Avatar: The Last Airbender TV Review

Connie Queline

Avatar: The Last Airbender TV Review


PLOT: Water. Earth. Fire. Air. Long ago, the four nations lived together in harmony. Then, everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked. Only the Avatar, master of all four elements, could stop them, but when the world needed him most, he vanished. A hundred years passed, and two siblings of the Water Tribe, Katara and Sokka, discovered the new Avatar, an airbender named Aang. And although his airbending skills are great, he has a lot to learn before he’s ready to save anyone. Some believe Aang can save the world.” 

REVIEW: If there’s one thing that’s true in the world of entertainment, it’s almost impossible to adapt a beloved property without setting the fandom on fire. With legions of fans awaiting the arrival of Netflix’s Avatar: The Last Airbender, you could cut the tension with a water blade. Will the new show honor the original? Does Netflix’s version offer anything new? Is a live-action version of Avatar: The Last Airbender necessary? Yes, it is, and it’s a hell of a ride!

As a die-hard fan of the original animated show, I’m uniquely positioned to critique and review this anticipated series. With my guard up and affinity for The Last Airbender ready for slaughter, I was stunned by how much I loved my time with this live-action version of the story. While different from the original in several ways, the live-action Avatar series honors the themes and character depth of the original and often does things the animated series could not. We’ll get to that part later. First, let’s reflect on what Netflix’s version was up against.

When Netflix announced its plans to develop a live-action version of Avatar: The Last Airbender, my first thought was, “Oh no, not again. Haven’t we suffered enough at the hands of M. Night Shyamalan’s 2010 disasterpiece? I don’t know if I have the strength to do it again.” Then, The Last Airbender creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino left Netflix’s live-action adaptation for creative differences—yet another bad sign. Are we doomed to repeat the past? Should The Last Airbender remain as animated perfection only? I’m thrilled that not only is the Netflix version a spectacle of costumes, makeup, and atmosphere, but the show also breathes new life into beloved characters in ways I did not anticipate.

For reasons I don’t have to explain, the first thing to strike me about the series is how good it looks. While I always prefer on-location filming instead of CGI environments, I accept that I’m old and this is how things get done. For all of its CGI glory, the translation of the Avatar’s world from animation to live-action looks fantastic. The iconic locales, Avatar state effects, bending, and characters look like Netflix ripped them out of the Nickelodeon series. Give whoever’s in charge of the makeup department a raise because their game is on point. Zuko’s facial scarring has been meticulously recreated, while Suki’s Kyoshi warrior face paint is a sight to behold. Aang’s swirly airbender markings display a tremendous amount of detail.

The costume department is also making magic on the series. Again, loving recreations reflect the Avatar fashions we know, but now they’re given texture, ornate flare, and versatility. It’s clear to me that the team at DNEG put a lot of thought into the overall look of the world and characters, with authenticity being their primary goal. The show looks like talented fans of the Avatar series created it. I can’t ask for more than that.

Another aspect of the series that makes it unique is how it’s cast a bit more authentically given the background of the anime, something Shyamalan’s version wasn’t known for. It’s genuinely remarkable to see the characters from the animated series shown as flesh-and-blood benders of the elements and otherwise. Essentially, they’ve become mystical superheroes, able to manipulate the world’s precious resources for good or ill.

I was a little nervous the first time I met Gordon Cormier’s Aang. Generally a happy airbender before all the death and destruction, Aang is a bubbly and curious child whose world comes crashing down after learning he’s the Avatar. I worried that Cormier’s Aang was too “gee willikers and golly gosh,” but he quickly displays levels to his performance, with dramatic moments peppering the playful. Aang is powerful but still has a lot to learn. Cormier’s Aang is a torrent of emotions, with his performance reflecting the weight of a child charged with saving humanity.

Katara (Kiawentiio) and Sokka (Ian Ousley) travel alongside Aang. While it took me an episode to warm to them, I quickly found them to be fantastic additions to the cast. Kiawentiio’s Katara is kind and competitive, fiercely loyal to her people, and eager to make her mark on the world. She strives for equality and challenges what she views as archaic traditions within her tribe. Kiawentiio does an excellent job conveying Katara’s transformation from an inexperienced waterbender to a skilled Posiedon of her people.

Sokka has undergone the most change from his animated counterpart, with Ian Ousley’s version forgoing the character’s sexist nature in favor of an eagerness to learn from others and support his sister’s journey. Some say this approach robs Sokka of character development and that becoming less sexist is part of his arc. Sokka is better without his predilections for condescension, as there are a few characters throughout the story that pile the disrespect on thick. A Martinez’s Master Pakku, anyone? Ousley’s Sokka grew on me, with the actor displaying a delicate balance of humor, heart, and hormonal frustration throughout the season.

My favorite performance by the young cast is Dallas Liu’s Zuko. Positively owning the line between petulant and power-hungry, Liu plays the Fire Nation Prince with depth, lending to the character’s complexity and narratively gratifying arc from villain to something far more. With his sleek and stylish fire-bending movements, Liu’s physicality is also impressive. Liu’s chemistry with Uncle Iroh actor Paul Sun-Hyung Lee is a show highlight. The duo spends much time together throughout the season, elevating each other’s performances by introducing new layers and fostering an unbreakable familial bond.

Then there’s my man, General/Uncle Iroh, my favorite character in The Last Airbender series. Paul Sun-Hyung Lee brings his expertise in playing a wisened father figure to Netflix’s Avatar, portraying a jovial, peace-seeking Pai Sho enthusiast tortured by the sins of his past. As much fun as I had watching Lee bounce around while doling out fatherly advice, the moments when he and Zuko connect (or disconnect) are the character’s bread and butter. I would watch a General Iroh Avatar spinoff in a heartbeat, which tells his story in greater detail. You can have that one for free, Netflix. Make it happen.

Finally, we come to Fire Lord Ozai, played by the charismatic and commanding Daniel Dae Kim. Used sparingly throughout the first season, Ozai is more like the Wizard behind the curtain we rarely see, puppeteering his minions from a throne room, only to emerge to plot invasions or ensure his children need copious amounts of trauma therapy. Kim chews the scenery while remaining the most imposing figure in the room, never breaking his stranglehold on the Four Nations or softening his vice-like grip on Zuko and Azula’s (Elizabeth Yu) emotions

There’s only a World of the Avatar with imaginative creatures populating the forests, temples, and skies. Aang’s flying sky bison Appa and winged lemur Momo add a bit of fun to the mix. While used sparingly throughout the first season (probably because they’re expensive AF to animate), both characters look like one-to-one recreations of their animated versions. Add June’s (Arden Cho) terrifying shirshu and the face-stealing spirit Koh (George Takei) to the mix, and you’ve got a zoo of detailed creatures bringing the cryptozoological elements of the Avatar series to life.

Another season of Avatar: The Last Airbender could not come soon enough. I want more time with others featured in the series, like Elizabeth Yu’s Azula, Momona Tamada’s Ty Lee, Thalia Tran’s Mai, and cameos from James Sei’s hilarious Cabbage Merchant. Who will play Toph Beifong? How heart-breaking will it be when Amber Midthunder’s Princess Yue and Sokka need to say goodbye? What happens to Katara when she realizes she can bend more than water? Get that green light ready, Netflix!

To expect Netflix’s Avatar: The Last Airbender to be a one-to-one recreation of the animated original is absurd. Still, I’ve found the latest live-action presentation of the Avatar’s journey to be a magnificent execution. I wanted a respectable amount of changes to the story. A carbon copy of the original does me no good. I could re-watch my Avatar Blu-rays if I wanted to. The show’s creator, Albert Kim, has quelled my fears of this show becoming another cinematic blight on Avatar‘s good name, and I hope other fans are as impressed with it as I am. I marched into Kim’s series with my hackles raised and expectations on the low end of the spectrum. Being proven wrong feels pretty good right about now.

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