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‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ Falls Flat in the Costume Department

Gordon Cormier and Kiawentiio Tarbell in Netflix's "Avatar: The Last Airbender."
Gordon Cormier and Kiawentiio Tarbell in Netflix's "Avatar: The Last Airbender." By Courtesy of Netflix
By Julia N. Do, Contributing Writer

To measure up to a cult classic is a gargantuan feat. To measure up to one that defined a generation? Nearly impossible.

“The Last Airbender,” a film adaptation directed by M. Night Shyamalan that was released five years after the original Nickelodeon cartoon — “Avatar: The Last Airbender” — fell short of this endeavor.

The charm of Nickelodeon’s “Avatar: The Last Airbender” rested in not only a fantastical and thoughtful universe, but also its fearlessness as a childrens’ show in tackling real-world problems, including genocide and familial trauma. Running in the early aughts, the show — featuring Asian and Indigenous protagonists — was also the first time many Gen Z viewers saw themselves represented on-screen.

While Shyamalan successfully translated many details to the big screen — such as clothing and set design — the director was nonetheless criticized for a dull script, lazy use of CGI, and whitewashing of the cast, forgetting that diversity was at the heart of the show. This earned the film an apt 5% Rotten Tomatoes Score.

Naturally, when Netflix stepped up to the project to produce a live action adaptation for the second time, stakes were high for showrunner Albert Kim, who was challenged with refreshing the series for 2024 — a decade defined by greater Asian media representation than ever before. Some fans were eager to see a live action done right, while others were skeptical.

However, loyalists were soon appeased. Side-by-side comparisons of the 2005 cartoon to its latest adaptation revealed nearly identical stills, accomplished in no small part by costume designer Farnaz Khaki-Sadigh, who created over 400 designs for the series.

In an interview with No Film School, Khaki-Sadigh, whose credits include “The 100” and “Van Helsing,” emphasized her intent to maintain the costumes’ vibrancy, as she felt it was unfair to mute the colors of history-inspired costumes to fit a modern-day aesthetic. Maintaining the costumes’ richness maintained the liveliness of the story and its inspirations.

While her detailed intent to celebrate cultural richness and to stay true to the original cartoonists’ designs is commendable, the recent trend of live action remakes means that frame-by-frame copies of costumes simply don’t cut it anymore. Just as when books are adapted to films and films are adapted to musicals, originality is necessary to judge an adaptation’s artistic merit. At worst, a lack of originality can cheapen the look of a show, especially if its source material is a cartoon. Despite the show’s alleged $15 million budget per episode, the stiff, article wigs resembled cheap cosplay. After all, Khaki-Sadigh replicated their one-dimensional counterparts perfectly.

As Khaki-Sadigh alluded, character design plays a central role in credulous world-building and storytelling. Princess Yue’s white hair, for example, symbolizes her tie to the spirit world. Zuko’s ponytail becomes representative of his past self; His changed haircut signifies his character development throughout the series. Azula’s topknot, styled only by her attendants, comes to represent her reliance on help despite her callous demeanor.

However, if character design is central to believable worldbuilding, these unblended locks transport viewers out of the Avatar universe, reminding them that they are watching actors Elizabeth Yu, Thalia Tran, and Momona Tamada — not Team Azula. Likewise, Amber Midthunder struggles to breathe life into the nuanced Princess Yue — likely because of her laughable wig.

In adaptations, character design is one of the most creative ways through which showrunners can take liberties with the source material and contribute to an imagined universe. It’s a chance to create original, unique designs through which the adaptation can merit its own praise. Unfortunately, Netflix’s 2024 “Avatar: The Last Airbender” falls flat — and it’s not just because of the dreadful wigs. As a result of excessive pressure to appease loyal fans, stylists, designers, and writers alike were unable to flex their artistic muscles. If viewers were looking for a one-dimensional production, they’re likely better off watching the cartoon.

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