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Thursday, February 13, 2014

Review: Avatar: The Last Airbender

In the world of American animated television, there are a few series which stand head and shoulders above the rest, surpassing their peers in terms of humor, drama, action, story, and the animation itself. Batman: The Animated Series. The 2003 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series. Justice League and Justice League Unlimited. The Spectacular Spider-Man. Young Justice. But the greatest of them all, probably the greatest original animated show ever made, is Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Heavily influenced by Korean animation, this epic series takes place in a constructed world based on medieval Asia, where there are four nations, each of whom takes its name from the four classical elements: the Water Tribes, the Earth Kingdom, the Fire Nation, and the Air Nomads. Certain individuals in each of these nations can control and manipulate, or "bend," their nation's element. Only the Avatar, however, can bend all four elements. One hundred years ago, the Fire Nation began a war of conquest against the rest of the world, seeking to dominate and rule it. The Avatar has seemingly vanished when the Fire Nation wiped out the Air Nomads at the beginning of the war. However, a Southern Water Tribe brother and sister duo, Sokka and Katara, discover the new Avatar, a 12 year old airbending boy named Aang, the titular last airbender, frozen in a block of ice. Finding him to have been in suspended animation for the last hundred years, Aang teams with Sokka and Katara, and, with the help of Aang's flying bison Appa, and later a flying lemur named Momo, they begin their journey to help Aang master all four elements and restore balance to the world. Meanwhile, Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation is on a quest of his own: to capture the Avatar for the Fire Nation and restore his honor. Over the course of the series, characters change, new characters are introduced, world building is done, the plot thickens, Emmys and Annies are awarded, and it all builds up to a grand and awesome conclusion.

Okay, I'll just go out and say it: This series is amazing. The writing, voice acting, animation, humor, drama, story, everything about it, is incredible. You've got a cool world built on martial arts and action, with the standard formula of 25 minute episodes with at least two action scenes each, chock full of some of best characterization I've seen yet. The thing about Avatar: The Last Airbender is that it manages to be funny without being goofy or random (mind you, this series was spawned by Nickelodeon, of all organizations), dramatic without feeling arbitrary or contrived, and exciting without feeling mindless. The four central characters of Aang, Katara, Sokka, and Zuko are balanced out by an excellent supporting cast, including Zuko's wise old Uncle Iroh (voiced by the acclaimed Mako, no less!), earthbending tough girl Toph Beifong, Suki the Kyoshi warrior, and a veritable busload of others, including Mark Hamill (who played Luke Skywalker in Star Wars and voiced the Joker in Batman: The Animated Series) as Fire Lord Ozai.

From what I've described, the uninitiated might think that A:TLA is one of those series which is absolutely ginormous in scale. It is, after all, a fantasy war epic in the same vein as The Lord of the Rings. However, this series focuses not so much on the big events as it does on the personal dynamics of the main cast. We focus on how Team Avatar (Aang, Katara, Sokka, and Co.) tries to save the world, but we also explore Aang's romantic feelings for Katara, Katara's role as the team mom, and Sokka's growth from comic relief character to able leader. Likewise, Zuko probably grows as a person the most (the whole cast does, but Zuko shows it the most), going from angry jerk to a noble and loyal friend and leader. This is not to say that the show relies completely on character dynamics, far from it, but A:TLA manages to pull off character development in such a way that said character development is what drives the story and plot, not the other way around. Contrast this to more recent tripe like Once Upon a Time where there were endless (and needless) twists, stagnate character dynamics, and overcomplicated world building, and yet had nearly twice as many episodes per season.

My favorite characters are Sokka and Zuko, Sokka because he's funny and badbutt, and Zuko because he's cool and really grows as a person throughout the whole series. Sokka is a great comic relief character, not because he's at all silly, but because he can easily play both the comic and the straight man. Speaking of straight men, Zuko was noted by IGN to be the series' straight man and "nominal villain," which makes it all the more funny when you've got a completely serious guy surrounded by quite fun characters like Aang, Katara, Sokka, and Iroh. Like I said before, of all the characters who grow as people, Zuko shows it the most, and I love that about him. He's also a real badbutt, so there's that, though this is easily a world of badbutt.

The three seasons, or "books," are divided into Water, Earth, and Fire. Each one had it's fair share of outstanding episodes, with season 1 having more filler and less developed humor, being the first season, than the latter seasons, and the next two having more drama and world building. The best episode from season 1, as concurred with me by IGN (indeed, they said that it was the best episode in the series), was Episode 12, "The Storm," which set the tone and mood for the rest of the series, capturing the essence of action, drama, and humor which would encompass the rest of the series. My favorite season 1 episode, however, was "The Blue Spirit," not only because it introduced the eponymous super awesome character, but because it had some great character development between Aang and Zuko. Other favorites from season 1 include "The Waterbending Scroll" for the sheer humor, and "The Northern Air Temple" for introducing my favorite minor characters, the Mechanist and Teo, not to mention having a great battle scene. There's also "Jet" which introduced another titular character who later showed up in Season 2. Of course, Season 1 also has the dubious distinction of harboring the worst episode in the series, "The Great Divide," but hey, Season 1.

Season 2 had "Zuko Alone," "City of Walls and Secrets," and "Crossroads of Destiny." In "Zuko Alone," it's exactly what it says on the tin, where Zuko is completely on his own, with no Uncle, no Azula, no Team Avatar. "City of Walls and Secrets" showed us the crudsaccharine world of Ba Sing Se, and "Crossroads of Destiny" was easily the most dramatic episode in the series, featuring a huge drama bomb. The best episode in season 2, however, and I think it's the best episode in the whole series, was "Tales of Ba Sing Se," which recounts various day in the life stories of various characters, such as Aang, Zuko, and Iroh. Iroh's story was actually dedicated to his recently deceased voice actor, the aforementioned Mako (the creators even named a character after him in the sequel series, Avatar: The Legend of Korra). Iroh's story is a truly tear jerking sequence which I continue to love. Season 2 was arguably the best season in terms of drama, noted by many as being reminiscent of Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back.

But in season 3, everything reaches the boiling point (no pun intended) when the characters come full circle. The characterization blossoms into its full glory, the various plot points are sewn together, the major conflicts are resolved. The best episode of this series is absolutely (though admittedly not easily) "Sozin's Comet Part 4: Avatar Aang," the final episode of the entire series. In it, all the building blocks come together, so to speak, and everything is put in place. Aaang achieves his destiny, all the characters are brought together, and all the character arcs come full circle. I still just love the scene where it's all over, and Team Avatar and friends are just sitting around the Jasmine Dragon sipping tea and amusing themselves. It's just so awesome to see that after all they've been through, they're taking time to relax. Another favorite of mine from season 3 is "The Ember Island Players," which brilliant summarizes the all of the rest of the series up until them in the form of the Gaang watching a play based on their lives, which is woefully bad. It's really, really funny.

Of course, it is nigh impossible to discuss Avatar: The Last Airbender without bringing up the dreadful topic of conversation known as *sigh* The Last Airbender, omitting the word "Avatar." This M. Night Shyamalan film based on the series is easily one of the worst motion pictures ever produced in the entirety of cinema. The characters within bear little to no resemblance to their animated counterparts, the pacing is slow as molasses, the action sucks, the dialogue is painful to listen to, and the acting is absolutely dreadful. The only good things about it were the incredible music by James Newton Howard, (though the guys known as the Track Team who produced the music for the animated series themselves did a phenomenal job) and maybe the effects and set design. One day I will force myself to watch that monstrosity again just so I can write a detailed dissertation on just how horrible it is. But moving on...

The main point of this article is that if you haven't seen Avatar: The Last Airbender yet, go and see it now. Get it on DVD, or watch it on Netflix. When you're done, go watch it's sequel series, The Legend of Korra, and when you're done with that, go read fan fictions about it, or read the tvtropes.org page on it. I personally can't wait to get to Korra, having starved myself of that awesome looking series until I finished re-watching the main series in order to purge my mind of... that movie. Bottom line, go and see the thing. Yip yip!

RATING: 10/10

Addendum: In hindsight, I suppose a paragraph or three ought to be devoted to discussing Airbender's decisively murky spirituality, among other things. Plugged In had a field day giving the show a hard time for its blatant influences from Buddhism and mysticism. Avatar: The Last Airbender contains, as part of the world building, a vaguely defined "spirit world," where these random spirits (i.e., bizarre beings who may or may not be friendly), including some of Aang's past lives, hang around. I understand that this can be disconcerting to Christian viewers and parents, but there is a fine line here that Airbender does not cross. This show, while containing large doses of Eastern spirituality, manages to only display it in the same unbelievable context of its already wildly outlandish universe. In other words, younger viewers will come away feeling they could commune with "the spirit world" as easily as they could ride on a flying bison or breathe fire out of their noses.

Plugged In also slammed the show for supposedly promoting disrespect for elders, rule breaking, and even drug use. I assure you, all such instances are generally isolated and were taken completely out of context by the article. (You can read the full Plugged In article here. Honestly, I usually trust Plugged In, but they really had it in for this show.)  Furthermore, Aang and co. generally only disrespect their elders in serious situations, such as when faced with the pompous General Fong in season 2 episode "The Drill," and are practically responsible adults themselves. The article goes on to mention the broader context of the war and genocide as if the show actually encouraged such things and happily displayed them. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sure, there's violence, but it's generally no more serious than your average superhero cartoon. The article also fails to highlight how Aang and his friends are heroically dedicated to saving the world, ending the war, and ultimately bringing about, as Zuko described it in the last episode of the series, "a new era of peace and love."

On a final note, I would like to state that though some would dismiss Avatar: The Last Airbender as being silly or childish simply because it is a cartoon, it actually takes time to deal with some very complex themes. Such themes include sexism, classism, imperialism, war, poverty, friendship, duty, unity, redemption, sacrifice, and forgiveness. Sounds familiar, no?

Image courtesy of ign.com