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In 2005, when Avatar: The Last Airbender first made its appearance on Nickolodeon, we started watching with our kids. The kids’ interest dropped off (though one of them would become a massive fan of the series later on its rerelease), but the adults just kept watching. Watching a kids’ animated series solo was our guilty secret — but I soon found out I wasn’t alone. A friend admitted she was eagerly watching the saga of Ang and his friends unfold each week — and watching it without her son. A co-worker also mentioned that she knew many adults who were watching the series.

Why did so many adults watch the show? Great characters and good storytelling, combined with good animation.

I’ve seen the series more than once since then, as my daughter became interested in animation. We’ve rewatched it recently, bit-by-bit with its current popularity on Netflix.

Avatar’s Story

For those of you who don’t already know the story, the show follows 12 (or 112) year old Airbender Ang. He’s the most recent incarnation of the Avatar who has been magically frozen and suspended in time for 100 years in an iceberg, leaving the imperialistic Fire Nation ample time to attack and conquer. Newfound friends Katara and Sokka accidentally free him and accompany him on a journey to find teachers in “bending” all of the other elements he hasn’t mastered: fire, earth, and water (the look of each inspired by a different martial art.)

Pursuing them is Zuko a disfigured prince of the Fire Nation. Zuko is on a quest to get the Avatar and take him back to the fire nation in the conviction that doing so will regain his honor and make his daddy love him (though you would never hear him say the latter part out loud.)

During the arc of the story, we meet some memorable characters — some likable, some immensely creepy. As in the real world, in the world of Avatar, people are just people. We see that even within the “evil” Fire Nation, its citizens are mostly people like everywhere else, going about their day-to-day lives. And that evil isn’t necessarily confined to one nation. Some characters go through significant changes during their story arc. And I really want to have tea with Uncle Iroh.

The Problems with the Avatar Live-Action Film

So in light of this combination of amazing story and characters, of course, someone thought, “Well, why not make a live-action film”?

M. Night Shyamalan’s live-action film of Avatar: The Last Airbender took most of what made the animated series great and then gutted it. I recall reading that his kids were fans of the series. I can only wonder what they must have thought of the final result. Fortunately, the film only had the opportunity to do its dirty work on the first series of the TV show, leaving no sequels.

How can one count the problems with the film?

One of the film’s problems that often made media attention was the “whitewashing” of the cast. The animated series takes place in a mostly Asian-inspired world. Ang’s people — the now-vanquished Airbenders — seemed to have lived like Tibetan monks living in temples high above the clouds and flying on Yaks (OK, so it’s an air bison but still…) The Water Tribe lives at the poles and seems to be inspired by Inuit people. The Fire and Earth Nations both seem inspired by Chinese and Southeast Asian influences. But, in the film, White kids play both Sokka and Kitara instead of casting someone more culturally appropriate in the role.

But, problems with diversity aside, the film destroys Avatar in plenty of other ways. Ang is 12 and many of the other kids are teens. Ang is frequently playful despite the seriousness of his mission. And other characters add humor to the mix. The show takes time to focus on the relationships between characters, character motivations, and development. The movie was too serious and it was hard to connect with the characters.

The Charm of the Animated Series

To be fair, a feature-length film made from a series has to condense. But it condensed out what made the TV series so likable — Sokka’s humor, Ang’s playfulness, the friendship between the characters. Some episodes in later seasons don’t necessarily further plot, but the add something: either in character development or entertainment value. The characters have to enter a scary cave but are accompanied by badly-singling hippies. One of my favorite episodes just followed each of the main characters during a day exploring a new city. The character did things like having their makeup done and entering a haiku contest. And the show’s writers found the best possible way to do a “review and wrap-up” episode, with hilarious results. Moments like these would have been cast aside if later moved had been made. But these little things art part of the mix that gives the animated series its charm.

Additionally, if you do like Japanese animation, you’ll instantly recognize homages to Miyazaki in some of the episodes. Appa, Ang’s air bison, is a bit like Catbus in My Neighbor Totoro. The Ocean Spirit brought to mind the Forest Spirit in Princess Mononoke.

The Forest Spirit from Princess Mononoke Do We Need Live-Action Remakes
Forest Spirit from Princess Mononoke
The Ocean Spirit from Avatar: The Last Airbender Do We Need Live-Action Remakes
Ocean Spirit from Avatar.

A Bit About the Upcoming Avatar: The Last Airbender Live-Action Series

So, I was a bit wary when my daughter pointed out that a live action Avatar series in the works.

But, I thought, the movie set such a low bar that the animated series has to be better. I felt more reassured when I read that Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko — the creators of the animated series — are working on showrunners here. They already understand and care about the world of Avatar. The concept art I’ve seen looks incredible.

The show’s creators say that the show won’t be “whitewashed.” And a live-action series vs. a movie will give more time for the character development and fun that made the animated series come to life. Plus, Production is/was supposed to start in 2020, but, of course, COVID will likely delay the project. Still, when it arrives on screens, I will watch.

Do We Need Live-Action Remakes? Are They Ever Good?

However, I ask this question whenever I see another announcement of something that says “live-action remake”: Do we need a live-action remake? Ever?

If studios think a project will make money they will, of course, make.

But can you think of any live-action remake of an animated film or series that was actually better than the original? That improved on it in some, tangible, way?
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Can you think of any live-action remake of an animated film or series that was actually better than the original?x

Granted, I haven’t seen every single live-action remake of an animated film but none come to mind that was truly better than the original. When I think of Disney films, Beauty and the Beast was a classic. The live-action version was OK but didn’t live up. When I think of anime, both live-action versions of Death Note come to mind, with Netflix’s awful adaptation being the worst of the two.

Yet it seems that if there’s something that’s both animated and successful, there’s now an impetus to make a live-action counterpart. But animation is its own magic. Particularly, hand-drawn animation. It seems like a work of wizardry to take a bunch of art and make it move and tell a story. Can you imagine if someone said, “Well, we have the technology to turn Spirited Away into a live-action flick; we should totally do it?” Miyazaki’s films are magical because of the animation, not despite it.

Of course, I often feel the same in reverse: live-action films don’t need an animated counterpart. I think it’s a bit of “don’t mess with a good thing.” Perhaps if someone identified an underdeveloped and less-loved animation and found a way to fill it in and expand on it in a live-action version, it would work. But to take something well-loved and near perfect and then remake it usually never surpasses the original.

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