Avatar the Live Action: Keeping with the Disappointments

By: Ochi Maduabuchi Nnamdi

Long ago, the four nations lived together in harmony. Then, everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked…

Let’s talk about it.

Netflix just released the live-action remake of Avatar the Last Airbender, and fans are once again put through the gruelling process of seeing a beloved show get mindlessly butchered as it transitions into the live-action space.

Well… Maybe that’s a bit harsh. Let me just say this first, Netflix’s live-action Avatar is not a very bad show. When looked at from the perspective of a stand-alone show, it is okay. But it is impossible to divorce it from the work of greatness that is its animation counterpart. It is not a remake for no reason.

And standing next to that, the live-action seems like a lacklustre imitation, that not only fails to do justice to the original but ends up throwing mud in its face as well.


Book One: Visuals

One thing the live action truly captured was the bending and the creatures. It was a joy to see the CG elements breathe life into the cartoon drawings of 2005.

Every battle was a joy to see. It didn’t have that feeling, like I was watching a 3D animated movie in a live-action, but felt very authentic (even though the bended water sometimes felt out of place, but it wasn’t enough to cause a serious issue).

I will note that certain elements, like Appa, Momo, the spirit world creatures and the Arial views of cities like Omashu, did have that characteristic CG look, but I think it’s within respectable limits. I mean, it is a fantasy live-action series, it would seem very unlikely that they would use practical effects for everything.

Overall, visually the live-action actually delivered bringing the bending of the cartoons to life in a way that only the live-action medium could offer.

But if it didn’t disappoint visually where does the live-action start to disappoint? Well…


Book Two: Story

The story. Oh, the story.

The first episode was a very big disappointment, at least when it comes to the writing. We spend close to 5minutes following a random earthbending soldier, whose only purpose is cool fight scene and exposition.

He is chased by Fire Nation soldiers because he has stolen a scroll, which was later revealed to contain the Fire Lord’s (wrong Fire Lord) battle plans. He is then brought before the Fire Lord so that he–the Fire Lord–can tell us–the audience essentially–that he wants the Earth Nation to have his plan so it would act as a distraction. He then proceeds to kill this Earth nation spy we have been following for more than 4 minutes.

Disregarding the fact that we just wasted all that time following a character who just died like that, we still have a very important question to ask.

What was the point of the distraction?

If we follow the storyline of the animation, the world was living in peace before the fire nation attacked, so there would be no need for a distraction. The only time you would need that sort of distraction is when Earthbenders and Airbenders were already on guard against a Fire Nation attack, and the distraction was necessary to weaken the forces at the Southern Air Temple.

After that logically inconsistent opening, they then went on to show Aang in the Southern Air Temple, hanging alone from a tall pole up high in the sky; he is then called down by Monk Gyatso because he has skipped his training drills.

This is a character introduction fit more for a lone wolf character than anything else. This is why when he is shown complaining about leaving his friends later in the episode it doesn’t hit at all for me. You can’t just cry about not seeing your friends and then expect me to care when the only person we see him interact with is Gyatso.

There’s a whole abstract narration sequence where they not only missed an opportunity to put in the iconic “Long ago, the four nations lived together in harmony,” and all that, but they also then proceeded to have characters in the actual story regurgitate the same information. And they did this twice in the episode!

They then brought the iconic opening and made it something that Katara’s grandmother tells Aang when he wakes up.

Episodes felt like amalgamations, parts of the cartoon cut and joined back together in a piece that doesn’t just fit well together and throws out the whole point of episodes in favour of just having it cameo in the live action.

The whole secret tunnel episode, which explored Aang’s relationship with Katara was shortened to a mere segment where Katara and Sokka try to make their way into King Bumi’s castle.

And for all the show’s emphasis on needing friends to surmount troubles, Aang went on a surprising amount of solitary journeys.

The show even tried splitting the eight episodes into different sections, as reflected in the title cards shown.

Great visuals, poor storytelling. What else do I have to say?


Book Three: Characters 

On this point, the live-action did a haphazard job. Some characters were done very well, while others seemed flatter than a sheet of paper.

And the person that suffers the most from this, in my opinion, is Aang. While other characters like Zuko, Sokka and to a lesser extent Katara can show more of who they are as characters through their interactions with other characters like Iroh, Suki, and Jet, we only ever Aang in his capacity as the Avatar, or when he is having angst over feeling under-qualified to be the Avatar.

Gone is the fun-loving kid of the animation, the live-action makes Aang little more than a walking repertoire of deep quotes and emotional one-liners. He talks but it doesn’t tell us more about him or his inner complexities, like we see when we watch Zuko and Iroh.

Zuko tries to be strong when he is with others and in front of his men, but we see the complex relationship he shares with Iroh, who, though he is Zuko’s uncle, sees and treats him like his own son and vice versa. We see him stubbornly stick to a path but yield at the Iron’s instruction, give up his dogged chase for the Avatar to save his uncle who had been captured and we remember the relationship that had been portrayed in the original show.

Sokka is the same. His talkative nature always lets us know what he is thinking. His brief interaction with Suki (although reduced to a little more than love play) still speaks to us about him. He speaks and shows his interest in tinkering and we get to know how he feels about it.

Katara also experiences some of these too. Through her interaction with Jet, and her stance against Master Pakku (which doesn’t hit as hard as it did in the animation because it feels very much like she only began to fight against the misogyny when she got to the Northern Water Tribe since they removed the sexism from Sokka’s character so early on).

Aang is lacklustre in comparison. The only people he seems to interact with are other Avatars, but even in those conversations, he seems to only keep saying the same thing. We get no new perspective of Aang with each new Avatar he meets, only the same response. And it reached the point where Aang feels like a side character in his own story. Flat. His relationship with Katara, an avenue that could have been used to give us more of a look into his character is all but none existent (I still won’t forgive them for what they did to the secret tunnel episode).


Avatar the Last Airbender live-action isn’t bad. It’s a fun and interesting watch so long as you don’t in any way think about the original work it was based upon, in which case it just seems very shallow and poorly done.

It tries hard to be a serious version of the childhood classic and in doing so misses the points of the original, getting lost, perhaps detrimentally so, in itself.

Any hope that it would break the cycle of live-action remakes that would at least not do justice to the original work has been thrown into the gutters.

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