Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender has been hugely influential on a generation of artists and audiences. I missed it the first time around, so it’s been on my list of shows to catch up on, particularly as some of its key creators are responsible for making Voltron: Legendary Defender and The Dragon Prince. I finally caved after reading that Netflix, Nickelodeon, and the original creators are teaming up to produce a live-action version of Avatar: The Last Airbender. (I have no desire to see the white-washed movie version.)
I binge-watched the first season last weekend. The animation in the first episode was rough compared to the animation in Voltron and The Dragon Prince, but the show hooked me. Something about the combination of a real kid voicing Aang, the folkloric backstory, the brother-sister dynamic, and the environmental theme clicked for me.
Since this was an old-school Nickelodeon show, it had a full 20 episodes to unfurl its first chapter, and it used the time well. Seemingly stereotypical enemies turned out to be much more complex, characters’ powers had time to develop, a dunce matures, all in good time. In comparison, The Dragon Prince, with nine episodes, felt like it was setting up for the real story to begin. I binged all 65 episodes of Voltron in a week, so the storylines were more fully developed; as a whole, it felt like a coherent, albeit long, movie.
The Dragon Prince, Voltron: Legendary Defender, and Avatar: The Last Airbender have a lot in common. They are set in fantastical worlds. The Dragon Prince draws on fantasy, Voltron on science fiction, and Avatar on folklore. In all three, a once-peaceful, cooperative world was rent asunder by war and misunderstanding; it’s left to unlikely coalitions of young heroes to put it back together.
I was particularly fascinated by the parallels between Avatar and Voltron. In Voltron: Legendary Defender, all characters are obsessed with finding sources of power, often in the form of naturally occurring crystals. But a big difference between heroes an villains is that the heroes get that extra “kick” in finding the power within themselves, whereas the bad guys use slave labour to mine crystals, and also harvest quintessence non-consensually. Furthermore, in Avatar: The Last Airbender, the heroes desperate seeking sources of knowledge, while the villains do whatever they can to stop knowledge from being shared.
While it will take me a while to complete the full series (and its sequel, The Legend of Korra, I can see why a live-action adaptation is timely. Live-action film and television are only now catching up to the environmental themes and multicultural world of Avatar: The Last Airbender.