Avatar: The Last Airbender review – All the action, none of the heart

Jasmine Valentine
Aang, Katara, and Sokka in Netflix's Avatar: The Last Airbender

Surely, after the overwhelming success of One Piece, Netflix has nailed down the blueprint for successful live-action adaptations of anime. So how did its latest entry, Avatar: The Last Airbender, completely miss the feel of the original cartoon?

For fans, the answer to this has been achingly obvious since the show’s announcement, with each news bulletin made since only continuing to lower their expectations. When Netflix first hinted at the project, the original creative team were all involved – until they dropped out after supposed clashes. The OGs wanted to stick to what worked, and the streaming platform didn’t.

The result is probably one that Aang’s original creators feared, with the live-action remake becoming so bogged down in its own seriousness that it seems to forget its distinct emotional purpose. Huge plot details such as Aang, Katara, and Sokka’s side-quests have been disregarded for a more streamlined narrative. There’s even an argument to keep the cartoon’s original sexism intact.

By stripping back elements of the animation that seemed trivial – but were actually integral – Netflix’s Avatar: The Last Airbender becomes a show that only looks good on the surface. Fleeting time is invested in the core trio as a legitimate friendship group, instead focusing on fleeting romantic attractions and the very well-worn in patent that fantasy equals drama. Don’t get us wrong, what’s there is incredibly beautiful to look at… but beauty fades, and meaning is forever. Warning: Minor spoilers ahead!

Netflix delivers something visually spellbinding

As many parent-teacher conferences have advised over the years, it’s always best to start with the positives first – and for Avatar: The Last Airbender, that lies heavily in its visuals. The detail that is lacking in the plot is impeccably followed through in every frame on screen, making Aang and co’s transition from animation to live-action exceptionally seamless. While the likeliness is captured uncannily well across the board – and the Asian representation is effortlessly sublime – just as much thought has gone into the likes of the Northern Water Tribe and Omashu.

If Netflix’s visual brief can be summed up in a nutshell, Avatar has a remarkable The Witcher feel to it, suggesting that the platform is trying to streamline its fantasy content into one homogenized look. Thankfully, the airbenders are able to take this and run with it, adding layer after layer of nuance in what we’re seeing, keeping the narrative fresh yet familiar.

This extends to the all-important action that drives Aang’s story forward, with the balance between CGI and handmade craft a line well trodden. The theatrics refrain from becoming too ridiculous to be believed, with each element deftly utilized to give viewers the fleeting belief that they too could throw a wad of concrete at an enemy. You get the idea – what you see realized is worth the investment of your time.

Where’s the heart of the original?

Aang, Sokka, and Katara in the cast of Avatar: The Last Airbender

Alas, everything else is where Avatar: The Last Airbender falls short. The adaptation itself is in a hard spot just by existing, needing to appeal to both completely new viewers and hardened fans of the cartoon. However, it’s unlikely to fully do either, with the show feeling hollow for new fans and way off the mark for old ones. What Avatar avoids at every point is laying the groundwork for what made the original so special – Aang’s reluctance for responsibility and his irreplaceable friendship with Sokka and Katara.

Instead of investing time into solidifying the trio’s friendship – or really relaxing into Aang’s inherent goofiness – the Netflix series moves full steam ahead on a linear and overly serious assault on the Fire Nation. On the flip side, the antagonist’s backstory is chartered incredibly well, leaning into and exploring the lore that many have succumbed to since Avatar’s inception in 2005. There’s little in the way of peaks and pits, just one monotone descent into an impending doom that will obviously be rectified. Interestingly, the stakes are also a lot lower, with original time constraints taken out, and Sozin’s Comet only briefly referenced in Episode 1.

In summary, Netflix takes a somewhat half-hearted approach to delving into the rich layers of Aang’s story, with the decision to cut out so much of what grounded the narrative itself making it all the more superficial. There’s little in the way of fun, but plenty of time made for fleeting romantic connections that never go anywhere. There’s little room to learn, with life-changing realizations made in a ridiculously short amount of time. If a tale can’t be paid its due diligence in a certain remit, should we even bother at all?

Avatar: The Last Airbender review score: 2/5

As intricate and whimsical as Avatar: The Last Airbender looks in live-action format – and as much as the representation delivers – the substance behind it just isn’t there.

Fans of the original are likely to be raging on Reddit in a matter of minutes after this review drops, and we can’t blame them. But don’t panic too much – it’s definitely a step up from the movie.

About The Author

Jasmine Valentine is a TV and Movies Writer at Dexerto. She's the go-to source for all things Young Sheldon, as well as many Netflix originals. Jasmine has also written for the likes of Total Film, The Daily Beast, and Radio Times.