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A beloved fantasy franchise is revived with Netflix’s live-action ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’

16 years after beloved anime series “Avatar: The Last Airbender” ended on Nickelodeon, a live-action version is premiering on Netflix. The cast says it should thrill both original fans and new viewers. (Feb. 19)

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NEW YORK (AP) — A new entry in the “Avatar” franchise is about to soar and James Cameron has no part in it.

“Avatar: The Last Airbender” is a completely different fictional world from Cameron’s Pandora but the two similarly named dueling sci-fi fantasy properties have kept throwing out new entries over the decades.

On Thursday — two years after the debut of “Avatar: The Way of Water” — Netflix offers “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” a multi-part, lush live-action adaptation that mixes adventure and friendship, martial arts and philosophy, all through an Asian lens.

It’s a potentially fraught step because fans of this universe are very protective of the franchise, which began as a beloved cartoon series in the anime style airing on Nickelodeon from 2005 to 2008.

“When you have an opportunity to be part of a world that is beloved by generations of people, it can be daunting sometimes because it’s a big responsibility,” says actor Paul Sun-Hyung Lee. “But, at the same time, as performers, you don’t often get chances to sort of dive into worlds like that and to be part of gigantic productions.”

“Avatar: The Last Airbender” is centered on a world with four tribes — air, water, earth and fire. Some can manipulate or “bend” their respective elements: hurl giant blobs of water, raise up rocks or zap someone with a wave of flames.

The eight-part saga starts with this world unbalanced — there has been a war for nearly 100 years as the Fire Nation tries to take over the planet, pretty much wiping out the airbenders along the way.

Then a young waterbender named Katara and her older brother, Sokka, discover a 12-year-old airbender named Aang, who has been frozen for a century. They realize that he may be the prophesied Avatar who can control all four elements and unite all four nations.

This image released by Netflix shows Maria Zhang, left, and Tamlyn Tomita in a scene from the series "Avatar: The Last Airbender." (Robert Falconer/Netflix via AP)
Maria Zhang and Tamlyn Tomita. (Robert Falconer/Netflix via AP)
This image released by Netflix shows Elizabeth Yu in a scene from the series "Avatar: The Last Airbender." (Robert Falconer/Netflix via AP)
Elizabeth Yu (Robert Falconer/Netflix via AP)

“I never asked to be special,” Aang says early in the first episode. “The world needs you, Aang,” he is told by an elder. “I don’t want this power,” replies Aang. The elder counters: “Which is why you will make a great Avatar.”

’s ,” says Daniel Dae Kim, who plays the leader of the Fire Nation, connecting the series to such franchises as “Star Wars” and ”The Matrix”. “It makes it relatable to any kid or anyone to say, ‘I don’t have to be born with a sense of destiny.’ Anyone can have that destiny thrust upon them.”

Netflix has created a lusciously crafted universe, where our heroes soar over roiling seas aboard bison that fly and armies battle with staffs, mid-air flips and power blasts. Port cities teem with elegant sailing ships, costumes are colorful and pockets of humor and romance leaven the action sequences.

’s such a deep show,” says Gordon Cormier, born just a year after the original animated show ended its run and who now plays Aang. “Like the cartoon, it has so many character arcs and just amazing stories.”

Aang teams up with Katara and Sokka to travel around their world, looking for clues for a way to channel his inner Avatar. There are plenty of slo-mo martial arts face-offs and mind-blowing manipulations of the elements.

Cast members were quick to give credit to showrunner and executive producer Albert Kim for being true to the beloved animated series while developing elements and crafting it for a live-action audience.

“I’m a fan of the original animated series myself and we wanted to do it justice,” says Lee. “We wanted to make sure that the OG fans were happy with it, but at the same time, we’re not just giving them beat by beat the exact same thing because it already exists.”

This image released by Netflix shows Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, left, and Dallas Liu in a scene from the series "Avatar: The Last Airbender." (Robert Falconer/Netflix via AP)

Paul Sun-Hyung Lee and Dallas Liu (Robert Falconer/Netflix via AP)

Dallas Liu, whose credits include “PEN15” and “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” plays the Fire Nation’s crown prince and says Albert Kim helped them give the Netflix series its own identity.

“I think we found a very nice balance of staying faithful, but also allowing people who have never seen the show to watch a similar journey that still holds the essence of the original series.”

The show is riding a wave of new TV series that embrace Asian culture, including Max’s “Warrior,” Paramount+’s “The Tiger’s Apprentice,” FX’s “Shogun” and ”House of Ninjas” at Netflix.

The world of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” has had a live-action treatment before — M. Night Shyamalan’s film adaptation in 2010 that many fans deride. An animated sequel, “The Legend of Korra,” aired from 2012-14.

Danny Pudi (Robert Falconer/Netflix via AP)

This image released by Netflix shows Danny Pudi in a scene from the series “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” (Robert Falconer/Netflix via AP)

In addition to the new Netflix series, an animated “Airbender” theatrical film trilogy and an animated TV series are planned, with the first film of the expected trilogy set to hit theaters late next year. (That could be just in time to compete with Cameron’s “Avatar 3.”)

But first up is the Netflix series, which has some big issues for parents and their kids to chew on: destiny, growing up fast, whether to hide from danger and challenging yourself. And, of course, the notion of hope.

“We have to give people something to live for,” Kitara says at one point. “That’s what the Avatar is — hope. And we need that just as much as we need food and shelter.”

That’s something Daniel Dae Kim thinks is a notion we can all relate to: “In times like we live in today, hope is a pretty good thing to have. And I think that analogy is something that makes it appropriate for right here and right now.”

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Mark Kennedy is at

Entertainment writer, editor and critic