Avatar: The Last Airbender, review: adored millennial cartoon becomes Gen-Z crowdpleaser

Gordon Cormier as Aang
Gordon Cormier as Aang - Robert Falconer/Netflix

Avatar: The Last Airbender (Netflix) was a cartoon in the Noughties, and a live-action film in 2010, and I have seen very little of either of them. Sorry, I’m just too old. It was Bagpuss and Battle of the Planets for me. The show seems to occupy a special place in the hearts of millennials, though. Or as someone explained it on social media: “Avatar: The Last Airbender was a cool cartoon for children that an entire generation of adults talks about like Citizen Kane.”

It’s set in a fantasy world divided into tribes according to the four elements. In each, there exist people who can manipulate those elements. Fire seems to belong to the bad guys. The Air kingdom is populated by kindly monks. The Water tribe live in igloos. Not sure about the Earth bit.

We begin this new live-action series with one 12-year-old Airbender, named Aang (Gordon Cormier), learning that he is more special than the rest: he is an Avatar, who has the ability to command all four elements and bring peace to the world.

Shortly after finding that out, he flies off on a giant sky bison and gets frozen in ice for 100 years. It’s a fantasy series, just go with it. He thaws out and is befriended by Katara (played by Kiawentiio) and Sokka (Ian Ousley), siblings from the Water Tribe, and the trio set out on an epic quest, pursued by a pony-tailed Fire Lord called Prince Zuko (Dallas Liu). They’re accompanied by the defrosted sky bison and another cute little CGI creature, because if Disney has taught us anything it’s the need for an adorable sidekick.

It’s solid entertainment: fast-moving, action-packed, with decent fight scenes and some appealing performances, all done on a generous Netflix budget. Don’t expect subtlety – this is aimed at children so the characters and plot are broadly drawn. The official age rating is 12, and the series does launch with violence – the Fire Lords razing the Air kingdom – but my own under-12s watched it without batting an eyelid (admittedly, I had already encouraged them to watch the first two Indiana Jones films, forgetting that one climaxes with a Nazi’s face melting off and the other involves someone’s heart being plucked from their chest, so perhaps they’re inured to this sort of thing).

Generally, though, it’s more light than dark, with Ousley providing comic relief as Sokka, a 16-year-old tribe leader trying to hide the fact that he’s out of his depth. He’s the kind of sardonic teen who would fit into any US series, whether set in a high school or a world of flying bison.

So it’s no Citizen Kane, but your children should enjoy it. As for mine? “It’s good,” they concluded, “but not as good as SpongeBob SquarePants.”