M. Night Shyamalan’s live-action adaptation of Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko’s animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender seemed doomed even before it hit theaters. There was a backlash over Shyamalan recasting the series’ Inuit and Asian characters with white actors, with some calling for a boycott of the film. And then, controversy aside, the film was critically slammed on release; Roger Ebert called it “an agonizing experience in every category I can think of and others still waiting to be invented.” Ten years later, with the original series and the live-action movie both added to Netflix, the series is enjoying a new cultural resurgence. Meanwhile, Netflix is developing a new live-action remake, this time as a series. It seems as good a time as any to revisit the movie. Is it really as bad as its legacy suggests?
Unfortunately, if anything, it’s worse.
The whitewashing of the leads is glaringly evident from the outset, as almost the entire rest of the cast is played by actors of Asian or Indigenous descent. The white faces of Katara (Nicola Peltz), Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), and their grandmother (Katharine Houghton) make them feel like interlopers or strangers, and the effect only worsens as the characters decide it’s their job to liberate Earth Kingdom towns, all of which are populated by characters played by Asian actors. It becomes a white-savior narrative.
The problems only multiply from there, as Shyamalan struggles to cram an entire 20-episode TV season’s worth of events into a 103-minute movie. The flow of the story is lost amid hurried voiceovers and a choppiness that requires viewers to be familiar with the animated series in order to understand what’s going on. That rushed quality affects the performances, too. At best, they’re flat. Even a veteran actor like Shaun Toub (playing Uncle Iroh) can only do so much with how little he’s given — he puts as much inflection into his line deliveries as possible, but he still fails to make much of an impression. At worst, the performances are confusing — too much of the dialogue was later dubbed in, and seems to come from the backs of character’s heads, or from off-screen. The inconsistent editing makes the action feel inert, and the characters’ motivations are incomprehensible.
The few moments that do land — a group of Earthbenders jointly launching a boulder, Toub creating fire from nothing, a fight inside a structure with hanging walls — aren’t made great because they’re well shot or acted. It’s more that they show why a live-action version of an animated series exists to begin with. Watching the original show, it’s tempting to wonder what such fantastical acts would look like in real life. Seeing them actually come to life is magical. But it’s not enough to carry a whole movie.
If anything, The Last Airbender is a cautionary tale to be considered as Netflix moves forward with its live-action show. The film took fan goodwill for granted, covering multiple episodes’ worth of story through belabored exposition. Part of the pacing problem will be solved by making the reboot a TV series instead of a short movie, but the new series still faces a problem that has become bigger and bigger in recent years: Why retell an existing, well-told story, rather than creating a new one? The Last Airbender didn’t add anything new to the conversation, and many recent remakes, reboots, and adaptations — Artemis Fowl, The Lion King, Men in Black: International — have fallen into the same trap, rehashing old material instead of exploring new territory.
Fortunately, the new live-action series will be helmed by series creators Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, who have already promised that the new adaptation will be “non-whitewashed.” That’s a big step in the right direction, not just because of the live-action film’s troubled racial dynamics, but because the animated series faced a similar problem — almost all of the primary characters were voiced by white performers. The vow that the Netflix series will star “culturally appropriate” actors is a huge step forward, especially as the entertainment industry is increasingly reckoning with casting white voice actors as non-white characters. The remake seems like a perfect opportunity to right that wrong, as well as perhaps further developing the amalgamation of Asian cultures that mostly serves as set dressing in the animated series.
The live-action Last Airbender is shocking to revisit because it fails on so many levels besides its casting. However, it’s also a reminder of both the facile and deeper reasons that the idea of turning the animated series into a live-action film or show is appealing. On a surface level, it’s an opportunity to get lost in a fantasy world. Go deeper, and it becomes a chance to tell a story properly; not just to retell a tale, but to make it more meaningful, giving more consideration to the cultures the animated series is clearly pulling from, and providing the rare opportunity to cast a major work primarily with actors of Asian and Indigineous descent. In an ideal world, The Last Airbender may remain one step back, but the upcoming live-action series could be two steps forward.
Both The Last Airbender and Avatar: The Last Airbender are streaming on Netflix.