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Avatar: The Last Airbender Review - Lame Live-Action Remake Will Annoy Fans And Bore Newcomers

  • Impressively brings to life a fantasy universe
  • The young cast is charming
  • Never stops feeling like fan service
  • Pitched more towards returning adult fans rather than actual children

Disney's recent string of cash-grab live-action remakes has only served to show why their beloved animated hits were never intended to be photorealistic. Side-by-side comparisons of the original "Lion King" and its 2019 counterpart couldn't have been more brutal; in one, characters bounce around the screen during a musical number, whereas in the other, they just walk in a straight line while singing, like someone overdubbed a David Attenborough documentary. It couldn't be less dynamic to sit through, and when not making any substantial changes to the narrative — despite always being significantly longer, somehow — such comparisons only expose the inherent pointlessness of the exercise. Yes, it'll make money, but why would any child sit through this when they can have the more visually appealing original?

I didn't have cable growing up, so I never saw Nickelodeon's acclaimed animation "Avatar: The Last Airbender" during its original run. But even as a newcomer to this franchise, the whole eight-episode series reeks of a rigid attempt to copy something that worked perfectly well the first time. However, the question that lingered now wasn't why any child would choose this over the original, which is also streaming on Netflix. Instead, I was overcome with the sense that this series was commissioned entirely for older fans who have stubbornly refused to let go of a kids' show they grew up watching, who have (inevitably) already complained about everything the show has got wrong based on a few out of context clips. It's a kids' show exclusively aiming to please an audience of overgrown children, whose nostalgia-tinted glasses will only make its flaws all the more apparent. I spent the vast majority of this series wishing it fully leaned into being for children first and foremost, instead of applying an artificial level of grit to appease an audience who should have stopped playing with their toys by now.

Aimed exclusively at adult fans ... who will hate it

"Avatar: The Last Airbender" presents clear and straightforward moral lessons in each story, creating an expansive fantasy saga that not only serves as an introduction to the genre but, more importantly, provides children with a means to grasp essential life lessons about growing up and accepting responsibility. The original series was commended for introducing and unpacking weighty topics such as genocide and authoritarianism within the context of a child-friendly animation; here, while the world-building of the wider narrative appears to be faithful to the original, its lessons are mostly simplified to generic morals about finding inner strength and not needing to fight by yourself. Again, this wouldn't be an issue if this was unambiguously directed at children, but it functions solely as a nostalgia object, making it an odd thing to witness as somebody with no prior awareness of the franchise.

Even if there wasn't an onslaught of side-by-side comparison videos on my social media timelines, or I wasn't already aware of the creators discussing how they neutered certain character traits to fit contemporary morals (even if those negative traits were vital to their growth over the course of their arcs), there are several awkward moments that feel like shoehorned-in fan service. Why, in one episode, are there multiple cutaways to a market trader melodramatically screeching "My cabbages!" when his vegetable stock is destroyed? Because this is a nod to the original so tired, the meme it inspired has more-or-less fallen out of circulation altogether, but no minor cultural reference can be left unreferenced. Rather than offer a bold take on this material to excite a new generation, the creative team opted instead to go through the motions, spending millions to recreate something that already exists and which will satisfy neither fans old nor new.

Too afraid to do its own thing

I didn't go into "Avatar: The Last Airbender" with my knives out, and I will confess to being on board for the first couple of episodes, which were tonally pitched at the same level of easy-going fantasy throwback as Disney's scrubbed-from-existence "Willow" sequel series. It's also here that the show actually dares to deviate from its animated predecessor, though you'll have to watch it for yourself to see the differences.

On another note, even when the actors are placed within locations that are obviously green-screened, there's a genuine wonder at fleshing out far-flung corners of the universe not previously explored, which is nakedly apparent to newcomers. This charm eventually wears off as it begins to follow the broad beats of the animation, which I may not be familiar with, but it's hard to shake off the overbearing feeling that the creators are trying to mimic a story told with more passion in another medium. It's hard to put into words, but when you can tell certain scenes are shoehorning in references for the die-hard fans based on the sheer awkwardness of how they play out, you hardly need to be a scholar of the source material.

None of the faults of the series lie at the feet of the three young leads (Gordon Cormier, Kiawetiio, and Ian Ousley) nor the Fire Nation's young antagonist Prince Zuko (Dallas Liu), all of whom understand the assignment and pitch their performances at a broad, kid-friendly level that ensures none of the life lessons their characters learn fly over the heads of any children watching. Unfortunately, their work may all be in vain, as no amount of visual effects could make this live-action remake more dynamic to young eyes than the vibrant, hand-drawn animation — no matter how much the creators have attempted to replicate several scenes to the letter. It all adds up to an unsatisfying series, regardless of your prior familiarity with the franchise, spending so much time trying to get pre-existing fans on board without ever doing anything fresh to entice new ones.

"Avatar: The Last Airbender" hits Netflix on February 22.