How Netflix can learn from the mistakes of Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender
By Spencer Yu, Contributor
Avatar: The Last Airbender is considered one of the highest rated animated series in the six to 11-year-old target demographic and is widely regarded as one of the best animated series of all time, according to Animation Insider. It was not only praised for its storytelling and breathtaking action, but also for addressing more adult topics such as genocide, totalitarianism and marginalization. At the time of writing, the series has received near-perfect ratings on the review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes. Many critics cite it as an instant classic.
While the animated show is very highly regarded, the live action adaptation is not. In 2010, director M. Night Shyamalan sought to adapt the animated series into a more traditional movie format. Needless to say, it was not well received. It only earned five per cent on Rotten Tomatoes. With Netflix starting production on yet another live-action adaptation of The Last Airbender in 2022, I thought it would be worth looking at how the new series could succeed where the film failed.
The biggest problem with the 2010 adaptation was how the characters were portrayed. A lot of the humor from the original series is absent, which I believe was because the director wanting to create a darker, more serious tone for the live action counterpart. That tone shift could potentially work because the original series touched on darker subject matter, but I don’t think it’s worth going for it at the expense of everything else from a character perspective.
This shift in character tone would have been worth it if they were willing to further explore the darker elements and really dive into the nuances of the war happening in the world of The Last Airbender. But what ended up happening was the characters changing for no real apparent reason. If Netflix is able to balance having the original spirit of the characters while further exploring the darker elements presented in the original show, that would go a long way towards creating a more complex rendition of the series.
Something that I’ve always found very appealing about the animated series was how it was structured and how well-paced it was. Throughout the entire run of the show, the heroes had the overarching goal of defeating The Fire Lord. They were also able to show all the smaller issues our group of heroes had to solve along the way, such as the Avatar mastering all four elements and gathering more people for his cause. Each one of those incremental steps towards their end goal felt meaningful and rarely did the show ever feel like it was bogged down.
However, in the 2010 live action adaptation, Shyamalan attempted to squeeze the entire first season down into just 90 minutes. For comparison, that’s about four-and-a-half episodes of the animated series. If you were to compare the runtime of the movie to the animated series, by the time the movie is ending, our cast of characters would have just begun to set out on their great adventure.
In a series where many of the episodes not only contain important character moments but also things that set up future events, pacing is incredibly important. I think if Netflix doesn’t want to do a complete one-to-one recreation of the series, I think it would be important to at least recreate the more impactful events so that things still feel significant.
Netflix’s adaptation is set to release towards the end of 2022 or in early 2023. With incredible source material for them to reference, expectations are high for the next iteration of The Last Airbender.