Why the Animated Avatar Film Will Work Better

Ever since the Avatar: The Last Airbender series finished airing on Nickelodeon in 2008 and the subsequent Legend of Korra series ended in 2014, fans have been craving new Avatar content that emulates the charm, style and heart of the original. Audiences received a live-action iteration, but it paled in comparison to its predecessors. Now, there's a promise of a new era of animated Avatar shows and movies, and its positive response hints that Avatar is perhaps a universe that works best animated.

After M. Night Shyamalan's live-action The Last Airbender movie disappointed fans and critics alike, it's no wonder Netflix's upcoming live-action Avatar series has received a mixed reception, especially since Avatar creators Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko stepped away from the project due to creative differences. Luckily, DiMartino and Konietzko are back in the picture. Avatar Studios, a new branch at Nickelodeon, will be led by the pair and seek to develop new animated content. And just recently, it announced an untitled Avatar film in the works, a movie reportedly in a similar style to the original.

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Animation Better Allows For Avatar Characters' Wide Range of Expressions

It's long been a debate on whether or not Avatar: The Last Airbender should be considered an anime. With its over-exaggerated facial expressions and occasional over-the-top visual comedy, it isn't far off. Though the animation is Westernized, anime influences are built into the style's foundation, everywhere from character design to background elements. Anime is unique in that it allows for emotions to be heavily visualized, as its design is not bound to realistic proportions. ATLA utilizes this element for mostly comedic purposes; however, the writing goes well with the expressiveness of the characters, elevating emotional beats and giving a direct window into their slightest reactions.

The live-action movie failed in this aspect -- the actors felt stiff and stoic compared to the animated characters audiences were used to. One could chalk it up to a miscast, but nearly all the characters besides Dev Patel's Zuko fell flat for viewers, both in expression and dialogue. Of course, the kind of humor ATLA employs could just pair better with a more exaggerated medium; perhaps the cartoonish nature of both Sokka and Aang's senses of humor are accompanied best by their extreme facial reactions. Either way, any writer looking to adapt Avatar into live-action will have to account for its unique humor that can only be found in animation.

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Animated Bending is More Fluid

A crucial aspect of the Avatar universe is bending the elements -- earth, air, fire and water. Each element has a unique style, and the 2D animation of the original series does a beautiful job of combining a realistic flow of movement with stylized shape and action. When The Last Airbender arrived in theaters, fans were arguably most excited to see how bending would translate in real life. Unfortunately, the bending in The Last Airbender was one of the most heavily criticized aspects of the film. It was inconsistent, underwhelming and heavily altered from the original.

The fluidity of bending in the original series was seamless, and there's no getting around how beautiful it was. In comparison, it's hard to imagine a live-action version that looks natural and believable. Not to mention the ability of animation to visualize air without it looking out of place holds a heavy advantage over its live-action counterpart. Airbending is one of the most important keystones of ATLA, and it's helpful for viewers to see the air that is being bent -- its shape, motion and direction, namely. This is one element that may not translate realistically in the live-action versions; some visuals can only be conveyed through animation.

Animation Maintains Avatar's Appeal to Kids and Adults

Very few TV shows can boast an equal appeal for children and adults -- Avatar is one of them. Critics praised the show for its balance of humor and emotion and its ability to present more adult concepts in an acceptable way for kids. Topics like imperialism, propaganda, genocide and dysfunctional relationships were explored in depth while keeping the lighthearted, adventurous tone intact. Whimsical moments like Aang chasing Momo would turn into some of the most heavy-hearted moments, such as Aang discovering he was the last of his people.

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This is one of Avatar's greatest strengths, and the older the viewer gets, the more these themes start to reveal themselves. Ironically, like Avatar's ongoing emphasis on balance, the show's writers achieved a near-flawless balance between humor and depth, retaining fans of all ages. Given the fact that news about the creators leaving the upcoming Netflix series came out around the time that Netflix revealed its intention to include more violence and sexual themes in its live-action arena, it's unlikely the remake will be geared toward a younger audience. However, fans that grew up watching ATLA appreciate the nostalgia factor, to the point where the aging-up rumors have been heavily criticized. On the other side, DiMartino and Konietzko are aiming to maintain the original charm of the Avatar universe with their new movie, reassuring fans the design will be in familiar territory.

While there aren't many details released about the movie, aside from its 2023 release date, the future of the Avatar franchise looks bright. And though fans are apprehensive about another live-action adaptation, it will be interesting to see what new directions Netflix takes Avatar outside of the canon. In the meantime, die-hard fans of the Avatar universe will have a steady supply of animated stories coming their way soon. And with the original creative team at the helm, viewers have no reason not to be optimistic.

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Holly Vonder (10 Articles Published)

Holly is a Movie Features writer for CBR.com! She's passionate about screenwriting, films and the outdoors. When not writing or obsessing over the latest TV shows/movies, you can find Holly hanging out with her dog, playing Super Smash Bros. or practicing flying her drone. You can find her on Instagram @hollyvonder.

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