the story originally told in twenty episodes into only eight gives this show the feel of watching a story on fast-forward.  Everything happens way too fast to suit me.  This causes some plot and story problems, and means that certain emotional beats don’t land with as much power as they should have.  For example, it feels weird that Sokka winds up with two romantic flings in just eight episodes.  (I understand that they wanted to include both the Kyoshi Warrior Suki as well as Princess Yue, as both are important characters in the original show.  But this feels like an example of where they couldn’t quite have their cake and eat it too.  I think this live-action show would have been stronger had they chosen only one of those young women to include.)  It also feels frustratingly like time-wasting to me when both Katara and Sokka wind up unconscious and trapped in the spirit-world for most of two episodes.  Now, I’m not saying the first season of the animated show is perfect.  It definitely took them some time to figure out the tone and direction of the show, and there are some episodes that don’t exactly feel critical.  But I missed the way the original show gave the characters and the story some time to breathe.  The cumulative effect of having the time for some stand-alone adventures is that as an audience member I felt more bonded to these characters by the finale of the original animated season one, and the characters felt more bonded to one another.  That gave the events of the animated season one finale more power than what we see here.  (It also felt silly to me that by the finale of this live-action version, 1) Katara had somehow jumped to being a superstar waterbender master, while 2) Aang seemed to have learned zero new bending skills.)

What I like best about this live-action show is the cast.  I really dug pretty much every actor cast on the show.  They were all strong and successfully hooked me into these new versions of these characters.  Let me start by mentioning two critical supporting characters that I adored from the original show, and so was nervous about here: Uncle Iroh and Prince Zuko.  The arc of Zuko — who starts the show as an arrogant, spoiled villain, tasked with hunting down the Avatar for his father the Fire Lord — is one of the best-executed stories on the original show.  And his calm, wise Uncle Iroh — a rare Fire Nation character who seems to possess great wisdom and honor — was by far my favorite character on the original show.  Here, Iroh is played by Paul Sun-Hyung Lee (who’s been popping up all over the Disney+ Star Wars TV shows as X-Wing pilot Carson Teva), while Zuko is played by Dallas Liu.  I wasn’t sure about either character when watching the premiere of this new show, but by the end of the eight episodes I was delighted by how much I loved them both.  Mr. Lee has done great work on those Star Wars shows, but I’ve always felt he was capable of more.  He proves that in spades here, bringing Iroh to life with great relish.  He’s funny and sweet and also strong and smart.  I love this version of Iron.  Mr. Liu is also great as Zuko.  He’s able to play the spoiled brat side of Zuko, but also the wounded, emotional side of him as well.  I liked the way the show allowed us to gradually understand Zuko’s backstory as these eight episodes unfolded.

The main trio are brought to life well.  Gordon Cormier does a nice job as Aang.  There’s a lot resting on this young kid’s shoulders!  (Both the actor and the character!)  I was happy that this Aang really felt like the kid he should be.  At the same time, Mr. Cormier did a nice job with the more dramatic moments he was asked to play.  I like that Aang’s good heart and fun-loving nature shine through in his performance.  Kiawentiio plays Katara.  She has big shows to fill — the talented Mae Whitman (Arrested Development, Parenthood, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, The Perks of Being a Wallflower) voiced Katara on the original show — and I thought she did solid work.  She didn’t always quite reach the emotional notes I wanted her to play, but I liked how she captured Katara’s openness and honesty and her big heart.  It was fun getting to watch her kick ass at waterbending by the end of the season.  Ian Ousley played Sokka and I liked him immediately.  He got Sokka’s fast-talking bluster but also the strong core of bravery and loyalty in his heart.  And Mr. Ousley nailed Sokka’s sarcastic comic timing!

I’ve always enjoyed Ken Leung’s work (Lost, The Squid and the Whale, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), and it was great fun to see him cut loose as a total jerk here, playing the scheming Fire Nation Commander Zhao.  I enjoyed the way the show gave Zhao more time and focus as a great villain, a nice adjustment from the original animated series.  Speaking of Lost, I was happy to see Daniel Dae Kim as Fire Lord Ozai.  I look forward to seeing more of Ozai in future seasons.  Lim Kay Siu was memorable as Gyatso, the elderly Airbender who is Aang’s mentor and father-figure.  Mr. Siu brings a nice sparkle to his scenes, making them interesting even though his character is obviously a goner from the second we meet him.  Elizabeth Yu looked a little too baby-faced to me for the evil Princess Azula, but she did a nice job conveying Azula’s sass and take-no-prisoners attitude.  Maria Zhang was terrific as the Kyoshi Warrior Suki; she was so good that I wish they’d found a way to involve her more in this season beyond that one episode!  I look forward to seeing her again.  I loved Amber Midthunder (who was spectacular in Legion and Prey), but she felt a little lost to me under that silly huge white/gray wig as Princess Yue.  We needed more time with this character.  Utkarsh Ambudkar (Pitch Perfect, Brittany Runs a Marathon, Tick, Tick…Boom!) was fun as (the surprisingly buff!) old King Bumi.  I smiled to hear the voice of George Takei as Koh the Face Stealer.  I also smiled to see François Chau (another Lost actor!  He played various versions of the mysterious Dharma scientist maybe named Pierre Chang) pop up as a Fire Nation Sage at the temple of Avatar Roku.  Danny Pudi (Community) was great as the Earth Kingdom inventor Sai, and Lucian-River Chauhan did nice work as his wheelchair-bound son, Teo.  Sebastian Amoruso was also strong as Jet, the leader of the anti-Fire Nation resistance who has a flirtation with Katara.  Arden Cho was terrific as the bounty hunter June, smart and tough.  This is a great cast!!  They clearly took a lot of care in fleshing out the characters in this world, and I’m pleased they were able to attract such talent to this project.  It pays off well, as every one of these actors makes the most of their part and does their best to bring their character to life despite often having quite limited screen-time in which to do so.

I was pleased that the writers took great pains to include many/most of the most famous lines and moments from the original show.  I was happy to see the unfortunate cabbage vendor make the transition into this live-action show, and of course I was happy to hear the “secret tunnel” song.  (I liked the way they worked that into the episode set in the Earth Kingdom city of Omashu.  That was clever.)  I was convinced that this show would incorporate Toph into this first season (even though this character — who became a main character on the animated show — wasn’t introduced until the second season); I was surprised and impressed that they stuck to the way the story unfolded on the original show and didn’t jump ahead to bringing in Toph.  That showed a wonderful faithfulness to the original show!

The visuals of the show are terrific.  It feels like they spared no expense to bring the world of the show to life.  I was pleased how large the canvas of the show was.  Each episode takes place in a beautifully-realized new location.  All the sets, props, and costumes look terrific.  They did a great job building upon the strong foundation of the iconic designs from the animated show to bring this world to life.  The CGI work on the creatures is very well done.  Appa and Momo both look great!!  (I also loved the look of the beast that the bounty hunter June rides, and all of the spirits, especially Koh.)

There’s a lot of action in the show, and I was pleased how well those scenes looked and how exciting they felt.  They didn’t skimp on the visual effects challenge of showing characters bending.  We get a lot of ass-kicking bending combat in the show, and that made me very happy!

The show felt a little more intense and adult than the original animated show did.  It doesn’t surprise me that they made that choice for a live-action version, which I suspect they felt would appeal to an older audience.  My eyebrows raised at how many people on the show die by being roasted alive by Firebenders.  (Most of the actual burning happens off-camera, but we do get a lot of anguished screams!)  For the most part, I thought this tone worked for the show.  (The first episode opens with a lengthy opening sequence showing us the Fire Nation ambush and massacre of the Airbenders.  I can understand the instinct to kick off this live-action show with a big battle, but that did mean that the opening of the show was a lot more dour than the actual show would be, which might not have been the best choice.)

I enjoyed watching these eight episodes!  Had Netflix spent the money to make ten or twelve episodes, this might really have been something special.  As it is, it’s well-made and fun to watch… though I would continue to direct newbies to the original animated show, rather than this “Cliff’s Notes” version.  I am, though, thankful that Netflix is IN to make two more seasons and complete this story.  I’m excited to see it and bummed that we’ll have to wait a good long while!  (I hope the kid actors don’t grow up too fast, bringing us into a Stranger Things type of problem…!)

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