Ian Harris: The Avatar Returns

Tuesday, October 9, 2018 - 5:41pm

The latest iteration of 'Avatar'

The latest iteration of 'Avatar' Buy this photo
Netflix

A few weeks ago news broke that the beloved animated series “Avatar: The Last Airbender” was to live on as a live-action reimagining, courtesy of Netflix. Fans who began having horrible flashbacks to the last time “Avatar” went live action were given reason to hope with the additional news that this time around the remake will be spearheaded by original creators Brian Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino. The cast won't be whitewashed and will feature actors whose skin tone and nationality will properly reflect the roles they will be playing. This is all very exciting. But, as I’ve written many times before in this column, the question must be asked: Do we really need this?

“The Last Airbender” is easily one of the best children’s TV series of all time and some might go as far as to say it deserves to be considered on the list of the greatest scripted television shows period. I recently re-watched the majority of the series and it held up even better than I remembered. Practically everything that goes into telling a story in the visual medium, from character to plot to music to visual design, was done to absolute perfection. Spanning only three seasons (or “books,” as they were stylized in the universe), the story has continued with a spin-off TV show, “The Legend of Korra,” as well as a number of books and comics. With such an expansive world at their disposal, it seems like the creators could have brought the show to Netflix with a new story instead of just a re-telling of one we’ve already seen, but I suppose there wouldn’t be as much money in that.

I’m approaching this reboot with trepidation. On one hand, it seems impossible that it could possibly any worse than the M. Night Shyalaman movie “The Last Airbender,” which is widely regarded as one of the worst films of the 21st century.  On the other hand, it is also hard to imagine how this new series could ever be better than the original. The original show was basically perfect on its own, so what more could really be done with the story and characters that wasn’t done before? The “Avatar” storyline also worked well in the serialized format of old-school TV, where episodes would release every week with long gaps, at times, between episodes, adding to the experience of journeying and growing with these characters. It’s possible the travelogue nature of the series will fall a bit flat if whole seasons are released at a time, as is the Netflix way.

All that aside, the potential is there. The children who grew up watching the Nickelodeon cartoon are now in their late teens or early 20s, and the potential to grow the show with the audience in a similar way to other generational series such as Star Trek is clearly there. The original episodes featured their fair share of dark content but also shied away from the concept of death and at times sugar coated certain aspects of the genocidal war that was taking place in order for the show to be appropriate for children. This live-action Netflix need not place such restrictions on itself.

The other big question hanging over the revival of “Avatar” is the status of former head writer Aaron Ehasz. Ehasz was the head writer for the entirety of the series and appears to have been an influential part of the writing that made the show a cut above the rest of early 2000s children’s programming. Strangely enough, Ehasz recently debuted his own serialized animated series on Netflix that was hailed by many as the next “Avatar.” “The Dragon Prince” came out on Netflix this past September and quickly gained a following, although it’s a far cry from “Avatar.” “Prince” has been renewed for a second season, so whether or not that will preclude Ehasz from working on the new “Avatar” remains to be seen.

In this age of never-ending stories, “Avatar: The Last Airbender” remained the pinnacle of how to tell a story correctly. The three books of Water, Earth and Fire were a very clear beginning, middle and end. There was at most one important remaining question at the end of the series and all character arcs were fulfilled in an extremely satisfying way. With the brand recognition and sheer popularity of the franchise, it was unlikely it was going to be gone forever, but a live-action reboot of the original story might not necessarily be what fans were hoping for. Only time will tell if this new version of Aang’s story will be worth the trouble.