Avatar: The Last Airbender producers want fans to know it's not just a kids show

Netflix's live-action remake of Avatar: The Last Airbender will open with a pretty hardcore event we never saw in the original, and then keep going in that vein.
Avatar: The Last Airbender. Daniel Dae Kim as Ozai in season 1 of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Cr. Robert Falconer/Netflix © 2023
Avatar: The Last Airbender. Daniel Dae Kim as Ozai in season 1 of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Cr. Robert Falconer/Netflix © 2023 /

Netflix's upcoming remake of Avatar: The Last Airbender opens with a scene we never actually saw in the beloved original show: the tyrannical Fire Nation attacking the Southern Air Temple and wiping out everyone who lives there.

The original animated show aired in the mid-2000s on Nickelodeon, a kid-friendly network. Although The Last Airbender dealt frankly with some intense material, the beginning episodes, at least, were clearly geared towards younger viewers. The show introduces us to characters like Aang, a happy-go-lucky kid who just so happens to be the Avatar, the only person in the world who can control all four elements: air, earth, fire and water. Together with his friends Sokka and Katara, he sets out on a quest to bring peace to a world at war. It's a daunting task, but pitched at a level that kids watching in 2005 would be comfortable with. The original show does not open with a genocide.

But the remake is different. Executive producer Jabbar Raisani wants fans to know right off the bat that this show will cast a wider net. “We just wanted to make sure audiences didn’t think they were getting a kids’ show," he told Entertainment Weekly. "We want to ensure that our show is for all ages."

Showrunner Albert Kim also weighed in: "I felt it was important that we see the event that creates the story ofAvatar," he said. The famous line is, ‘Everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked.’ I wanted to see that.” He also points out that the new opening brings the show closer in line with some of the hardcore stuff we see in later seasons of the original show, like an episode where a traumatized water-bender (someone who can control the element of water) manipulates people's blood to do her bidding, or the series finale, where Aang fights the megalomaniacal Firelord Ozai in a frightening, violent battle. “For fans of the second and third season, I think it's all in line with what they saw there,” Kim said.

At the same time, the new show will preserve the innocence of our heroes, including Aang, played by Gordon Cormier. Cormier even sounds a bit like the hyper-active Aang when talking about the new opening: “I think the airbender genocide is really cool… Well, no! No! Not like that,”he said. “I mean, yeah, my whole family's dead, of course. It's not a good thing, but watching it is going to be sick!” On account of all the airbending special effects.

Lost veteran Daniel Dae Kim, who plays Firelord Ozai (“the Darth Vader of this show,” as Kim tells it), put it all in context. “The kids who watched the animated version of Avatar are now grown-ups, and so they're ready for more grown-up fare.”

How involved are Avatar: The Last Airbender creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino in the remake?

Meanwhile, multiple cast members weren't even alive when the original show was airing, including the 14-year-old Cormier, although he and his castmates have since devoured the show multiple times over. Avatar: The Last Airbender has had a lot of staying power over the years, finding new fans as the original batch got older. There will be a lot of eyes on this series.

This isn't the first time that The Last Airbender has been translated to live-action. M. Night Shyamalan directed a 2010 movie that was universally panned by critics and fans alike; Kim has never bothered to watch it. The effects were muddy, the humor — an important and ever-present part of the original series — was nowhere to be seen, and the cast mostly consisted of white actors, even though the show is clearly inspired by East Asian and indigenous cultures.

The new show aims to do better with all of these elements, including by casting Asian and indigenous actors. “It was abundantly clear that this was probably one of the only things where I could see people like me on these kids shows,” said actor Elizabeth Yu, who plays the Fire Nation princess Azula, about the original show. “There's something very magical about that.”

Albert Kim had extensive talks with original showrunners Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino about the series' influences, making sure he and his team got the details right. “A lot of fans tend to assume that the Fire Nation was based on Imperial Japan, but it's not. It's more Southeast Asia,” Kim said. “The Earth Kingdom becomes more [like] East Asia: China, Korea, Japan, along with parts of India, Pakistan, the Indian subcontinent there.”

"It's a very varied land. So when we came around to talking about casting for those specific episodes, it was important to me that we find actors from those regions."

And so, for episodes set in the Earth Kingdom, we get actors like Utkarsh Ambudkar in the role of King Bumi of Omashu, and Community alum Danny Pudi as the engineer known as the Mechanist. Kim is taking Konietzko and DiMartino's original vision and running with it.

He's also adding in his own twists, something he has to do, since Konietzko and DiMartino aren't around all the time. Originally, they were going to run the new series, but left under mysterious circumstances. There were no hard feelings, but fans were concerned the time.

So was Kim — to take over a remake of such a beloved property after the original creators had walked away was daunting — but perhaps worried fans can rest easy knowing that some of Konietzko and DiMartino's handiwork remains. “When I first got the call, I was really excited just to sit down with them, because I was in such awe of what they had created back for Nickelodeon,” Kim said. “They had done a fair amount of visual exploration, as well as narrative [work] and how to translate the show. I got along really well with them, and we worked together for a while.” Konietzko and DiMartino are still credited as writers along with Kim on the premiere episode, and have scattered story and script credits elsewhere.

But ultimately, the success of failure of Avatar: The Last Airbender will come down to Kim and his team. So far, I think it looks like they're doing a fine job. We'll see how high they can fly when the first season drops on Netflix on February 22.

atla. Every actor in Netflix’s Avatar: the Last Airbender remake (and who they’re playing). dark. Next

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