Disclaimers first. I am a fan of Avater: The Last Airbender the cartoon series. I have watched every episode of that show twice. I have not seen the movie. I also have not closely followed the controversy around the races of the actors cast in the movie, although I have been aware of such a controversy. On that subject I have some things to say here. I haven’t seen the movie, so I’m not defending it’s quality or content, I just wanna talk about that whole race debate part.
On the left is cartoon Aang, the main character of the show. He is played by Noah Ringer in the film. He looks like that picture on the right. Oh the humanity! They look so different! The cartoon is clearly Asian and this putz over here is so white. He probably can’t even jump.
On the left is Katara. She’s another major character. On the right is her portrayed in the film by Nicola Peltz. OMG OMG OMG. My eyes! Why would you cast such a white chick to play someone from the South Pole of a fictional world?
I could give other examples. As far as I understand people are upset that pretty much every actor in the film is white, while, in their opinions, pretty much every actor should be Asian. I’m going to skim past people lumping many diverse cultures into one gaint group based on fatty eyelids and the general problem of over representation of upper class white people in the media and say that these “Avatar should be Asian” chanters are wrong, and maybe racist. Avatar: The Last Airbender is a cartoon about a fictional world. The voice actors speak English with no accents or affectations (except Iroh, but he’s not a major character) and they are drawn as… well, mostly cartoons, but I think they look like they have European ancestry.
The reason other people think they are Asians is because the cartoon is drawn in the anime style and the fictional world has many traditional Asian themes, like martial arts and some of the clothing and architecture. These things don’t mean the people in the world all have to be Asians, though. It is a fictional cartoon and it’s own world and nothing in it necessarily spawns from anywhere on our planet. Assuming that every cartoon wearing a pointy hat or doing roundhouses is Asian is more a much worse example of latent racism than casting white actors to play cartoon characters.
I think the cartoon characters are intentionally universal. They are supposed to appeal to all children and probably be potential role models for children of any race. I don’t know, but I suspect the creators want all the kids to identify with Aang, no matter how skinny their eyelids are. Carrying that to a live action movie is challenging, and I suspect, pretty impossible. I’m not sure what the casting situations were, and I’m not sure I would do what they did, but I am glad they didn’t try to cast one person of every race. Hopefully they were looking for acting ability and fit with the part instead.
Race based casting makes sense only when a character is strongly linked with the race, and an actor not of the race would through you out of the fiction. The characters of Avatar have no strong races, especially not of the real world, so there is not need to burden the cast with strict racial boundaries.