Netflix Avatar review: Another live-action cartoon fail

With a focus on thoughtful character development and exploration of difficult topics such as genocide, that of Nickelodeon Avatar: The last airbender series set a new high bar for children’s television. But despite its tonal maturity, Avatar was still a cartoon that tried to surprise you by playing to the strengths of the medium, which was perfectly suited to realizing the magical world that co-creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko had imagined.

Watch Netflix’s new live-action Avatar series from executive producers Albert Kim and Dan Lin, it’s clear that everyone involved with the show wants to be more than its infamously whitewashed cinematic predecessor, and in some cases they succeed. But despite all those good intentions, the new Avatar is another example of Netflix turning a beloved animated property into something deeply at odds with what people loved about the original.

It takes place in a world torn by war, Avatar tells the story of how a trio of children are drawn together by fate to overthrow a fascist empire. After years of living in fear of the pyrokinetic Fire Nation, it’s difficult for members of the planet’s other elemental societies to see Fire Lord Ozai (Daniel Dae Kim) as anything but a monster. Fear of the Fire Nation keeps the two polar Water Tribes from straying beyond their borders, and it is because of deadly attacks led by Ozai’s brother Iroh (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee) that the Earth Kingdom is always on alert. But the bigger reason that no one dares to challenge Ozai’s supremacy or openly resist is because everyone remembers how the war started with the Fire Nation. almost completely wiping out the Air Nomads.

Those details were important to understanding the original Avatar‘s story. But Netflix’s series leads along with them in a way that immediately makes it clear how much more of a gruesome adventure it is in comparison. Besides some rather nifty-looking chocobo-like creatures, explosive bending skills are some of the first things you’ll see in the new version. Avatar while it opens with a high-octane action scene set in the past. It’s a great showcase of the energy the show’s VFX and choreography teams put into portraying each of these Avatar‘s different bending styles as a clear balance between martial arts and elemental magic.

As cool as it is to see Earthbenders shoot rocks like bullets with their bare hands and Firebenders burn things with their bare hands, Avatar foregrounds these images early on, mainly as a way to illustrate how the Air Nomads had little hope of surviving the Fire Nation’s attack on their temples high in the mountains. And while all this helps you understand the tragic circumstances that lead to the young Airbender Aang (Gordon Cormier) – the newest Avatar who can bend all four elements – becoming the sole survivor of his people, it also sets a serious tone for the series. a whole that Avatar struggles to tremble as the larger story unfolds.

The show gets a little lighter once it jumps forward 100 years, and you feel it’s paying homage to the cartoon as the focus shifts to the Southern Water Tribe to introduce brother/sister duo Sokka (Ian Ousley) and Katara (Kiawentiio). Like their animated counterparts, Sokka is a well-meaning but stubborn teenager who clings to tradition as a way to cope with the loss of their mother, and Katara is a promising Waterbender who feels stifled in a village where no one teaches her how to can perfect her. skills.

Although there are concerns about Netflix being watered down Avatar‘s portrayal of sexism, the new show does a good job showing how Sokka’s retrograde thoughts on gender are both a moral failing and the kind of weakness that can get you killed in battle. But while cartoon Sokka’s obsession with combat readiness was tempered with a gentle goofiness, Ousley portrays the character a bit straighter and stiffer – qualities that sometimes make him come across as cold. And while Katara is still a curious and outspoken young woman, the character’s single-minded focus on becoming a stronger Waterbender makes her feel noticeably less well-rounded than her original incarnation.

Kiawentiio and Ousley’s performances are strongest when there are actual physical objects they can interact with, but many of them are Avatar‘s most important moments were shot on virtual sets. Considering the number of different locations Avatar‘s story consists of its characters, it makes sense that Netflix would try to keep costs down by building more fantastic places digitally. But there’s so much unnatural lighting and so many scenes where things in the background move at an uncanny speed that the show immediately feels like yet another Netflix-branded live-action cartoon that would have been better served with more usability.

AvatarThe group’s chemistry problems only worsen as the Gaang work together to inform each other about what happened in the past and what is unfolding in the present. As the long-lost Avatar – a uniquely powerful bender whose soul is usually reborn when the previous Avatar dies – Aang is the only person who can possibly put an end to the Fire Nation’s plans for world domination. However, because Aang was trapped in an iceberg before reaching his full potential, he must find master benders like Katara and Sokka who can help teach him. But because the show never really slows down as the central trio travels the world, their interpersonal dynamics don’t have enough time to develop in a way that feels organic, making them read like a group of kids awkwardly hanging out rather than people friends.

Even if each of the eight episodes were about an hour each, it would have been tough for Netflix Avatar to hit all the same beats as the longer cartoon. The live action Avatar film attempted to meet this challenge by distilling the plot, and in the process stripping away much of the story that made the original feel so expertly developed.

The one from Netflix Avatar tries to break down the difference between the movie and the cartoon. But the execution fails, because from the moment the Gaang are all together, Avatar never lets you forget that in addition to exploring the world/preparing to save it, they’re also racing to stay one step ahead of Prince Zuko (Dallas Liu), the exiled heir to the Fire Nation throne. Compared to the cartoon, the trajectory of Aang’s quest to master his powers is much clearer from the jump, making the show feel like it’s rushing to reach its climactic moments.

More than anything: the new AvatarThe pacing of the show makes it feel off — not just because of how quickly the show moves, but because of the way that speed creates a sense of urgency that doesn’t seem to come from many of the characters themselves. With a little more room to breathe, the show’s subplots could have felt richer and its central heroes more compelling – and helped Netflix have another one A piece instead of a Cowboy Bebop.

Avatar: The last airbender Also stars Elizabeth Yu, Ken Leung, Maria Zhang, Lim Kay Siu, A Martinez, Amber Midthunder, Yvonne Chapman, CS Lee, Danny Pudi and Utkarsh Ambudkar. All eight episodes of the first season will be released on Netflix on February 22.

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