One Kid’s Take on “The Last Airbender’s” Casting Fail

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The other Avatar movie, The Last Airbender, is coming out on July 2.

My kids are considerably less enthused about this one than Cameron’s visual masterpiece.

It’s not that they don’t enjoy the television show that the movie is based on. To the contrary, they love it to pieces.

It’s that they feel nearly all the creative decisions in converting the cartoon to the movie have been the wrong ones.

I debated writing this post myself but my kids are far more familiar with the show and concept than I am, so I asked my eldest daughter (16) if she’d like to voice her discontent publicly.

Her answer was an enthusiastic “yes.”

So here’s why she won’t be lining up to see this movie:

WARNING: Spoilers below for the series finale.

“Water. Earth. Fire. Air. Long ago, the four nations lived together in harmony.

Then, everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked. Only the Avatar, master of all four elements could stop them. But when the world needed him most, he vanished. A hundred years passed, and my brother and I discovered the new Avatar, an Airbender named Aang. And although his Airbending skills are great, he still has a lot to learn before he’s ready to save anyone. But I believe Aang can save the world.”
Avatar: The Last Airbender theme song lyrics, © Nickledeon

Summing up the complicated universe contained in the show without taking another hundred years would be a complicated task. The creators did it best, and I’m afraid the new live-action movie is going to do it worst.

Not only have the movie’s creators chosen to go with a largely white cast even though the show is clearly based on several Asian cultures, the image in the official trailer shows Aang, a person dedicated to peace, in a fight and using his powers to overturn ships.

I realize that money is likely behind these decisions. Producers think a white cast will appeal to more people. And they want to emphasize the action in a summer blockbuster.

But they’re doing this wrong. The ethnic elements are central to the story.

The cartoon Avatar draws heavily upon historical cultures for its “four-nation” universe and brilliant characters.

The Fire Nation mentioned in the theme song owes a large debt to imperialistic Japan. The characters may look rather pale, but their features certainly have a Japanese quality, one that is completely deliberate.

In many episodes, exiled Prince Zuko is shown to possess not only a uniquely unhappy family, but to have dwelled in a palace shown through flashbacks of his childhood that shares many features with a traditional Japanese royal residence. The style of dress, ponds, and shape of the buildings are very, very similar to the pagodas, elaborate etiquette systems, and traditional gardens that the Japanese palaces had.

Moreover, the attitude of the royal family parallels the expansionist dreams of pre-WWII Japan. Zuko’s sister, favored Princess Azula, is a prodigy at war strategy, diplomatic negotiations and military ventures. Azula, along with the first season’s General Zhao, are very much Japanese traditionalists and imperialists.

Azula is also arguably the best female villain in a Western cartoon ever.

The Earth Kingdom poses the most significant- if not an equal- threat to the Fire Nation. It is portrayed as a more agricultural and divided country, very similar to that of China’s Golden Age- and their characters certainly resemble the Chinese.

The Water Tribes are just what their name implies- a loosely organized collection of free people that live very much like the Innuit and dwell at the North and South poles of the world.

The Air nomads are essentially wiped out- with the exception of Aang, the sole survivor- and what little we know of their lifestyle leads us to believe that they resembled the North American Indians of the Great Plains.

The reason I explain this is so one understands that it isn’t merely looks that make the white casting for Avatar wrong. The societies portrayed in the show are actually very specific. How someone looks should arguably not be that important in how they play a role, but the extremely specific ethnic portrayals in Avatar make this a real problem.

The casting of the Indian actor from Slumdog Millionaire as Zuko does represent a shift away from white casting but one that was done at the last minute. And the Fire Nation culture is not Indian but Japanese.

Another problem is the trailer that showcases Aang’s fighting abilities.

Pardon my religious references, but when you speak of archetypes, Aang is essentially the Messiah- the boy in the synagogue who wants to save the world without violence.

Even in the climax of the series, Aang has never killed anyone. His goal is less to fight a war- in fact, Aang is almost afraid of fighting- and more to restore peace and balance to the world. He is a spiritual leader, and the pure of heart, which is why he does not change much over the course of the series. Even when Aang battles the Fire Lord, the Big Bad of the series, he not only refuses to kill the man, but disables his ability to bend fire through a transfer of energy. The creators of the cartoon have always had the intention of Aang being truly Good.

Because of this, Aang attacking and injuring people in the trailer does not sit right with me.

And I’m also worried about Azula. She strives in the cartoon not to be sexual for fear of being labeled as a mere girl, which epitomizes the infamous sexism of the period accurately.

I’m concerned that Azula will be sexualized, especially because implied emotional and physical- and possibly sexual- abuse by her father have combined to make her uniquely naïve at matters of social interaction- despite her brilliance on matters of the real world. And she’s only fourteen.

Overall, I am baffled at how the director and producers decided that this movie even needed a white cast.

Avatar already has a huge core audience. They do not have to draw in additional people through some sort of race-wipe, because their target age already loves the show and they could take the “risk” of casting ethnically appropriate actors to the characters, and there would not be any real problem.

Instead, they have alienated the fans in a way that is not only racially inaccurate and offensive, but untrue to the characters or archetypes.

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