Avatar - The Last Airbender: Blending fan service with creative freedom, does it work?

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Cover for the movie ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’. PHOTO | POOL

Let's begin this with the fandom specifically "The fan, usually defined as an individual with a strong interest or admiration for someone or something, think celebrities, sports, politicians, books, movies and video games. In the modern TV and movie production space , a divide is emerging between fans and production studios, particularly in comic movie/series production.

The primary grievance voiced by fans is the studio's departure from and distortion of the source material, whether it be a comic book, manga, or pre-existing animated production.

At times, it's easy to imagine the fans as adversaries to studio executives and producers, due to the fact that the producers are looking to create a product geared towards a broader audience and maximising on profit.

Sometimes it means moving somethings around to make the product more accessible, if the changes work, a few fans will complain but generally, everyone will rejoice but when it doesn't, then pitchforks come out and the fans set social media ablaze, with all sort of acquisitions with the directors and actors-funny enough taking most of the heat, a recent good example “Madame Web”.

However, Netflix, through productions like One Piece and Cowboy Bebop, has gradually endeared itself to fans by making an effort to maintain fidelity to the original source material. In the case of One Piece, this approach appears to have worked, as it was lauded as one of the standout productions of the previous year.

Conversely, Cowboy Bebop was discontinued after its first season. Last Friday, February 22, 2024, saw the release of a live-action adaptation of an acclaimed and highly regarded animated series.

In 2010, M. Night Shyamalan attempted a two-hour adaptation of the same series, which was met with vehement backlash from fans for deviating from the source material, resulting in one of the most poorly received adaptations in recent cinematic history, second only to Dragonball evolution (2009).

Now the question arises: has Netflix succeeded this time, or are we poised for another disappointment?

Avatar: The Last Airbender

Initially announced in September 2018, it is an eight-episode Netflix and Nickelodeon adventure fantasy television series. It serves as a live-action adaptation of the animated television series (Avatar: The Last Airbender 2005–2008).

The cast include Gordon Cormier, Kiawentiio, Ian Ousley, Dallas Liu, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, Ken Leung, and Daniel Dae Kim.

Albert Kim is the showrunner. Before we continue, It's worth noting that Aang is a 12-year-old.

Synopsis

The series is set in a war-torn world inspired by various Asian and Indigenous cultures, where certain individuals can "bend" one of the four classical elements—water, earth, fire, or air. The best way to describe “Bending” is basically manipulating the elements by waving your hands around.

The Avatar

Aang, the "Avatar" and the last surviving Airbender, finds himself in a world plagued by conflict, having been frozen and subsequently discovered a century later. As the intermediary between the mortal and spirit realms, Aang possesses the unique ability to manipulate all four elements, rather than just one.

Charged with the task of restoring balance and peace to the world, Aang must confront the aggressive ambitions of the militaristic Fire Nation.

Accompanied by his newfound allies, Katara and Sokka, Aang embarks on a journey to master the four elements while evading capture by Zuko, the exiled crown prince of the Fire Nation, who seeks to redeem himself by apprehending Aang. By now you understand that this is 100 percent fantasy.

What works

Throughout the series, there is an effort to portray Aang as a relatable child grappling with overwhelming responsibilities and longing for his lost friends. One cannot help but empathise with the character and is arc is outrageous at times but as I said fantasy. Spanning the duration of an hour.

The opening episode, nearly flawless in execution, adeptly immerses newcomers into the show's universe, breaking down its lore and setting the tone for the coming season. It also effectively introduces the principal characters—Aang, the protagonists; and the Fire Nation, the antagonists—and establishes the central conflict.

Visually, the characters are strikingly faithful to their animated counterparts, this is due to the impeccable casting, makeup, and costumes designers, right down to Aang's distinctive tattoos on his head and arms.

Set against a backdrop of fantastical landscapes and creatures, the series captivates viewers with its conceptually rich visuals, complemented by proficient cinematography and special effects. Notwithstanding occasional shortcomings, such as noticeable green screen effects in select scenes, the bending effects—particularly those for fire, earth, and air—are largely impressive.

For those not familiar with the animated series, the story remains engaging. Notably, character arcs, particularly those of Zuko and his relationship with his uncle General Iroh, and his crew resonate profoundly.

The political intrigue, while familiar to fans, offers compelling insights into the machinations of the primary antagonist, Fire Lord Ozai, and his manipulative tactics involving Zuko and his sister, Azula. Even seemingly smaller characters (at first) like Zhao undergo significant evolution, adding layers to the narrative. Despite the narrative's dominance, the action sequences, especially in episodes 5 through 8, are a standout.

What will annoy the fans

In contrast to its animated counterpart's goofiness, the series adopts a darker and serious tone, detracting from its charm with characters like Aang who for the majority of the animation is a funny character. While sporadic instances of humour are present, they are overshadowed by the prevailing seriousness.

Furthermore, uneven performances stemming from a flawed script diminish the overall impact. Excessive exposition, necessitated by the need to accommodate newcomers and advance the plot swiftly, occasionally compromises the dialogue's authenticity. Certain scenes may feel rushed or forced, detracting from the narrative flow.

Despite the overall excellence in visual effects, minor details, particularly in water bending sequences, detract from the overall look of the effect. The water bending, while visually appealing, lacks the kinetic energy and visceral power necessary for complete immersion.

The series suffer from pacing issues exacerbated by the compressed storytelling of the first season, leaving some viewers feeling overwhelmed by the rapid plot developments. Nevertheless, these shortcomings are overshadowed by the series' strengths, including its rich character development, intricate political dynamics, and visually stunning world-building.

In conclusion

The source material, the animated show, still stands supreme. If you have never watched it, do yourself a favour especially if you like this live- action adaptation. But I digress.

In conclusion, Netflix's live-action adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender succeeds in capturing the essence of the beloved animated series while carving out its own distinct identity. Despite its substantial flaws, the series remains a captivating and an almost faithful tribute to its source material, offering both newcomers and fans a decent journey into the fantastical world of bending and adventure.

There are three terrifying creatures in the show, such as Koh (a centipede-like creature that steals faces). Yes, they are present in the animation, but since it’s 2D animated, they are not that scary. However, in this live-action show, they are genuinely terrifying, so be warned if you plan to watch this with the young ones.

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