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Review: ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ is A Fun Spin on an Animated Classic

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Almost two decades ago, the world of animation was captivated by the Nickelodeon series created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. The popularity even spawned a sequel series, The Legend of Korra, with even more projects along the way. Back in September 2018, Netflix announced a live-action remake of Avatar: The Last Airbender which has finally been released worldwide. While it’s not a one-to-one recreation of the television series, it has its own strengths within this reimagining of the beloved animated classic.

[Warning: Spoilers for the Avatar: The Last Airbender live action and animated series below.]

Gordon Cormier’s Aang and the rest of the cast of Avatar: The Last Airbender

Nearly nineteen years to the day of airing “The Boy in the Iceberg” we once again find ourselves breaking out of the ice and meeting Aang (Gordon Cormier), Katara (Kiawentiio), Sokka (Ian Ousley). Right from the start, the deviation from the source material is minimal, the same beats of Aang misunderstanding the Southern Air Temple monks and running away. There’s a huge distinction that I truly enjoyed, and it was seeing the assault from the Fire Nation that ended the lives of all Airbenders minus one, the Avatar. 

Capturing the grief of not only losing time but every known ally, friend and loved one is a hell of an overwhelming agony for a 12-year-old prodigy. Gordon Cormier does well in the scenes depicting all the loss Aang endures, as well as the burden of being “The Savior of the World”. The flashback scenes of his time training at the temple that showcase the levels of his ability were well-placed. A key part of Aang’s personality is maintaining humor, and while not given many opportunities, Cormier does his best in delivering the warmth we’ve known from Aang after all these years. 

The particular casting I found the best of the main three was Ian Ousley as Sokka, the arrogant, over-confident, immature and untrusting older brother of Katara. Sokka was always the comic relief and Ousley keeps that dream alive, with fantastically sarcastic quips. Left behind to defend the Southern Water Tribe village, he takes his responsibilities very seriously, but that impedes his greatest strength: his ingenuity with strategy. 

Avatar the Last Airbender image from series
Avatar: The Last Airbender. (L to R) Kiawentiio as Katara, Gordon Cormier as Aang, Ian Ousley as Sokka in season 1 of Avatar: The Last Airbender. (Netflix)

Kiawentiio as Katara might have been my least favorite of the three through no fault of her own. Katara’s significance can’t be understated, she’s a fierce warrior, a caring friend and even at times a type of mother figure who just wants the best for everyone. Katara becomes a skilled Waterbender which is incredible due to her lacking a teacher and learning purely on her own from a scroll, this was missed sorely throughout the live action series, but at the end they give her a fighting chance where she nearly bests Prince Zuko (Dallas Liu).

Easily my favorite and perhaps the best casting, Dallas Liu is amazing as Zuko and no one will ever tell me otherwise. It’s a hard balance to play an exiled prince who’s lost so much throughout the years and maintain composure in his quest to capture the Avatar for his father, Fire Lord Ozai (Daniel Dae Kim). Zuko is the most complicated character in the entire series, and I give a standing ovation to Liu for hitting every part of that difficult task. 

Accompanying him is his Uncle Iroh (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee) who is the wise pillar that stays with Zuko during his search for the Avatar. Sadly, the wisdom and vigor of “The Dragon of the West” is mostly lost. I enjoyed watching Lee in Kim’s Convenience but wish he would have kept the speaking voice he used instead in The Mandalorian. Iroh is a fan (and personal) favorite, so there’s a little bit of a sting that they removed the elements that made him so enjoyable. 

Back at the Fire Nation Palace is the true antagonist, Fire Lord Ozai, who’s machinations of using his children against each other works beyond his wildest dreams. His daughter Azula (Elizabeth Yu) is a psychopath, only wanting to impress her father and claim the throne from under her brother.

Yu is convincing as Azula, but she lacked the impact the character had in the animated series. I didn’t feel that same sense of dread and despair whenever she spoke. The intimidation factor that she’s known was nearly non-existent, which is a tough sell since that’s exactly who and what she is, a nightmare. They even showed Azula with the blue flames, which felt extremely early to showcase and even unnecessary for the scene.

The costumes and music are a true highlight in Avatar: The Last Airbender

With all the distinctions of each nation or tribe, the costumes had to match. The Kyoshi warriors armor was brought to life with not a single detail missing. The Fire Nation soldiers channeled the dullness of uniformity and imperialism with great numbers. Fabrics of the Air Nomads flowed just as well as the air they bent around themselves. Water Tribe form and function followed with lined coats for the extreme weather and the blue hues are still appealing to the eye.

Avatar The Last Airbender image from the series
Avatar: The Last Airbender. (L to R) Arden Cho as June, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee as Iroh, Dallas Liu as Prince Zuko in season 1 of Avatar: The Last Airbender. (Netflix)

Some places looked alive, such as Kyoshi Island and an overlook of Omashu, while several others suffered from poor use of The Volume. You will never really win using CGI over real locations, but sometimes the backgrounds were so poorly lit or faint that it became distracting. The sad part of it all is that one of the major themes in the series is respecting nature and finding peace with it. This was thrown out the window and forgotten about. 

I was pleasantly surprised to see that some of the combat was not just a spectacle of bending but actual physical contact. While in Omashu, Zuko and Aang have a fight through the market that is enjoyable due to the minimal fire and air bending. Throughout the season, the action was consistently thrilling and nearly elevated from what I was used to all those years ago. 

What’s Avatar: The Last Airbender without the music? I’m so happy to say that they kept all the important themes and utilized them a lot more sparingly. This made the payoffs of hearing the swelling of Aang entering the Avatar state worth the wait. I’m actually a huge fan of the changes they did to the title cards and giving us the Four Nations spiel through Gran-Gran (Casey Camp-Horinek) rather than in every opener.

And yes, although subtle, ‘”Leaves on the Vine” does find its way into the series in a heartfelt moment between Prince Zuko and Iroh. Even without the lyrics, the impact of it is still felt deeply without needing to know its significance in advance. 

Top 10 Avatar: The Last Airbender Episodes from the Animated Series

Top 10 Avatar The Last Airbender episodes

My favorite things from the animated series

There’s been some doubts through interviews with the intentions of the showrunners, and even rumblings due to the early exits of the original creators. While the world may never know what that is all about, I still believe this story was crafted as a way to introduce new audiences to a wonderful universe that can be fleshed out over the years. I welcome the changes that streamline the ferocity of the Fire Nation, introduce Ozai and Azula much earlier, and rearrange the timeline of a couple of events.

This series greatest strength is the incredible representation in its casting of persons of color and the sheer talent they managed to acquire. Ultimately, I can not wait for season 2, if and when it comes to explore my favorite location in the series, Ba Sing Se. 

This last section is for all the adults who are curious if certain characters and moments were honored or brought into the series. I’m so happy to say they do it so well. Fans collectively adore The Cabbage Merchant (played by original Voice Actor, James Sie), the band who sing “Secret Tunnel” and Aang’s furry companions Appa and Momo.

Voice work from the legendary George Takei (who did some in the animated series) as Koh the Face Stealer put it on par with the original. Other Avatars make guest appearances too, and I couldn’t help but smile, laugh and cry whenever Avatar Roku (C.S. Lee) had his moment with Aang.

I’m still a bit confused as to why Wan Shi Tong (Randall Duk Kim) was introduced outside of his library, but his menacing aura still resonated the same when Aang ventured into the Spirit World. 

Avatar: The Last Airbender is now streaming all episodes on Netflix . Did you watch the original series (also streaming on Netflix)? Are you going to watch the series soon? Let us know on social media @mycosmiccircus on all major platforms or join The Cosmic Circus Discord for our discussions of this series and much more!

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Anthony Flagg

Howdy! I cover a variety of topics for The Cosmic Circus. My favorite topics to write about are video games, Pokemon and music. Drop me a line on Twitter! @redovah_

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