Netflix’s ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ serves as an impressive live adaptation

By Jessica Silverio, Feb. 27, 2024

After years of anticipation and curiosity, Netflix’s live adaptation of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” debuted Feb. 22, inviting audiences to rediscover the world of elemental bending.

Even after 16 years since the conclusion of the animated series on Nickelodeon, Netflix’s “Avatar: The Last Airbender” continues to generate excitement, capturing the interest of fans across various age groups, including myself who has watched the animated series as a child.

It’s worth mentioning that the show deviates from the source material at times, incorporating new scenes not found in the animated series. However, these additions do not necessarily diminish its quality.

One notable example of such an addition is the depiction of the Fire Nation’s assault on the Southern Air Temple, resulting in the tragic eradication of the Air Nomads, also known as the Airbenders. While mentioned in the animated series, this event was never visually depicted until now, offering viewers a deeper understanding of its impact on the story.

An admirable aspect of the show is its commitment to cultural authenticity, particularly evident in its portrayal of characters from the Water Tribe, which takes inspiration from Yupik and Inuit tribes from Canada and Alaska. Many of these characters are portrayed by Indigenous actors, such as Kiawentiio Tarbell, who is of Mohawk descent and portrays the main character Katara.

One of the most captivating aspects of the show is actor’s Gordon Cormier’s portrayal of Aang. He skillfully captured the emotional journey of a child grappling with the revelation of being the Avatar, conveying both fear of the weight of responsibility and the pressure of others’ expectations. Despite these inner conflicts, his character maintains a resilient spirit, consistently wearing a smile while aiding those in need.

Where the show disappoints is in the portrayal of Sokka, played by Ian Ousley. In the live adaptation, Sokka’s character appears notably more serious, miserable at times throughout the show. This departure from his traditionally fun and charming personality in the animated series is notable and unfortunate. When Sokka does attempt humor in the live adaptation, these moments often feel awkward and fail to land effectively.

Another disappointing aspect of the show is the display of Momo, a winged lemur accompanying Aang and his friends on their journey. In the live adaptation, Momo’s presence feels inconsistent, appearing randomly and infrequently throughout the series. This lack of consistency almost leads viewers to forget that he’s a part of the show altogether.

Despite the shift in Sokka’s personality, the dynamic between the trio remains engaging. Their interactions are well-established, showcasing their bond forged through shared hardships and their collective journey toward aiding Aang in mastering all four elements and bringing balance to the world.

When it comes to elemental bending, witnessing characters manipulating water, earth, fire and air during fight scenes was truly fascinating to watch. The opening sequence of the battle between Firebenders and Airbenders in the first episode was exhilarating to watch, especially the choreography that comes with elemental bending. Fortunately, the subsequent scenes consistently delivered captivating action sequences throughout.

Throughout the series, the primary antagonist is Zuko, portrayed by Dallas Liu. Liu embodies the role of the son of the Fire Lord, portrayed by Daniel Dae Kim, who has exiled Zuko until he captures the Avatar. Viewers are drawn into Zuko’s journey, experiencing his anger, stubbornness and desperation as he seeks to prove his worth to his father and fulfill what he perceives as his destiny to capture the Avatar.

Viewers are provided with a deeper insight into the profound impact of the 100 Year War with the Fire Nation on the people. One instance of this is when an Earthbender soldier confronts Uncle Iroh, portrayed by Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, recounting how his compassionate 19-year-old brother was mercilessly killed by him years earlier, leaving him to view Iroh as a heartless monster devoid of humanity.

This specific scene was intriguing to watch because viewers tend to see Uncle Iroh as a kind-hearted man who just wants peace and harmony throughout the series, but don’t think about the man he used to be and what he had to do as a member of the Fire Nation.

The series provides a diverse array of environments, offering viewers glimpses of locales such as Wolf Cove, the village of Katara and Sokka, the bustling city of Omashu, home to the Earthbenders, and notably, Kyoshi Island, where we are introduced to Suki, portrayed by Maria Zhang, and her Kyoshi Warriors for the first time. Each setting adds depth to the narrative, enriching the viewer’s experience.

The cinematography of each setting felt real and looked just as if it came right out of the animated series. It’s exciting to see each new place come to life and watch how the main characters interact with the people and the environment around them.

The portrayal of the Fire Nation Capital leaves something to be desired. Throughout the series, viewers are only shown two key locations: Fire Lord Ozai’s throne room and the training grounds where Azula, portrayed by Elizabeth Yu, practices her skills. A more comprehensive exploration of this significant setting would have been beneficial for a deeper understanding of the Fire Nation’s culture and dynamics.

The costumes worn in the live adaptation closely mirror those depicted in the animated series. Each costume reflects the cultural identity and aesthetics of its respective group from the flowing robes of the Air Nomads to the fur-lined attire of the Water Tribe, the sturdy earth-toned clothing of the Earthbenders to the regal and elaborate garments of the Fire Nation. These costumes effectively enhance the visual authenticity and immersion of the show, staying true to the original design concepts.

While the show stayed faithful to the original series in many aspects, deviations and inconsistencies in character portrayal are evident, leaving room for improvement. Despite its flaws, the show offers captivating world-building, compelling character dynamics and visually stunning action sequences, making it an engaging watch for both fans and newcomers.

Feature image courtesy of Netflix 

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