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Netflix's Avatar: The Last Airbender Illustrates Why Live-Action Remakes Rarely Work

The new series tries to recreate its animated source material in a fundamentally incompatible medium

Gavia Baker-Whitelaw
Gordon Cormier, Avatar: The Last Airbender

Gordon Cormier, Avatar: The Last Airbender

Robert Falconer/Netflix

Keen to avoid comparisons to M. Night Shyamalan, Netflix marketed its new Avatar: The Last Airbender remake as a more loyal homage to the beloved Nickelodeon show. Adapting Season 1 of the original series, it makes appropriate casting choices and features a slew of affectionate callbacks. It even recreates entire set pieces from the cartoon, like Aang's (Gordon Cormier) confrontation with the King of Omashu (Utkarsh Ambudkar), or Zuko (Dallas Liu) donning the Blue Spirit mask to rescue Aang from captivity. Yet these scenes mostly serve to highlight the remake's biggest flaw: Its lack of visual personality. 

Like Disney's CGI-heavy Little Mermaid or the cringeworthy Hollywood version of Ghost in the Shell, Netflix's Last Airbender is a textbook example of why live-action remakes have earned such a cursed reputation.

These projects don't reflect the transformative mission of a literary adaptation, where filmmakers develop their own interpretation of a text. Nor do they function as creative reboots like Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven, offering a new spin on a vintage story. Instead, Netflix's Last Airbender tries to recreate its source material in a fundamentally incompatible medium.

Unfortunately for Netflix, much of the original Last Airbender's charm is inextricably linked to its animated format. Stylized fight scenes. Exaggerated reaction shots. Slapstick humor. Adorable, simply designed fantasy creatures. Expressing itself using purposefully unrealistic visual language, the original Last Airbender is unmistakably, undeniably a children's cartoon. 

Unable to emulate these animated techniques, Netflix's Last Airbender has more in common with The Witcher or The Mandalorian, combining outdoor locations with scenes shot in front of CGI backdrops. This instantly creates a very different tone. Its camerawork is also noticeably static, placing characters in the middle of the frame with no sense of fluidity or movement — or indeed the basic theatrical blocking you see in more competent TV dramas. 

Netflix's bland directorial style is an instant downgrade from Nickelodeon's fast-paced, anime-influenced action sequences, where characters leap up 20-foot cliffs and fill the screen with stylized waves of fire and water. Even during pivotal combat scenes with the remake's best fighter, actor Dallas Liu, the action is sabotaged by its own surroundings: a faux-realistic backdrop that shares the same limited color palette as the characters in the foreground. As a work of visual storytelling, it's dead on arrival. 

If anything, though, these complaints about action scenes are low-hanging fruit. The Last Airbender remake's problems run much deeper, beginning with the lead character, Aang. Reduced from a weird, funny, energetic kid to an archetypal reluctant hero, his role loses a lot in translation. Within a few scenes, it's clear how much of Aang's personality was rooted in the animated medium. You might as well try to cast a real guy as Bart Simpson.

Gordon Cormier, Kiawentiio, and Ian Ousley, Avatar: The Last Airbender

Gordon Cormier, Kiawentiio, and Ian Ousley, Avatar: The Last Airbender

Robert Falconer/Netflix

While Aang's journey does involve heavy moral quandaries and emotional struggles, his fun-loving side is always present in the animated show, seeded into every conversation and comedic detour. His basic physicality lends itself to pratfalls and goofy reactions. Adopting a more grounded tone, the Netflix show focuses more on his quest narrative and personal conflicts. But by sidelining Aang's dorky humor and single-episode friendships, we end up with a weak echo of the original character. 

It's tempting to blame the remake's problems on a soulless lack of appreciation for the source material, but there's another culprit lurking in the background: the logistical restrictions of live-action filming. 

Animated stories don't have to obey the laws of physics. Their only concern is whether something looks cool. Obviously an epic duel is more complicated to animate than a simple conversation, but it's still not an expensive endeavor involving lighting rigs, safety gear, stunt doubles, combat trainers, VFX teams, and workplace insurance for child actors getting kicked in the head.

Likewise, Nickelodeon's Last Airbender could easily include regular lighthearted interludes where Aang goes surfing on a giant fish or befriends a nearby turtleduck. However that same 90-second set piece would take a significant bite out of a live-action VFX budget. This likely explains why Aang's flying bison, Appa — a beloved character in the original series — becomes a nonentity in the remake. As a result, we miss out on a core element of Aang's personality: his relationship with animals.

Of course, these issues all lead back to the question of why this remake exists at all. The live-action format doesn't add anything to the story or characters. In fact, it subtracts a great deal. So we're left with a regrettably cynical explanation: Netflix wanted to capitalize on The Last Airbender's nostalgia value, and as long as people stream the new show, its artistic quality is irrelevant. A leaf taken directly from the Disney remake playbook. 

Both the animated and live-action Avatar: The Last Airbender series are now streaming on Netflix.