For years we, the Avatar: The Last Airbender fanbase, have been trying to scrub the horrendous, bitter taste of M. Night Shyamalan's interpretation of our beloved TV series. This show was perfect-- the characters were intriguing, the animation was flawless, the world was enveloping-- yet somehow the movie was beyond horrible, beyond disappointing. Never have I been more disappointed in a movie in my life; this is coming from someone who sat through The Phantom Menace. Universally this movie has been hated, despised, and discarded. However, that hasn't stopped the freight train of a fandom from pushing for a remake, a reboot, or anything! There was so much that went wrong with the movie but this isn't an article about what happened, but instead how to do it right. It's not that difficult. Its really just a question of a studio and a creative team having the gumption to make a big budget film off a failed IP.
There are specific things that, if done right, could make this movie not only a success over the last attempt, but a new, multi-billion dollar cinematic universe. In a cinematic climate like the one we are in now, every studio wants their own Marvel-esque juggernaut to keep churning out money. This is how you make ATLA into that behemoth.
Lets begin. (This is gonna get lengthy, my friends.)
Before we start, lets get the simple part out of the way: the actual story. All the heavy lifting has been done already thanks to the ingenious writing and direction of the original series. The characters have been developed, the central conflict established, and the world built. It's a relatively simple story for anyone who doesn't know. In a world where people of certain races are granted the ability to bend a core element-- water, earth, fire, or air-- there is one gifted with the incredible power to master all four known as The Avatar. In a time of turmoil when the Fire Nation unleashed worldwide war, the Avatar disappears without a trace. One hundred years after the war began, two young Watertribe members-- Sokka and Katara-- discover the new Avatar, Aang, and must go on a journey to restore peace and balance to the world. It is set in an Asian inspired world with inventive animals, differing, deep cultures, and a fantastical romanticism that adds a layer of childlike wonderment and vastness to this epic. If visualizes correctly, ATLA could match the wonder of James Cameron's Pandora with the intricacy of Peter Jackson's Middle Earth, striking a perfect balance between whimsical and gritty.
In order to create a massive universe to rival that of Marvel or Star Wars, you could follow the main storyline with the Avatar and company then have spin off films focusing on other, minor characters. Once the Aang Trilogy is over, you could easily do a sequel with the next Avatar-- Korra-- or a prequel with the world before the Fire Nation attacked. There is no limit to what could be done with this world but in order to kick that off, you have to have the right voice.
This is where Shyamalan's version really missed the mark. He tried to go for a lifeless, bored, phoned in tone that couldn't match the wonder and majesty of the series. Since the lead characters are 12, 14, and 15, you want the movie to appeal to kids of similar ages. It has to be light and comedic but not childish-- charming, I think is the word. This being said, the stakes and situations that come in the story aren't ones that regular kids face. Aang is faced with the burden of saving the entire world from the grips or a tyrannical, cruel dictator. Sokka and Katara must leave their home and enter the dangerous world around them. Along the way they lose loved ones, fight for their lives, topple nations, and fall in love. These aren't light subjects. Therefore the tonality of the franchise would have to have across generational appeal.
Those who watched the show when it aired are entering young adulthood, some of whom have children of their own. There has to be a balance struck just as Marvel or Harry Potter did before. The tone has to be similar to adventure films like The Neverending Story but without sacrificing the darkness that comes with such high stakes. Star Wars: A New Hope is close to the tone that ATLA would need to reach; a world full of danger but our heros enjoy it simultaneously. These are children with legit super powers! It shouldn't be a dark and dour affair but it also shouldn't be as wacky and goofy as the show sometimes is. Its a massive, sweeping story that needs to have ever present comedy, romance, action, awe, and danger. Speaking of action...
Perhaps the most integral part of the story and perhaps the most butchered aspect of the movie is the action. It's mind boggling and captivating. Its what would happen if Jackie Chan was an X-Man. It fluidly combines flawless martial arts with incredible, elemental visuals. Each style of bending has it's one real life inspiration. They're not dances but they feel operatic. Every fight scene needs a hint of enjoyment with a pinch of peril. The "Avatar" world has no limits to the creativity of the bending, the fighting.
To get the action right , you would need a blend of practical martial art and wire work with the addition of seamless CGI. The audience shouldn't see two CGI characters flopping around at each other or two poorly trained teens kicking at air. To really get the imminent threat and emotion of each character, the actors would have to be present while the CGI elements surround them.
The speed and style that would work well for this source material would be the people in charge of The Raid and The Raid 2 action scenes. No, you don't want the hyper violence or gore that those scenes employ, but you do want the fluidity and precision of the actions. You need to combine that speed and accuracy with the beautiful, finesse of movies like Hero or House of Flying Daggers.
The elements of water, earth, fire, and air should feel like extensions of the characters and as so, the characters should feel as real as possible in those scenes. A waterbender shouldn't move like an earthbender. An airbender shouldn't attack as a firebender would. In short, each element should feel unique to itself, the fights should be fast and brutal, practicality is the name of the game, and these characters should feel powerful.
In the world of ATLA, each nation and colony has it's own unique climate and style. This movie shouldn't feel like its in our world but it also shouldn't feel like a CGI painting. You would have to go the Peter Jackson route of filming on location in remote places and really dedicating yourself to the making your world tangible. With the Air Temples you should go to Tibet and the audience should feel the grandeur of such a site. When in the Fire Nation you should feel the volcanic climates and the audience should see the industrialization of the country. Game of Thrones does one of the best jobs of filming on real life sets in amazing locales while combining CGI to enhance the visuals, not replace them. The sets should have unique architecture to them; they should feel reflective of the people and element that lives there. The Earth Kingdom should feel very rigid and stern. The Air Temples should feel old and abandoned. This world needs to appear as if it had been lived in for thousands of years. It should feel like every culture was painstakingly defined by its past. There needs to be a sense of history and identity to each kingdom and tribe.
The costuming should feel like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon with its traditional decor and detail but also like Lord of the Rings with its mixture of practicality and lavishness. The Watertribe shouldn't look just like Eskimos, they should have a real wild feel to them like everything they wore they had to kill. Throughout the Earth Nation the different cultures and races should be unique. Sandbenders shouldn't feel like Kyoshi Warriors; Ba Sing Se fashion shouldn't look like Omashu garb. Fire Navy armor must be different from Earth Kingdom Military uniforms. But the costumes shouldn't feel overly influenced from one specific culture. Despite the look of the show mirroring popular animes, the showrunners said they got inspiration from westerns and medieval knights, from space operas and samurai movies. These different nations needs to feel uniquely their own but with enough real world parallels that it's relatable. The attention to detail and scope of a fictional world makes an audience want to come back again and again just to experience a reality they could never visit.
One of the biggest controversies surrounding Hollywood and entertainment in general is the lack of diversity all around. ATLA introduces an interesting conundrum. You see, the characters are design in an anime style with overt Asian influences in look, feel, and movement. However, it was created by American show runners, for an American audience, with characters voiced by predominantly white actors. So on either side, one could argue that casting white actors was just as accurate as casting Asian ones. That being said, I stand by the belief that each Nation in the story should be played by different races-- or at least different skin tones/facial structures. This would not only highlight the differences between the peoples but pay homage to the inspirations behind them. The creators have come and said that not each Nation can't be connected to real life race because many different influences played a part in their creation. They are fictional races and cannot be tied directly to just one ethnicity but that doesn't mean each race should be played by white actors.
Racebending-- depending on which side of the argument you lie-- can be one of the worst things ever or one of the best. When dealing with this world, I would break down the Nations into these racial sections: Air nomads are Tibetan/Indian of origin. Watertribesmen are Inuit, Native American, or Eskimo. The Fire Nation is fairly obviously based on Japan, leaving only the Earth Kingdom. With this kingdom, I decided to change it up a bit. Uncle Iroh says in the show, "The people of the Earth Kingdom are diverse and strong," which means you can have all manner of races in one kingdom. Its so large that it would make sense. You can cast Arab, black, white, Latino, or any race of actors as long as one thing is consistent over the nation: that the royal, ruling class is Chinese . It would add political undertones to the story and give it a slightly fuller history.
Now for the cast.
Hakoda: Manu Bennett
Known for: The Hobbit Franchise, Arrow, 30 Days of Night
Long Feng: Chow Yun-Fat
Known for: Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Hard Boiled, Pirates of the Caribbean
Avatar Roku: George Takei
Known for: General Hospital, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Mulan
Admiral Zhao: Brian Tee
Known for: The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift, The Wolverine, Jurassic World
Firelord Ozai: Hiroyuki Sanada
Know for: The Last Samurai, Sunshine, 47 Ronin
Uncle Iroh: Ken Watanabe
Known for: Memoires of a Geisha, Letters from Iwo Jima, Inception
For Zuko, Azula, Suki, Toph, Katara, and Sokka I want to go with unknowns; for multiple reasons. First off, I don't know many teenage Native American, Japanese, or Chinese actors. That's a travesty but it is what it is. Secondly, and more importantly, I want to promote young, minority actors in big budget, high profile films. The best way to balance out the racial representation in Hollywood is to take a chance on non-white actors in major roles. Finally, I want people to see these actors as their characters. I don't want big names or popular personalities. I want these actors to grow with the parts, to be known for these roles just as Daniel Radcliffe was for Harry Potter or Mark Hamill was for Star Wars. But for the lead, I was thinking...
Aang: Neel Sethi
Known for: Diwali, The Jungle Book
Obviously, I can admit that I'm not incredibly well versed Asian cinema in general therefore my choices may not be as in depth as I'd prefer. Leave your thoughts and input in the comments section below if you have better suggestions or more insight. I would love to hear them and if there's a name that just slipped my mind or you have a better choice, I may even add it to my article.
There are SO many reason to make this movie... well, remake this movie. It has a built in Western fanbase but with international appeal, making it a near sure box office hit as long as it's done right. It can usher in the mainstream acceptance of anime and manga films just as the original X-Men did for comic book movies and how we're all hoping Warcraft or Assasin's Creed will do for video game movies. This movie can also introduce a wide diversity of actors into the blockbuster world. Let's face it, most summer movies are lead by white casts with a few black actors sprinkled in. ATLA could open the gates to a whole group of underrepresented actors into Hollywood.What other blockbuster could say it starred Indian, Japanese, Native American, and Inuit actors?
This movie could also introduce an entirely new form of action to the movies just as The Matrix did with bullet time, Bourne Identity did with shaky cam, and John Wick did with gun-fu.
With the right creative team and the passion and vision behind it, Avatar: The Last Airbender could not only be an innovative blockbuster but a multi-billion dollar franchise with an endlessly engaging world and a new style of action. It's a shock this movie hasn't already been made... oh... wait. I tried to repress that. But honestly, with the amount of reboots, remakes, sequels, and in-between-quels it's a shock this movie hasn't been remade already. Since The Last Airbender (2010) came out we've had 2 Hulks, 2 Spidermen, 2 Batmen (3 if you count the Lego one), another remake of The Planet of the Apes, a reboot to the X-Men Franchise, a reboot to the Terminator Franchise, a reboot to the Alien Franchise, a new Star Wars, a new Rocky, a new Mad Max, and even another Ninja Turtles movie. I think it's about time we remade a franchise that was actually in desperate need of it. Who's with me?
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Comment below and let me know if you have any better casting choices and what you thought of my vision of ATLA. If you have any suggestions for fan casts or just want to talk about Avatar, I'm all ears.
'Til next time!