With over 20 episodes in Avatar: The Last Airbender‘s first season, we knew M. Night Shyamalan would have to cut a lot to adapt it. But what ended up on the cutting room floor could have really helped this film.
We’ve written a lot about the problematic casting in this film, making the cartoon’s main Asian characters white, and we still think that was a huge mistake. But here are some of the other changes from the cartoon that, in retrospect, really didn’t work out.
As angry as we can get about non-canon moments in The Last Airbender, like showing the Fire Lords face so early in the game, they’re not as important as other things that Shyamalan cut out – or didn’t consider including at all.
Taking a page right out of Star Wars, Airbender opens with scrolling titles that explain everything that happened before we meet Sokka and Katara. One could argue that this was very similar to the cartoon, which barely showed the great war that the Fire Nation started. But the original does show it, if only for a few seconds in the intro. And that image of the organized and aggressive Fire Nation quickly sets a tone for the cartoon’s “bad guys”. Right after the Fire Nation’s appearance in the intro, Roku is seen commanding all the elements – bam. That’s what an Avatar is, done. Had they actually shown Roku in the beginning, kicking a little elemental butt, it might have given all his copious other mentions, statue zoom-ins, and Fang the Dragon spirit-world sessions some weight. It might have even helped explain why the Avatar was so important. And why everyone was so sad/doomed when he disappeared and Aang ran off.
The only reason I can imagine why this wasn’t included is because it would mean showing and not telling. And telling instead of showing was something Airbender took great pleasure in doing countless times. Plus, almost three years ago process M. Night stated that he wanted this to be the new Star Wars, so I guess it’s only natural that it have long and confusing titles with little-to-no explanation, Phantom Menace style.
Either way, it’s sad that the cartoon could establish the general grasp of the mythology in five seconds while the live action film never really established Airbender’s ideas with the audience up until the final battle scene, when it showed the actual war.
The war itself, and its effects on the characters, were both pretty glossed over from the beginning. Sokka is the last man in the Southern Water Tribe. In the cartoon, he’s seen constantly struggling with this issue, especially when he’s left with a gaggle of pre-teens to build an army with. But when the Fire Nation comes, he utilises them as a part of his tribe’s defences. He has no other choice. What might be casually tossed away as a “silly cartoon moment,” what with the potty breaks jokes and all, is actually terribly sad. And explains a lot of who these children are and why it’s so important for them to set the balance back in their world.
In the film, Sokka and Katara talk sadly about their long-lost parents, but never defend themselves. In fact, when the Fire Nation comes to their village for Aang, they stand by, frustrated but defeated. Little things like the absence of the Southern tribes baby brigade really start to add up. And the movie becomes less about the conscious choices the characters make, and more about moving the plot along.
Jet is another character who was sadly cut from the film. I can see how it would be hard to include him in this two-hour movie. But his character’s drive to kill all members of the Fire Nation, loyal to the Fire Lord or not, help perpetuate the feeling that this world is in a war. Plus the Deserter helps reinforce that not everyone under Fire Nation rule was evil. M. Night didn’t speak as to why Jet was cut but he did explain, a few months back in a private roundtable, why he couldn’t fit in the Deserter and characters like him, such as Jet and the Bounty Hunter. They both have that episodic feel in the first season.
In an episodic series, the nature is that it’s episodic. You need to have a beginning, middle and end in each episode. It needs to go “right, left, right, left”, like that. But there’s a through-line that’s present in most of the episodes – like he has to master all the elements, those kind of things. Someone’s chasing him. Katara and her brother are becoming like a family and they’re protecting him, and they’re moving to the Northern Border Tribe. Broad things like that, that represent the story of the first season. So there’s a bunch of things that had to get jettisoned for this movie.
But my hope is that [The Bounty Hunter]will end up somewhere in one of these movies. I moved some things, like the deserter. The deserter character, which I love, and I think is a huge moment, I moved him to the third movie when he’s going to learn fire.
There are maybe two funny moments in the entire film, both have to do with Sokka and water. Humour is instrumental in telling the Airbender story – even little Aang is quite comical throughout the first season. The film was all but completely devoid of humour. We knew characters like the cabbage man and other broad humour moments were going to get cut, as M. Night told us in a private roundtable in March, we just didn’t know he considered all humour to be “broad humour”.
Shyamalan told us:
“See, all of the broad comedy stuff that has so much life in the movie, the movie can only handle a certain amount for you to believe the stakes of the movie, right? So what I’ve found is, I had a certain amount of broad comedy in it. And if the characters aren’t honouring the milieu of, the setting of what the movie’s supposed to be, that it’s a time of war. It’s not a great time. You can have humour but it has to be situation-appropriate humour.”
We were floored that the Kyoshi warriors were completely cut out of Airbender. Especially since they were clearly filmed and marketed to the masses as being in the story. In order to start a rebellion you need to build an army, and these were important warriors in the fight against the Fire Nation. Not to mention that Suki’s personality helped flesh out Sokka’s character immensely. She’s his first real love interest, and a bad-ass female heroine. They were people, characters. Not just faceless Earthbenders who decided to let themselves be imprisoned by the very thing they use as a weapon. Which is yet another thing that was cut, and reworked to fit some strange need to show Earthbenders as incompetent victims. In the show, the Earthbenders are imprisoned on a metal boat, because they are EARTHBENDERS, and they bend dirt, so imprisoning them on land would be lunacy. But I digress.
In the roundtables at the Airbender junket I got to ask two questions of Shyamalan. Why he cut the Kyoshi was one of them. His response was:
“A character like Suki was one [at the]last second that I had to lose which was totally upsetting to me.” When I asked if still had the footage he filmed of her, and if she would later appear on the DVD, perhaps the Director’s Cut he replied. “Yeah I have all of it. No, this is my director’s cut. Sometimes it not the bad things that are taken out of the movie, it’s the things that are so good it’s distracting. What happens is, you introduce these characters in the beginning of the middle of the movie, the Kyoshi Warriors, and you let them stay for the middle of the movie, then you pull them out of the movie. The audience is like, ‘wait, wait, wait. We love them, where are they going? Bring them back somehow in the third act.’ And that’s not what the story is. They have nothing to do with the Northern Water Tribe, but they have everything to do with the next movie. So at the last second, I just decided that I’m going to bring them in and introduce them and make them a part of the Earth Kingdom in the second movie.”
While we’re talking about Sokka’s loves, let’s go ahead and tackle the Princess Yue issue. In the cartoon, Princess Yue and Sokka have a three-episode courtship, and plenty of time to develop a relationship, as short-lived as it may be. In the film, you’re told immediately that these two are in love, the end, isn’t it sad when she dies. How anyone watching this film thought Princess Yue’s departure would be anything more than ho-hum is beyond me.
Meanwhile in the cartoon Sokka, silly as he is, plans secret meetings with the princess on one of the many ice bridges, fights for her hand when he discovers she’s already committed to an arranged marriage, and continues to pursue her all through military training. In the process, you learn Yue’s backstory, and all about her deep dedication to her people. So when she gives her life it not only makes sense, it doesn’t feel shoehorned as a desperate plea for the audience to feel some sort of emotion.
Why was this kept out? I asked both M. Night at the roundtables, and actor Jackson Rathbone at the Airbender junket. Shyamalan replied:
“Basically the last two episodes of the first season was like a whole season. They slammed everything. I remember when I saw it I told the boys [Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko] , you’re killing me in those two episodes. Just every back story, every single thing you can jam in there. Even in our third act there’s a ton jammed in there. It’s as much as an audience can take jammed in there. You would need to turn the third act into half the movie to do justice to the back stories.”
I asked Rathbone if there were any extra scenes they filmed, that were cut, that might have fleshed out the characters’ relationship:
Even watching the series, there is a jump into their relationship. You jump into it. We try to capture as much as we can without saying. In life sometimes you meet someone and there’s a spark. There’s just something in someone’s eyes that you really just identify with. I think within these two characters, they are both so young and they are in the middle of all this war and drama in their lives. She was in charge of much more, but he was also basically in charge of the Southern Water Tribe. So they both had this heavy responsibility. It can happen happen that fast. They have their walks, and their talks, go on Appa Yip Yip baby. But you have to serve the story at the end of the day. The relationship doesn’t take precedence over the war, the relationship is born out of war.
The saddest cut by far was watching Appa and Momo’s personalities disappear. Their endearing charm and heart warmed up this series. I think we heard “Yip Yip” one single and lonely time throughout the entire film. When Momo was fiddling with the Moon and Ocean fish spirits in the Northern Water Tribe, I’d all but forgotten he was there, and by that might have been the first time anyone even spoke his name out loud. Sure, neither of them are massive parts of the first season, but they are other-worldly beings that make up a big part of this magical fantasy land that we’ve never seen before. The chair I was sitting in the theatre had more character than these creatures. And if you’re going to cut the platypus-bear and whiskered penguins from the South, the film could have rewarded fans just a little with Appa eating hay or sneezing, just something that was “classic Appa”.