Friendships and flying bisons at the heart of live-action Avatar: The Last Airbender

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Adaptation of animated series to premiere on Netflix

FOUR elemental nations — Water, Earth, Fire, and Air — are thrown into conflict when the Fire Nation sets out to gain more power. Only the Avatar, a being who protects the world by using all the elements, can stop them and bring balance back to the world. The current Avatar — an airbender named Aang (played by Gordon Cormier) — is located by two Water Tribe kids that help him master all the elements.

This is the premise of the live-action series Avatar: The Last Airbender, which is an adaptation of a popular animated series of the same name created by Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko in 2005. The new series premiered on Netflix on Feb. 22, bringing eight one-hour episodes of adventure to the platform.

Co-starring are Kiawentiio, who plays waterbender Katara, and Ian Ousley, playing her brother Sokka, both Aang’s friends on this daunting journey. Out to hunt them all is Dallas Liu as Zuko, the prince of the Fire Nation, with his caring uncle Iroh, played by Paul Sun-Hyung Lee.

While they played characters from opposing sides of the war, Mr. Cormier and Mr. Liu spoke about friendship with Asia Pacific press for their global promotions tour on Feb. 21 at the Marquis Events Place in Bonifacio Global City.

“I remember the first day Kiawentiio, Ian, and I really bonded was when we were on Appa (the flying bison) and the crew said they needed 15 minutes, so we stayed up there. Thirty minutes passed and we’re all sleeping, lying down in a tiny saddle,” Mr. Cormier said.

Because Mr. Liu had to embody the brooding Prince Zuko, he couldn’t outright bond with the others in the cast, though he did have his fair share of memorable moments on set as well.

One such scene was shooting the Agni Kai duel, where his wig kept falling off while he was trying to do the stunts. Another was confronting his villainous father Fire Lord Ozai, played by Lost’s hunky, bare-chested Daniel Dae Kim, for the first time and getting intimidated.

Mr. Liu said: “I think that when you’re able to share such a strong relationship, not just with the other actors but everyone on a set, it truly makes the product so much better.”

For Mr. Cormier, who is Filipino-Canadian, bringing the show to the Philippines was a must for him, especially since he himself hadn’t been back for a while due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

He was 11 when they filmed the show, and is now 15 years old, now making him relate to Aang’s journey of growth more and more.

“I feel like I’ve grown up quite a bit, but even in the original series, which only takes place over the course of three months, you can see Aang growing as a person,” said Mr. Cormier.

Mr. Liu added that “a lot of preparation” goes into playing very young yet very complex roles such as theirs. He noted that the task was made easier by the plethora of character- and world-building discussions about the original animated show that can be found online.

In Netflix’s Avatar: The Last Airbender, the fight sequences are explosive, and the visual effects and costume design are meant to evoke the same magical, Asian and native-inspired atmosphere as the original animated show.

An average day on set saw Mr. Liu getting up early to have his burn scar makeup and ponytail wig applied, helping him feel more like Zuko.

But aside from the look and feel of everything, the series is anchored by the various emotional beats the actors must master, much like the Avatar must master all four elements.

Mr. Cormier said that the happy, energetic side of Aang was quite easy for him to portray, as seen in his ability to quickly flash a bright smile, but the heavier scenes involving his responsibility to end the war proved quite difficult.

The eight episodes on Netflix only cover Book One of the original series, with no word yet on whether the show will be picked up to continue the adaptation.

“Season one is kind of just the beginning so I can’t fully say that we’ve settled the war yet,” he said.

The remake was originally expected to involve Mr. DiMartino and Mr. Konietzko, but they left due to creative differences. The world they created has also spawned a movie, comic books and video games. In 2021, the production company Avatar Studios was launched by Nickelodeon with the co-creators serving as co-chief creative officers for a slate of animated films.

Avatar: The Last Airbender is now out on Netflix. — Bronte H. Lacsamana with a report from Reuters

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