Avatar: The Last Airbender Review

By: Racheli Jian  |  March 27, 2024

By Racheli Jian, Senior Arts and Culture Editor and Layout Editor

It is incredibly difficult to combine spirituality with a kid’s narrative and put it into a cartoon, but the animated show Avatar: The Last Airbender did just that. Growing up, I sat on the couch with my brothers, eagerly anticipating each new episode. It was only as I got older that I realized just how deep and meaningful the show truly was. It touched on themes of trauma, corruption, and loss, all while maintaining the lighthearted aspects of a children’s show. So, when I heard they were making a live-action adaptation of this childhood classic, I was both excited and apprehensive.

There were aspects of the show that the writers nailed. The relationship between Uncle Iroh and Zuko was outstanding. Iroh’s protective yet firm attitude towards Zuko was evident, and Zuko, despite his quick temper, listened to Iroh. The writers also showed that they both suffered losses in the Fire Nation, which in the original we didn’t know till later. I liked this bit of information at the beginning since it adds to their dynamic. Both characters were perfectly portrayed, from Zuko’s complexity to Iroh embodying the wise, all-knowing mentor.

The show’s CGI was another standout feature. The bending looked fluid and natural, with each element’s influence clearly visible in the characters’ martial arts-inspired movements. The landscapes and environmental details were stunning, bringing to life the Southern Air Temple, the Northern Water Tribe, and Omashu in breathtaking detail.

One aspect I appreciated (which some viewers didn’t) was the blending of different storylines. While it could be a bit muddled at times, it showed a departure from a strict adherence to the original. The incorporation of Omashu’s storyline with Jet and the Mechanist, for example, integrated with the existing narrative and accommodated the requirement for 8 episodes that Netflix is used to.

Despite all the good, the show had its flaws that made it difficult to watch. Unlike the original series, where characters are complex and undergo significant growth, the Netflix adaptation seemed to rush through their development, leaving viewers confused on how a character got from point A to point B.

For example, in the original series, Katara balanced out Sokka’s antics and Aang’s playfulness with her firmness and sense of responsibility. She was a character with a short temper, unafraid to stand up for herself and others. However, in the adaptation, Katara was depicted as weaker in her waterbending abilities, often relying heavily on Aang for advice and guidance. This portrayal not only diminished her character’s agency but also undermined her journey of growth. While she does eventually showcase her strength in standing up to Pakku and fighting Zuko, the show skips over the crucial development and training that would have led to these moments. There are barely any scenes of her practicing bending beyond the scroll her grandmother gave her, and the show fails to show her building up this aggression and determination. This reduction of Katara’s character to a more passive and timid role does a disservice to her character and the impactful role she played in the original series.

In the original series, Aang is depicted as a carefree and playful 12-year-old, reluctant to embrace his role as the Avatar. However, in the adaptation, Aang is portrayed as more serious and mature, lacking the hijinks that defined his character in the original. While the show attempts to incorporate elements of Aang’s playful nature, it comes off as exposition that tells us about his character rather than just showing us his childish side. Additionally, Aang’s transformation from a 12-year old to a fully-realized Avatar feels rushed, with his growth condensed into one episode. This rushed development undermines the complexity of Aang’s character, making it difficult for viewers to connect with him on a deeper level.

Sokka’s character, too, felt flat and one-dimensional. His original character arc, centered around his unlearning of different biases he had. One large part being sexism. However, Netflix dissolved this character flaw, likely in order to make him more politically correct. This fell short though, since when he got to the points in the plot where he would be learning, for example with the Kyoshi warriors, it seemed like there was no purpose to the storyline being there at all. His growth as a leader is again rushed and unexplained.

Despite these shortcomings, the show isn’t without any good. The visual design and landscapes are breathtaking, and the dynamics between the characters, while sometimes forced, are still enjoyable to watch. However, the lack of character development is a significant letdown. While the show faithfully recreates much of the original plot, it fails in the growth that made the original series so loved. Ultimately, while the show has its stellar qualities, it misses the target in capturing the magic of the original.