Avatar: The Last Airbender review – It will be adored by its enormous fanbase, and baffling to everyone else

Television: The live-action retelling of the tale of a follicly challenged magic teenager is a breath of fresh air

If you have children and they have been anywhere near Netflix in the past several years, you will know all about the original cartoon incarnation of Avatar: The Last Airbender (Netflix from Thursday, February 22nd). A sort of mash-up of Japanese anime, martial arts movies and native American mythology, it has become one of those invisible mega-franchises: adored by its enormous fan base, baffling to everyone else.

Everyone except Netflix. Having noted the huge streaming numbers clocked up by the cartoon and its sequel, Legend of Korra, Netflix has greenlit a live-action retelling of the story (glossing over the terrible 2010 M Night Shaylaman movie). It arrives with an appropriately blockbusting budget, rumoured at $15 million per episode. There is also a dense mythology that has the potential to nuke the noodle of anyone not previously familiar with the dastardly Fire Nation, “air-bending” or the giant zero-gravity mattress that is Flying Bison Appa.

There was a time when a show such as Avatar would bend over backwards to accommodate a wider audience. But nowadays, companies such as Netflix are more intent on wooing pre-existing fanbases. In the case of the Last Airbender, those Avatar-aficionados are clearly the target audience.

The story is told with gusto. True, the sight of “Last Airbender” Aang (Gordon Cormier) jumping about on spirals of air is initially more amusing than intended. But the fantastical steampunk world created around the character is lavish, fully-realised, and brought to the screen with conspicuous love.


The baddies are the imperialistic Fire Nation, who can manipulate flame (goodness gracious, they can literally floor their enemies with great balls of fire). They are keen to track down Airbender Aang, born with the unique ability to wield all four elements and thus withstand any force in the known universe (up to and including The Two Johnnies Late Night Lock In).

The Fire Nation villain hot on the tail of Aang is Zuko (Dallas Liu), a teenager with massive daddy issues – in that daddy has exiled him until he locates the Last Airbender. However, Aang, accompanied by the massively cuddly Appa, would prefer not to be cast in shackles. And so he ends up in a frozen village where the inhabitants have secret water-bending abilities (secret because they are keen not to attract either the ire, or the fire, of Zuko and his henchmen).

These new allies include Katara (Kiawentiio) and Sokka (Ian Ousley), who make it their business to keep Aang safe. Not that he is particularly reliant on their help. He is the latest in a line of Avatars and, in a trance state, can access these other incarnations. Like Jedward inside a giant birthday cake, the alter-egos burst out every now and then and spread every manner of mayhem.

If you couldn’t tell an Avatar from an Abbatar, the huge data dump of exposition presents a hefty challenge. You might even be tempted to give up. Yet persistence pays off, and the millions lavished on the series can be seen on screen. Getting to grips with Avatar sometimes feel like wrestling a giant flying buffalo. But when it does achieve lift-off, this tale of a follicly challenged magic teenager bouncing off clouds is a breath of fresh air.