Watching the series again, which is maybe my fifth time overall, I still find Avatar: The Last Airbender crazy impressive. I’ll try and dig into it all but as a quick sum-up: the action is stellar (and only gets better over time), the plotting and overarching story progression is exquisite, the character work and relationships are on-point and consistent, voice performances are great (somehow including both Mako Iwamatsu and Mark Hamill), and the animation is detailed and gorgeous.
In my eyes, Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender is pretty much perfect and I’m not alone. It’s so perfect that adapting it for live-action – just like last time – comes across as a futile effort. Even under the best circumstances – which probably means being guided by series creators Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko and produced by Netflix, which is exactly what’s happening – I’m still skeptical.
For one, TLA’s premise and concept is very animation-specific. It focuses on a trio of pre-teen heroes with a comedy-heavy tone, set in a (mostly) high fantasy setting where they ride around on top of a flying bison and use magical elemental ‘bending’ endlessly. It seems built solely for an animated or drawn medium. Translating TLA to a live-action long-form fantasy series aimed at older audiences seems, at the very least, difficult to pull off.
However, I will admit that, after rewatching the series, I can see how the folks at Netflix thought this project would be a good idea.
Live-action remakes of animated films have been hugely successful for Disney recently, so that part makes sense (read: Netflix likes money). TLA is, like those Disney classics, a universally beloved and acclaimed series. It has a very transparent and satisfying Hero’s Journey structure and, as a story, lays down an extremely solid and expandable myth-centric groundwork for an ongoing series. With their mature kid-centric and successful Stranger Things series under their belt already, Netflix would be confident developing something similar and, in the world of hour-long television dramas, quite rare.
(This comparison might also hint at the darker tone that the Netflix remake might use if it’s aiming for the wider market that embraced Stranger Things, especially when it’s so risky to develop a light-hearted adventure-action-comedy centered entirely around younger actors. Aging the cast up seems likely, too, or simply extending the story beyond the single year that the original series covers. They have a lot of options.)
In terms of action sequences, matching the constantly innovative and expansive scope of the original will be a tall order, but I can see the remake taking a new approach. I’d guess it will put a bigger focus on weight and gravity in its bending choreography and animation to better suit the live-action format and keep it distinct from the animated series. Live-action bending will be very different to the animated version no matter what, but investing in the quality of the action would make a lot of sense (especially if it helps gloss over other issues the new series may have).
But the real difficulty in remaking TLA as a live-action and (presumably) hour-long adventure-drama is in the plotting and pacing, because the original series is phenomenal in this regard. Since I’m a fanboy for narrative pacing and structure, Imma dive into this topic for a while. I’ll try and keep it short.
The part where I gush over pacing again
TLA is one of those stories that comes across as not just carefully constructed, but immaculately composed. The second season is especially great at this, where each episode includes some combination of character development, plot, foreshadowing and world building – usually all at once. Each episode builds upon a firm groundwork for the larger series by fleshing out small aspects of the world and characters, while also working as individual episodes in their own right. This probably sounds like basic writing but the way each episode is so distinct from every other one, and the incredible consistency and elegance of how they are all woven into a singular, cohesive series can be mind-blowing.
Each season bobs between smaller and larger scopes; a massive gallery of settings and satisfying episodic narratives; new and returning characters; new themes and topics; new aspects of the world that both adds texture to the setting and exposition for future story beats; all while maintaining a forward momentum in its central plot. It’s this constant variety that lets the animated series keep a fantastically compelling pace, despite of (or maybe because of) an extremely straight-forward Hero’s Journey plot.
The shift from 20 minute to 40-60-minute episodes already demands major changes to the story (especially if Netflix ends up inflating the episode order, as they have with other series). This means that many of the earliest episodes from the original series, the ones which do the heavy lifting in setting up certain concepts, themes and character developments inside their small self-contained narratives, will have to either be massively retooled or entirely replaced.
In the end, the true ambition of this series will be in approaching it as a genuine, honest-to-goodness remake. As a kid-friendly cartoon that ran for 20 minutes per episode, it can’t be changed to such a different format without transforming it into something else entirely. It’s unavoidable. To do this, it needs to bring a new angle to the concept and premise – and, as skeptical as I am of it actually succeeding, that’s exciting.
The live-action remake of Avatar: The Last Airbender can’t really afford to be lazy. This isn’t The Lion King, The Jungle Book or Beauty and the Beast, which were already fully-formed films that could be used, at the very least, as frameworks for the live-action versions. It can be mature and grounded at times but TLA is still a child-centric fantasy-action cartoon. It’s goofy and funny with a massive fantasy world that perfectly suited its animated medium. Not so much live-action.
Like the Disney remakes, Netflix’s live-action Avatar: The Last Airbender has the potential to reach a massive audience who’ve never seen or heard of the original show (as hard as that is to imagine), or maybe just aren’t interested in watching ‘childish’ animated shows – which, to be fair, TLA often is. However, as a live-action series, especially based on a modern classic so completely suited to its original format, there will inevitably be a lot of changes.
It’s hard not to be cynical about this project when the original was so great, but I love anything, original or adapted, that takes creative risks. I love those projects that take bold leaps to shed the old or expected, that try to find and explore exciting new landscapes, even if they fail (especially if they fail). I really hope Netflix’s Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of those (well, not the ‘fail’ part).
For now, I’ll try and keep my cynicism at bay and hope for the best, so I’ll end on a note everyone can agree with: it will never, ever be as bad as the movie.