When M. Night Shyamalan's fantasy film The Last Airbender — panned by both critics and fans of the wildly popular TV series on which it was based — flopped majestically at the box office, it looked like the end of a valuable franchise.
But now, with The Legend of Korra, which premieres Saturday on Nickelodeon, the creators of Avatar: The Last Airbender have been given a rare chance to rebuild a world that was taken away from them.
To be clear, this Avatar has nothing to do with blue people or James Cameron. Avatar: The Last Airbender was a highly rated animated kids' show on Nickelodeon that ran from 2005 to 2008.
In the show's world, four tribes are each associated with a base element: water, fire, earth, air. Some people, called benders, can control one of these elements using half magic, half martial arts.
But only one person can control all four elements. That's the Avatar, who brings Taoist balance to the rest of the world.
Creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael DiMartino drew on Asian philosophies when they dreamt up the show. Nickelodeon had asked them to come up with something like Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, but Konietzko says they found sword-and-sorcery-style magic unpersuasive.
"Where does it come from? What's the limit?" Konietzko asks. "Why is one magician better than another, if they're just saying a word?"
Or just pointing a wand. So Konietzko and DiMartino took what they liked about Lord of the Rings and blended it with the gentle humor of Japanese anime master Hayao Miyazaki.
"We wanted to make it natural," Konietzko says. "It's all physical, it comes from practice — it's a skill you have to learn and earn."
Clearly, there's a little kung-fu-movie love in there too.
You can feel the pulse of the Last Airbender's heart through the 15,000 handmade drawings that animate every episode. Konietzko studied landscape painting at the Rhode Island School of Design, where he met DiMartino. The latter says he wanted to test the limits of a kids' TV show.
"I always wanted it to be wider and bigger and deeper and have more depth, more cinematic scope," DiMartino says.
But on the big screen — an adaptation DiMartino and Konietzko had no control over — the show's hand-painted look was coarsened with cheesy CGI effects and live actors. Shyamalan's film cost $150 million — and flopped epically. Fans complained that the casting added weird racial implications, and they lamented the ham-fisted script.
"Oh, the movie? Yeah, it wasn't good at all," says Brendan Kain, who started watching The Last Airbender on TV when he was 7 years old. Now he's 15, and runs the new show's Facebook fan page. He says he couldn't be more pleased about its creators getting their world back.
For Konietzko, it's the same: "It's very nice to be back in the driver's seat," he says.
Konietzko says The Legend of Korra takes audiences back into the Last Airbender's shadowy snowscapes and pastoral tribal villages. But this show – meant for older kids — also includes a steampunk metropolis with coughing, old-fashioned cars and floating iron blimps.
"It's kinda set in 1920s fictional Shanghai meets Manhattan," Konietzko says.
In this show, Korra is the new Avatar. She travels to the city seeking training for her powers — and stumbles into fighting crime. Some episodes find Korra fighting in alleys and at night, and DiMartino calls the show moodier and more noir than its predecessor.
As for Korra herself, the show's creators imagined their headstrong heroine as the kind of girl you might meet on a snowboard.
"She's muscular, and we like that," Konietzko says. "It's definitely better than being a waif about to pass out. I know, I look like a waif — who am I to judge?"
Some Nickelodeon executives were worried, says Konietzko, about backing an animated action show with a female lead character. Conventional TV wisdom has it that girls will watch shows about boys, but boys won't watch shows about girls.
During test screenings, though, boys said they didn't care that Korra was a girl. They just said she was awesome.
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