There are currently two movies with the word “Avatar” in the title: The first just won three Oscars and ranks as the highest grossing film of all time, and the second is on the way. The current blockbuster can best be summed up as “Dances with Smurfs,” and I don’t really have much more to say about it because I haven’t seen it and probably never will, but the upcoming movie strikes very close to my heart.
Avatar: The Last Airbender is the single best animated series I’ve ever seen. It was created for kids aged 6-11, but it reduced both Paul and I to tears on multiple occasions, and we watched several discs straight through, nonstop, because we were utterly captivated by the story. The writing is that good. The characters are that good. The setting is that good.
And the setting is what makes the series so truly unique. It’s set in a mythical land, but not the usual Celtoid McEurope we’re used to seeing in thousands of other fantasies. The land, its peoples, and its history are all based on different Asian countries, along with Greenland Inuit culture. It’s a rare and beautiful demonstration of “appropriate cultural appropriation” — where two white guys created an outstanding work of storytelling art that’s set entirely in non-European cultures, and told it with research, empathy, and effort.
So. You’d think I’d be thrilled about the movie, right? Wrong.
The movie producers have gone out of their way to strip out the definitively Asian influences, starting with the cast. In a stunning display of modern yellowface, the movie team cast white kids as the three heroes, and Dev Patel, the former star of Slumdog Millionaire as Prince Zuko, who serves as the villain for the first two-thirds of the series. They also stripped out the authentic Chinese script that serves as the written language for all four nations, replacing it instead with fake mystical writing. The costumes, the backgrounds, the nations’ very identities, all the details that make the series a tribute to Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Tibetan and Inuit cultures are gone in favor of hollow, generic Hollywood artifice.
The movie action figures — which are, of course, white to reflect the new cast — only compound the problem. Sure, I can finally get a Katara now, but she looks absolutely nothing whatsoever like the strong, annoying, motherly, fierce, Inuit character I fell so much in love with. (This is actually the one place where the original Nickelodeon series really falls down hard: you can buy a zillion Aang action figures, a whole bunch of Zukos, a good-sized handful of Sokkas, and even get multiple figures of minor characters like King Bumi, Admiral Zhao, and even that loser Jet. But how about the girls? You know, fifty percent of the original team? Nothing. Zero. Oh wait, I take that back. Since I started writing this post, you can now get a plush Katara dollie. ‘Cause girls love dollies, right? Seriously, I would kill for a Toph action figure for my cube, to put next to Nausicaa and Steelheart and Gran’ma Ben in my Hall of Kickass Cartoon Women.)
It’s a huge betrayal, and A:TLA fans haven’t been taking it lying down. Ever since the first casting call went out, sites like Racebending.com and Aang Ain’t White have been leading the protests. Even Roger Ebert weighed in against the casting choice.
Unfortunately, however, Hollywood isn’t taking the protests lying down, either. First, movie producers ignored and returned over 200 protest letters, then Viacom censored Racebending.com’s t-shirts on Zazzle, and the latest insult comes from Facebook, who shut down the Racebending group. I guess they must feel threatened by a bunch of fans peacefully, civilly and articulately protesting an unfair casting choice, as opposed to all the other questionable groups they permit. (ETA: The group’s been restored [amidst further protest, of course]).
All this is just another example of the danger of a single story, and if you only click on one link in this post, make it this one. What a sad big-screen debut for such a wonderful series. No matter how awesome the special effects are (and I don’t doubt they will be amazing), no amount of fancy CG can make up for the lousy changes the movie producers made to the original, and the spectacle just simply isn’t worth the betrayal.