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Review: Netflix's Avatar: The Last Airbender

Did you watch the latest live-action rendition of Avatar? Our resident super fan, Mel, shares her thoughts!

 

I grew up watching Avatar the Last Airbender, and like many of you, I’m sure, was not that hopeful about yet another live-action reboot. The last one was quite painful to watch. That being said, the sneak peek shots we were shown looked promising, so I went in with mild excitement. I wanted to go into this respecting that the show would be taking its own course while holding onto the heart of the story, and I hope this review will reflect that. Does it pull it off well? Let’s find out.


          

The first episode sets the darker tone of the show by showcasing more complex fighting scenes, and they don’t shy away from showing people dying on screen. Within the first two minutes, people are taken down by fire-benders and are burned alive. This may come as a shock for parents who want to watch this with their kids but personally, I didn’t mind because it seemed more realistic to what the Fire Nation would do. It was good to get that set up of how Fire Lord Sozin began the war instead of relying on exposition. The show also makes a point to keep true to the original score—which I loved—and helps keep the audience immersed in the story.

           

One of the main concerns for fans was how their beloved characters would be portrayed, and for the most part, it is done well. Aang is easy-going, has a strong sense of duty, can crack a joke or prank on his friends now and then, and doesn’t shy away from getting emotional when dealing with loss or anger.


The friendship chemistry between him and Gyatso is spot on and will tug at your heartstrings. Sokka is still the protective older brother and has the most comedic moments, but they are not as goofy as the original. The writers decided to get rid of his misogynistic worldview from the cartoon, which I understand, but it takes away a big part of his character growth. Katara’s character focuses more on her nurturing side than the passionate, take-no-BS attitude we’re used to seeing from her. That is, until the Seige of the North episodes. There, she finally gets to shine and show the Northern tribe how skilled she is at water-bending.

           

The dynamic duo that is Iroh & Prince Zuko was one of my favorites.

Iroh steals every scene he’s in whether through his comedic timing or emotional moments. Paul Sun-Hyung Lee had big shoes to fill after the original voice actor Maako’s passing, and he did a fantastic job finding the heart of the character. Zuko in this version is just as angsty and has some hilarious line deliveries and facial expressions throughout the season. The prince has a neat hobby of logging their journey in a notebook filled with info about the previous avatars and sketching people and objects he deems worth noting. His quarters are covered in quick sketches as well, and they are quite good. The portrayals of Fire Lord Ozai and Azula are great too, but I will get back to them later.

           

So how does the new show handle the plot? Well… It’s a bit of a mashup, really. The first couple of episodes [Aang’s Return–Kyoshi Island] try to stick closely to the original plot, but after that it’s as if the writers tried to squeeze in as many plot points in an episode as possible and the show suffers because of it.


Episodes 3-4 suffer the most plot-wise. We are introduced to Azula, Mai, and Ty Lee. It's fun, but we don’t get to see much of their dynamic before moving on. Aang, Katara, and Sokka go to Omashu, and we have the scientist & Teo plot alongside Jet and the Freedom Fighters plot line. Aang meets with King Bumi in this episode too, and instead of the eccentric king we know and love, this version is played as uncharacteristically angry, bitter, and just off. It’s like watching a bad Jim Carrey character and is the worst character portrayal in the series in my opinion. We still get their fight scene but it lacks the emotional depth we were hoping for.


We do get -cue singing- SECRET TUNNEEEEELL, but it’s played more as a one off joke.


Where in the original story Aang and Katara go through the tunnel together to build on their budding feelings for each other, instead it’s Katara and Sokka going through it to get past a sibling argument. Does this new plot line still move things forward? Yes, but in a convoluted way that deprives the characters of their emotional character growth. There are only eight episodes in the season so there’s just not enough time to properly do it justice.

           

The only plot line that’s handled well is Iroh’s capture by earth-benders. We get to see how the war has taken its toll on different people, specifically the commander in charge of transporting Iroh to prison. Along the journey, the soldier takes any chance he can to humiliate and cause Iroh pain in retribution for the former general’s infamous attack on Ba Sing Se and the death of the commander’s brother. Iroh refuses to be baited and we get flashbacks of him at his late son’s funeral. Throughout the flashbacks you can hear “Leaves From the Vine” from the original score playing in the background, and if you are an OG fan you will recognize it from the animated Season 2 episode“Tales of Ba Sing Se.” In these flashbacks, a younger prince Zuko pays homage to his fallen cousin and stands before his uncle and presents him a coin. He explains Lu Ten had given the coin to him as a good luck charm for his exams and that Iroh should have it now. Zuko then sits beside Iroh for the rest of the funeral visitation for moral support. It’s a touching scene and is a great way to show the bond between them. Back in the present, Zuko eventually catches up to the prisoner wagon and frees his uncle so they can escape together.     



Aside from Aang and Gyatso's mentor/student bond, Iroh and Zuko’s familial bond is the strongest relationship throughout the season.       


Episodes 5-6 combine Hei Bai’s spiriting away of the villagers, Koh the Face-Stealer, Aang’s visit to Avatar Roku’s temple, and June the bounty hunter being hired by Zuko. Again, because they crammed so many storylines into one episode, we lose some of the emotional payback.


For instance, Hei Bai is only seen in his rage form twice and even though we see Aang plant the acorn to show that the forest will come back, we never see Hei Bai reappear in his true panda form having been appeased. Koh’s storyline is better, but they got rid of the way he hunts. In the cartoon, if you show any emotion when facing him that’s how he steals your face. In this version Koh preys on people caught in the fog of lost souls which shows you your worst memories and catches them in those moments of agony of fear, wraps them in a web, and takes them back to his lair to eat later. Katara and Sokka are taken as well, so Aang goes to the temple alone to figure out how to save them.

After speaking with Roku, he is captured by June and brought back to Zuko and Iroh only to be forced over to Admiral Zhao. We get Zuko’s backstory and his mission to break Aang out of Pohuai Stronghold as his alter ego "The Blue Spirit." Thankfully, this follows the original fairly closely and is fun to watch.

    

The final two episodes do a pretty good job adapting the fire nation attack on the Northern Water Tribe. Everything happens essentially in order of events with some minor detail changes. It is odd that they decided to not have Aang at least START to learn water-bending by this point. Katara has her big stand off with Master Pakku over the right to fight in the upcoming battle which is cool but there are definitely some constraints with the animation.


Yue’s wig is terrible. It’s 2024, people! Why do we still have bad wigs? ...But at least it’s in the same style as the cartoon and the actress does a good job with what she’s given. We get more backstory about Avatar Kuruk which is something we only get in the comics/novels. Admiral Zhao uses Kuruk’s dagger to kill the moon spirit and take away the water-benders powers translates very well. The sky turns red to black and white like in the cartoon and when Aang joins with the ocean spirit to get revenge is great. We finally get to see the Water spirit walk through the city and out into the harbor, destroying the Fire Nation fleet and sending them away with the tidal wave.


Zuko gets his fight with Zhao who tells him that the prince’s “mission” was a tool to motivate his sister Azula and was never meant to succeed. Zuko strikes next to the man’s head in anger but spares him. Zhao tries to strike him down from behind and is taken out by Iroh. The two men then escape in a boat. Yue gives up her life to bring back the moon spirit and the water-benders get their powers back. The final scene is of Azula leading troops into Omashu and standing in front of a captured King Bumi and asking, “What’s next?”

           

Overall, the new adaptation may not be on par with the original, but it is a fun watch. The acting, costuming, and animation are pretty good considering the budget and time constraints. The story still works for the most part, and I’m interested to see how the rest of the show will play out.

 

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Mel Kacharian is an illustrator and avid reader. She loves YA, fantasy, and comics. Most of her time is spent making art (often interrupted by her cat, Zuko), rewatching her favorite shows over and over, and daydreaming about living in the woods surrounded by nature, books, and her cat.


Instagram: @Mel_Katcharian

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