M. Night Shyamalan’s live-action adaptation of Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko’s animated collection Avatar: The Last Airbender appeared doomed even earlier than it hit theaters. There was a backlash over Shyamalan recasting the collection’ Inuit and Asian characters with white actors, with some calling for a boycott of the movie. And then, controversy apart, the movie was critically slammed on launch; 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 unique collection and the live-action film each added to Netflix, the collection is having fun with a brand new cultural resurgence. Meanwhile, Netflix is creating a brand new live-action remake, this time as a collection. It appears nearly as good a time as any to revisit the film. Is it actually as unhealthy as its legacy suggests?
Unfortunately, if something, it’s worse.
The whitewashing of the leads is manifestly evident from the outset, as virtually your entire remainder of the solid is performed by actors of Asian or Indigenous descent. The white faces of Katara (Nicola Peltz), Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), and their grandmother (Katharine Houghton) make them really feel like interlopers or strangers, and the impact solely worsens because the characters resolve it’s their job to liberate Earth Kingdom cities, all of that are populated by characters performed by Asian actors. It turns into a white-savior narrative.
The issues solely multiply from there, as Shyamalan struggles to cram a whole 20-episode TV season’s price of occasions right into a 103-minute film. The move of the story is misplaced amid hurried voiceovers and a choppiness that requires viewers to be aware of the animated collection in an effort to perceive what’s happening. That rushed high quality impacts the performances, too. At finest, they’re flat. Even a veteran actor like Shaun Toub (taking part in Uncle Iroh) can solely accomplish that a lot with how little he’s given — he places as a lot inflection into his line deliveries as attainable, however he nonetheless fails to make a lot of an impression. At worst, the performances are complicated — an excessive amount of of the dialogue was later dubbed in, and appears to return from the backs of character’s heads, or from off-screen. The inconsistent modifying makes the motion really feel inert, and the characters’ motivations are incomprehensible.
The few moments that do land — a bunch of Earthbenders collectively launching a boulder, Toub creating hearth from nothing, a combat inside a construction with hanging partitions — aren’t made nice as a result of they’re properly shot or acted. It’s extra that they present why a live-action model of an animated collection exists to start with. Watching the unique present, it’s tempting to surprise what such fantastical acts would appear to be in actual life. Seeing them really come to life is magical. But it’s not sufficient to hold an entire film.
If something, The Last Airbender is a cautionary story to be thought-about as Netflix strikes ahead with its live-action present. The movie took fan goodwill as a right, overlaying a number of episodes’ price of story by belabored exposition. Part of the pacing drawback will probably be solved by making the reboot a TV collection as an alternative of a brief film, however the brand new collection nonetheless faces an issue that has grow to be larger and greater in recent times: Why retell an present, well-told story, moderately than creating a brand new one? The Last Airbender didn’t add something new to the dialog, and lots of current remakes, reboots, and diversifications — Artemis Fowl, The Lion King, Men in Black: International — have fallen into the identical lure, rehashing previous materials as an alternative of exploring new territory.
Fortunately, the brand new live-action collection will probably be helmed by collection creators Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, who’ve already promised that the brand new adaptation will probably be “non-whitewashed.” That’s an enormous step in the appropriate path, not simply due to the live-action movie’s troubled racial dynamics, however as a result of the animated collection confronted an analogous drawback — virtually all the major characters had been voiced by white performers. The vow that the Netflix collection will star “culturally appropriate” actors is a big step ahead, particularly because the leisure trade is more and more reckoning with casting white voice actors as non-white characters. The remake looks as if an ideal alternative to proper that fallacious, in addition to maybe additional creating the amalgamation of Asian cultures that principally serves as set dressing within the animated collection.
The live-action Last Airbender is stunning to revisit as a result of it fails on so many ranges in addition to its casting. However, it’s additionally a reminder of each the facile and deeper causes that the concept of turning the animated collection right into a live-action movie or present is interesting. On a floor degree, it’s a chance to get misplaced in a fantasy world. Go deeper, and it turns into an opportunity to inform a narrative correctly; not simply to retell a story, however to make it extra significant, giving extra consideration to the cultures the animated collection is clearly pulling from, and offering the uncommon alternative to solid a serious work primarily with actors of Asian and Indigineous descent. In a great world, The Last Airbender might stay one step again, however the upcoming live-action collection could possibly be two steps ahead.
Both The Last Airbender and Avatar: The Last Airbender are streaming on Netflix.