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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

The live-action series ‘Avatar The Last Airbender’ proves not every animated show needs an edgy reboot

Aang can fly now… I guess?

 

By MAYA KORNYEYEVA — mkornyeyeva@ucdavis.edu

 

Warning: Spoilers ahead!

 

The day the live-action remake of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” (ATLA) aired on Netflix, I bounced straight from my work table to the couch, aiming my remote at the television and mentally preparing myself for what lay ahead. Piles of assignments remained willfully forgotten on my desk, and my computer was left opened — merely ornamentally — to the draft of my next article for The Aggie. “But it can all wait,” I told myself as I pressed play, hopefully, albeit anxiously, waiting for the show to start. 

Before I provide my review of the live-action remake, I must preface that I have watched the original animated series twice, as well as dabbled in some of the comics. I got into the show with my family during the pandemic, a time when we all needed both the humor and the escapism of ALTA’s incredible world-building. When the plans for the live-action remake were announced, I hoped the new adaptation would preserve the light-hearted interactions between the characters and the cohesive story. 

The first episode was truly “live-action;” filled with a chase sequence, fighting, sacrifice, betrayal and ultimately a dude being burned alive. Ten minutes in I found myself wondering if this new remake was even rated PG… the violence was a bit dramatic and borderline inappropriate for the age range of the audience that the animated show was originally aimed toward. 

Doing a little research revealed that the series was actually meant to cater toward Game of Thrones fans: an older audience who perhaps watched the animated “Avatar: The Last Airbender” as children and who would find appeal in a more mature portrayal of the show. I actually quite liked this more mature take, as the premise of the series deals with very serious story elements like war, destruction and violent spirits, which are better presented through darker cinematography. 

The first episode also brought forth a recreation of the iconic “Water, Earth, Fire, Air” intro; I was expecting something crisp and clean, which followed the original introduction perfectly. Lo and behold, with these high expectations I was doubly disappointed. The computer-generated imagery (CGI) was poor, especially when it came to the human figures. The benders clearly looked fake, and the script featured an exposition dump that would be better told by another character in the show (for example, Katara’s grandmother, who goes on to repeat the entire original intro monologue a few scenes later). 

The CGI for Aang’s newfound flying ability was also quite painful to watch, and definitely dampened my general attitude toward the remake. The very fact that he could fly — one of the hardest bending techniques to ever achieve, as established in the sequel Legend of Korra — also creates an overwhelming amount of plot holes. For instance, if Aang can fly, why does he need a glider? Why can’t he fly away from his captors and why couldn’t other Air Nomads use this strategy to escape from the fire-benders? I just couldn’t stop myself from asking these critical questions.

Yet another negative of the show was the pacing. The first few episodes stuck relatively closely to the established storyline set by the animated series, but everything fell apart in the later episodes. The third episode combined three separate story arcs into one — Omashu became the setting for the Bumi conflict, as well as Jet’s “freedom fighters” narrative and Haru and Tyro’s storyline. The following episode managed to mix in the “Secret Tunnel” plotline, and thus four pieces of the Avatar’s journey were mashed into one. 

While this combination of events was executed creatively, it was a stark contrast to the original plotline and added some unnecessary complexity. Given that the runtime of both the original and the live-action remake is roughly 8 hours, the new series felt much more rushed than the animated one. 

Adding to this dilemma was the dramatically inflated amount of screen time that Azula and her two friends Mai and Ty Lee received. While Azula is introduced much later in the original animated series, she is spotlit immediately in the remake. I found this problematic not only because of the discontinuity with the animated series, but also because the personalities of Azula’s friends are erased to make way for her own character development. Mai and Ty Lee serve as mere plot pieces, standing next to each other, watching Azula train for 99% of the time. I would have loved to see their friendship dynamic come forth, and for the remake to spend more time on bringing out their individuality.

Despite all the issues in Netflix’s adaptation of the ATLA series, there were a few notable positives. For one, the dynamic between Zuko (one of the main antagonists of the first season) and his uncle Iroh was done with obvious care; the two characters shared a heartfelt backstory, and both the verbal and nonverbal interactions enforce their adopted “father and son” relationship. I also enjoyed the beautiful visuals sprinkled in through the episodes, as well as the choreography for several of the fight scenes — they felt fresh in a dynamic way that reminded me of Jackie Chan’s fighting style in his older films. In particular, the fight between Aang and Zuko in the streets of Omashu demonstrated this stylistic ingenuity: the characters used their environments to truly let their abilities shine. 

The ATLA live-action remake was an interesting watch, even if the adaptation was not super satisfying to current fans of the show. There is a certain appeal to the design and visuals in the live-action, even though the negatives either match or outweigh the positives. In the end, it is not the worst live-action remake, but definitely not the best one.  

 

Written by: Maya Kornyeyeva — mkornyeyeva@ucdavis.edu

 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.

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