Monday, February 26, 2024

With the new Avatar series, one has to ask: What do we really want from an adaptation?

This version isn't perfect. It isn't horrible either. The world is at balance again.

Before anyone watched 2005's Batman Begins, one strong argument for its existence was that audiences' definitive memory of that world couldn't be allowed to be 1997's Batman & Robin. Such a lamentable misfire needed to be overwritten with something more dignified. The same reason explains the quasi-reboot of the X-Men films with First Class after the not-quite-beloved The Last Stand, the casting of Tom Holland to replace Andrew Garfield as Spider-Man, and the ongoing quest to one day, finally, make a decent Fantastic Four movie.

An even harsher approach is to not restart the timeline, but resume it from a well-liked beginning that was less well served by its sequels: 2019's Terminator: Dark Fate is intended to ignore everything that happened after 1991's T2, while Ghostbusters: Afterlife is a deliberate erasure of the unfairly hated 2016 remake. Although this method is called "soft reboot," it's actually more aggressive, because at least a "hard reboot" doesn't go out of its way to discourage viewers from enjoying previous works if that's what they prefer (e.g. Godzilla, Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan). While a "hard reboot" is content to do its own thing, a "soft reboot" executes a hostile takeover of an ongoing storyline and tells viewers to pretend that some portions of it never existed.

All this is necessary context before jumping into the rather complex relationship that viewers have had with the Aang/Korra franchise. The original cartoon show is now acclaimed as an almost perfect classic, but before the ending aired (and even for some time after), fan ships used to launch cannonballs at each other with the ferocity of Twilight subreddits. This situation didn't improve once the sequel series launched: one segment of fans flatly refuses to acknowledge Korra as part of the canon, another segment accepts only season 1, and yet another segment didn't believe the Korrasami pairing was official until the comic books spelled it out.

There ought to be a way for audiences to love a story without getting so petty about it. But one specific portion of such fierce protectiveness isn't totally unjustified: 2010's film adaptation The Last Airbender was so calamitously plagued with incompetence that any substitute was destined to be an improvement by default. And the 14 years fans had to wait for the palate cleanser couldn't pass fast enough.

The new live action adaptation, which just launched on Netflix, condenses the 20 short episodes of the cartoon's first season into 8 long episodes. Some plotlines have been condensed, others have been merged, and a few have been omitted. Whereas the cartoon took its time to explore at leisure the impressively varied and rich setting of its fictional world, the Netflix version focuses on a handful of key locations. This cutting and stitching of material isn't accomplished successfully. Sometimes an entire animated episode's worth of plot is wedged in as an easy-to-miss line of dialogue, and characters that are indispensable to the story but lived in locations that were removed from the adaptation appear now where it doesn't make full sense to find them.

For example, Teo, an inventor's son, no longer lives on a mountain, but he still has his mechanical flying wheelchair. The owl-shaped spirit of knowledge didn't even appear until the cartoon's second season, but here it makes a gratuitous cameo. Koh the Face-Stealer is moved to a completely separate plot in the Spirit World. And the traveling musicians from The Cave of Two Lovers are shunted to a scene of clumsily shoehorned exposition. The inclusion of characters and plot points that the cartoon didn't introduce this early in the story may be due to the fact that any show produced for Netflix exists under the hanging sword of capricious cancelation. Fire Lord Ozai, Princess Azula, Avatar Kuruk and even Fire Lord Sozin are shown much earlier than in the cartoon, consuming precious runtime in really unnecessary scenes that explain too much.

This is the main sin of this version of the story: it doesn't trust viewers' patience. The cartoon didn't  jump at the first chance to explain the backstories of Zuko, Iroh, Katara, or even protagonist Aang. It knew how to set up its mysteries and pay off its reveals at the right dramatic moment. The Netflix adaptation seems afraid of letting any question linger for more than two seconds. Part of this problem is caused by the quicker pacing, another part by the aforementioned risk of cancelation, and no small part by ongoing changes in viewers' preferences, namely the widespread misconceptions about what constitutes a plot hole. By this point in the story, the cartoon hadn't even revealed why the Air Nomads had been singled out for extermination in the first place.

What redeems the Netflix Avatar is the technical side of the storytelling. The combat choreography is flawless, and it takes care to represent the different styles of each elemental discipline. The degree of detail in set design is to be commended, as is the faithfulness of the casting (let it never be forgotten that the 2010 film is the whole reason why we have the word "racebending"). Even when the script leaves little space for emotional development, often replacing it with overstuffed lines of dialogue, the child actors do a fantastic job of portraying the anxieties of living through a world-changing crisis. Gordon Cormier understood the assignment perfectly: in the role of Avatar Aang, he knows how to channel with the same believability the enthusiasm of youth, the grief of absolute loneliness, and the paralyzing cluelessness of someone forced to grow up too soon. His antagonist Dallas Liu expresses the right mix of bravado barely concealing Prince Zuko's profound insecurity. As Katara, actress Kiawentiio displays both the tenderness of a gentle soul and the determination of someone who knows she can be much more. And Ian Ousley nails Sokka's brand of deadpan sarcasm every time.

In general, the visual effects are very good, except for a few acrobatic moves that look too obviously digital. And the makeup for Iroh and Bumi looks fake to the point of self-parody. As well-executed as this production is otherwise, it doesn't manage to justify its existence as something separate from the original cartoon. Unlike most reboots, this one retells exactly the same story viewers already know, which is always a recipe for unreachable expectations. Avatar: The Last Airbender set an incredibly high bar for fantasy animation aimed at children, and the openly confessed Game of Thrones-inspired grittification of this version doesn't make the story any more meaningful or exciting. It does fulfill more than satisfyingly the mandatory mission of giving fans something to show to newcomers that isn't the horrible 2010 film, but beyond that, it can't hope to match the first telling.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.