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‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ stumbles to a satisfying finish

Courtesy Netflix

By Sarah Motteler     2/27/24 10:44pm

Review: ★★★

Netflix’s “Avatar: The Last Airbender” premiered Feb. 22 and is the latest attempt to bring the hit Nickelodeon cartoon to live action. 

The eight episodes of this season roughly cover the plotline of Book One of the animation, although many episodes are condensed or skipped entirely. The series suffers greatly from this limited runtime, especially in the first half, leading to an underdeveloped Team Avatar that is more “acquired acquaintances” than “found family.” Starting with the fifth episode, though, the rest of the season finds its focus and manages to pull together an enjoyable viewing experience, although not one that can be wholeheartedly recommended.

Live-action anime adaptations already have a spotted reputation: Transitioning from frame to flesh has results ranging from surprisingly well-made and faithful to the original’s tone (Netflix’s “One Piece”) to, more frequently, hot garbage churned out in the hopes for a quick buck (“Dragonball Evolution”). 

“ATLA”’s previous live-action adaptation ranks among the worst of these: Director M. Night Shyamalan’s 2010 attempt has a 5% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and is almost universally panned for its poor performances, horrific adaptation of the original plot and lack of any of the joy that the animated series had. Considering the departure of the cartoon’s original creators and concerning comments by the cast and creators, the 2024 live action adaptation seemed doomed from the start to become yet another soulless reincarnation, unable to capture the original’s magic.

The beginning of the series certainly seemed poised to do so. For the first four episodes, the show is a slog to get through, too focused on establishing CGI spectacles and a gritty tone to follow the humor and characters that made the cartoon so beloved. Several changes made to the original plotline fall flat, including a depiction of the Airbender massacre by the Firebenders, awkward early appearances by Azula and her lackeys and crimes to King Bumi’s characterization that could fill its own article. 

Despite the creators’ espoused target audience being “Game of Thrones” fans, the live action’s presentation is arguably more childish than the source material. The show refuses to believe its viewers can handle nuance, telling rather than showing, and sanding down character flaws for fear that people might not immediately understand. The result is four hours of mishmash adventures with awkwardly directed, one-note characters that are a trial to sit through.

After four episodes, the viewers discovered the series’ new hope — an episode named “Face Your Fears.” The live action’s serious tone is more in line with the dangerous trip to the Spirit World, and while more of the animated continuity is sacrificed to bring Katara and Sokka along for the ride, it gives backstory and motivation to each character — something that was sorely lacking. 

This halfway point also brings Zuko and Iroh into focus, two of the stronger character depictions in the series, especially with the arrival of the following episode “Masks.” This episode brings Zuko and Aang together as unlikely allies and reveals more of everyone’s favorite fiery ball of angst’s backstory, as well as giving Zhao room to slimily shine. 

The following two episodes wrap up the series in a messy bow, but a bow nonetheless. The penultimate episode “The North” focuses more on quieter character development, while finale “Legends” is a CGI explosion of high stakes and setups for the yet-to-be-approved next season.

While the last four episodes were admittedly decent entertainment, I can’t recommend sitting through the first few to get there. “Avatar” newcomers should watch the tried-and-true animated series instead. For veterans who have already seen the series, start with episode five instead for optimal viewing experience — nothing worth watching happens beforehand. 

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