Why I won’t be watching either Avatar movie

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.

7 Comments

  1. I hadn’t given it much thought before, but it does seem strange they’d white-wash SO MUCH of the original story’s Asian elements.

    I was okay at first with Aang being cast with a white actor…maybe they just chose the best actor, no matter his race…but to see that ALL the major players are white is a bit much. And getting rid of the other Asian elements does indeed smack of ‘dumbing down’ the story to the lowest common denominator.

    And your last link showed a speaker who was facinating.

  2. Very good TED talk there, and it echoes some thoughts I’ve had about power being hands of the storytellers. Not the self-identified ones like authors, but ones who frame our debates and context.

    I saw the current Avatar and like it. Yes, it’s derivative. Don’t go to see it if what you want is originality of plot or writing. It’s cultural and racial problems are real. I don’t usually recommend a movie because of its visuals, but in this case I do. Imagine a Roger Dean painting come to life.

    Shyamalan’s name was curiously absent from the several links I followed through. I wonder if he’s being pressured in some way to remove the Asian influences or is one of those responsible for it. I like what I’ve seen of the series and am now more likely to watch the whole thing.

  3. @Sandy: Yeah, the “Best actors possible” argument would carry more weight with me if any of them were known quantities before their casting. The kids playing Sokka and Katara apparently have very little experience and the kid playing Aang is, to the best of my knowledge, an unknown; the one exception is, of course, Dev Patel. The idea that there weren’t any gifted Asian child actors who also knew martial arts well just kind of boggles my mind.

    @Scott: I don’t doubt that the visuals are fantastic! I’m sure they’re as spellbinding and mindblowing as people keep saying. But honestly, CG really doesn’t do all that much for me, unless it’s paired with a really good plot and fine acting. This probably explains why most recent remakes (War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, The Day The Earth Stood Still) just slide right off my eyes: They’re slick, and lack many of the elements that made the originals so powerful.

    Also, check out this recent i09 interview with M. Night Shyamalan: http://io9.com/5495923/a-few-answers-from-our-airbender-qa-with-shyamalan

  4. Avatar is what we call ‘Popcorn cinema’ in Germany – grab some popcorn and a soda, sit back, switch off your brain and enjoy ;-) I suppose it will be remembered as the one movie that really got 3D off the ground. Story rather meh, but gorgeous visuals.

    Re: Avatar – seems I gotta take a look at the anime after all. Already nearly bought it several times, but with all the stuff I still have to watch (entire Torchwood series *arg*) I didn’t get around to it yet.

    Those changes do sound rather stupid. If the producers don’t like all that asian / non-western influence, why not just give up pretending and make their own movie? I don’t really mind small changes to a book to make the story fit into 90-120 min, but willfully ignoring the basic premises like this? Yeah, WTG, Hollywood :-(

    Same reason why for me, awesome as it might be, The Lord of the Rings will never be the movie it could have been. Legolas surfing on his shield? Gimli being thrown over a bridge? The whole nonsense with Liv Tyler / Arwen? *groan* Thanks, Peter Jackson :-(

    BTW, the box to enter a comment is incredibly small for me on Firefox 3.6, like only 20 characters wide. I suppose that’s not intentional? Hm, now that I’m previewing my post, the box size is ok. Perhaps a problem on the initial page only?

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