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‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ Review: A Live-Action Adaptation that Brings Hope to the Franchise

4.5 Stars

Ian Ousley, Gordon Cormier, and Kiawentiio Tarbell in season 1 of "Avatar: The Last Airbender."
Ian Ousley, Gordon Cormier, and Kiawentiio Tarbell in season 1 of "Avatar: The Last Airbender." By Courtesy of Robert Falconer/Netflix
By Katy E. Nairn, Crimson Staff Writer

The Avatar has returned. Released on Thursday, Feb. 22, Netflix’s new live-action adaptation of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” strikes a perfect balance between paying homage to the 2005 Nickelodeon animated series and reimagining the storylines in a compact eight-episode series accessible for new viewers and die-hard fans alike. Full of visually striking fight scenes and a more mature tone than its cartoon predecessor, the complexity of the series’ fantasy world truly shines in this adaptation. Yet, the biggest triumph of the new series is the fidelity to beloved characters, brought to life by a superbly cast ensemble of actors.

From the first scenes of episode one, viewers are thrust into the political intrigue of a war waged by Fire Lord Sozin (Hiro Kanagawa) — the power-hungry tyrant at the helm of the Fire Nation — against the Earth Kingdom, Water Tribes, and Air Nomads. Unlike its animated predecessor, the new series fleshes out Aang’s (Gordon Cormier) experience as a young airbender learning that he is the next Avatar, the only person who can master all four elements. However, Aang disappears soon after, frozen in an iceberg with his loyal — and thanks to CGI — incredibly fluffy sky bison named Appa.

One hundred years later, Aang emerges from the ice to two unsuspecting Water Tribe teens, fledgling waterbender Katara (Kiawentiio) and her older brother Sokka (Ian Ousley). The three set out on a journey across the four nations to ultimately bring Aang to the Northern Water Tribe where he must warn its leaders of an impending Fire Nation attack, and hopefully hone his water bending skills.

As these newfound friends set out on their quest, the banished heir to the Fire Nation Throne, Prince Zuko (Dallas Liu), and his unwaveringly jovial Uncle Iroh (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee) follow in hot pursuit. While many of the beloved “filler” episodes of the original show fall to the wayside in this new adaptation, the new 45-60 minute episodes contain far more exposition. Among the most riveting scenes are flashbacks for Liu’s emotionally scarred portrayal of Zuko.

Despite the sudden departure of original creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino due to creative differences after two years of development for Netflix, the remaining showrunner Albert Kim succeeded in capturing much of the original magic of the animated series. Notably, Konietzko and DiMartino are now working together to create new animated sequel movies under their newly created Avatar Studios.

Admittedly, the pacing of Kim’s series feels slightly disjointed as a result of several different groups of characters accomplishing entirely separate plot points. For instance, much of the middle of the season follows the main trio’s journey in Omashu, which absorbs adventures that originally took place over the course of many episodes and separated by journeys to different locations throughout the Earth Kingdom.

This decision is jarring for fans familiar with the original series, and potentially bewildering for those without background knowledge of the show’s world, minor characters, and original plot. The merging of storylines contributes to the new series’ darker, more mature tone, evoking a sense of intrigue that raises the stakes for each of the main characters. In the series’ defense, collapsing many storylines to occur simultaneously is truly the only feasible strategy to make time for consistent call-backs to the original series over the course of fewer episodes.

Many fan-favorite moments are given new life with special effects, and the live actors bring the scenes further to life. The perfectly goofy yet decidedly less useless rendition of season one’s Sokka still falls for the intense and witty Kyoshi warrior Suki (Maria Zhang). Katara’s epic duel with sexist water bending Master Pakku (A Martinez) is recreated almost shot-for-shot, completing her early character development from timid and apprehensive to confident in her new-found power. Even the cabbage merchant (James Sie) makes his comedic return in the Omashu episode. Much to fans’ relief, there is still a band of roving musicians to serenade Sokka and Katara upon entering the famed “Secret Tunnel.”

On a more serious note, Uncle Iroh’s backstory is also fleshed out in more detail. Several scenes, including his past as a Fire Nation General and the loss of his son, Lu Ten, bring an added and much-appreciated humanity to a character who without special narrative attention would be in danger of appearing as a bumbling old man.

Yet another triumph is in the series’ costumes, designed by Farnaz Khaki-Sadign whose work was informed by real forms of cultural dress to make the fantasy world feel all the more believable. The attention to detail in the show not only accurately recreates the original animation, but also brings the cultural influences and inspirations of the world to the forefront of the series’ striking visuals and elaborate sets.

With promise of a second and hopefully third season to finish out the story progression, this revival of a cult-classic series rises to the monumental task at hand — appeasing existing fans with easter egg references and true-to-character depictions, while also generating excitement from new fans who will be left wanting more after the cliff-hanger at the end of season one.

—Staff writer Katy E. Nairn can be reached at katy.nairn@thecrimson.com.

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