Netflix’s ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ remake is a visual delight that can’t compete with the original

3 out of 5 stars

Work. School. Friends. Family. Four years ago, all the elements of my life lived in harmony. But everything changed when the coronavirus attacked.

I watched the animated “Avatar: The Last Airbender” series for the first time during quarantine with my brother, and it kept us sane. The heart, humor, complexity and beauty of the show endear it to audiences of all ages.

After M. Night Shyamalan adapted the show into a live-action movie most fans pretend never existed, I was tentatively hopeful when I saw that Netflix was creating a new live-action adaptation. I’ve been looking forward to it for the last three years.

The live action “Avatar: The Last Airbender” series is steps above the Shyamalan movie, clearing the very low bar of “having seen the animated version.” The showrunners also cast Asian and Indigenous American actors, doing their best to honor the cultures that inspired the original show.

That said, the remake has massive shoes to fill and does not live up to the standard set by the original. The show is enjoyable and works to preserve the heart of the first “Avatar: The Last Aibender,” but the script and performances fall short.

The series tracks the same overall progression as the original first season: in a land where different groups of people called benders each control one of the four elements — water, earth, fire and air — the avatar is a powerful mage born to control them all. When the fire nation begins a war against the other nations that lasts for 100 years, the current Avatar, a 12-year-old airbender named Aang (Gordon Cormier), awakes from a coma in the ocean and sets off to stop the war, accompanied by water tribe members Katara (Kiawentiio) and Sokka (Ian Ousley).

The show attempts an edgier tone, which starts with a firebender incinerating a soldier at the beginning of the first episode, but the script and performances are not strong enough to cater to both younger viewers and hold the weight of the themes. Cormier and Kiawentiio, both very young actors, have yet to hit their stride and, while endearing, often fall flat.

Ousley gives a stronger performance as Sokka, the group’s sarcastic older brother, honoring the original and maintaining Sokka’s humor and depth. Dallas Liu also gives a standout performance as Zuko, the disgraced fire nation prince with a legendary redemption arc. The show deepens Zuko’s character development through flashbacks that give a clearer understanding of his past; one of the few things that the show improves.

The script is overall simple and bland, hitting the themes of the original but usually not expanding on them. While several moments hit deeper than others in a live-action medium, the show strikes the same notes without adding anything new.

The remake shines in its visuals. From the back of Aang’s flying bison Appa (who is not featured nearly enough), the show takes us on a journey through the water tribes, the earth kingdom, the fire nation and the air temples that delight in every frame. Characters using their powers to bend the elements hold up beautifully with the design and weight of the show.

For those who have seen the original, the remake feels like a tribute. While it often falls flat, it is still a pleasure to revisit these lands and characters. For those who have not seen the original, the remake is not strong enough to carry interest until the action picks up in the last couple episodes.

Flatness notwithstanding, it is wonderful to watch a show that clearly respects its source material, even if it does not always live up to it.

Photo courtesy The Brown Daily Herald.