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Thursday, March 6, 2014

Review: The Legend of Korra - Book 1: Air

I think I've made it pretty clear how much I love Avatar: The Last Airbender. It's quite possibly the greatest animated television show ever created, and it's still going strong today in the form of a comic book deal over at Dark Horse Comics and a sequel series called The Legend of Korra. Premiering in April 2012, and released on DVD in July of last year, I finally got around to seeing the first season, or book. (For those of you unfamiliar with the naming system of the seasons in the Avatar-verse, all of the seasons are referred to as "books," with an element of some sort accompanying them. For example, the first season of Airbender was "Book 1: Water") I've been dying to see it, having re-watched the entire original series to prepare for it, though in part to rid my mind of the mind-numbingly awful live action adaptation The Last Airbender. The verdict? The long and short of it is that it's not exactly the on-screen revelation I was hoping for, but this first book is still pretty awesome.

Taking place seventy years after Airbender, The Legend of Korra focuses on the titular Avatar Korra, Aang's successor to the mantle of the Avatar. Korra has mastered Water, Earth, and Fire by the age of 17, and only needs to learn Airbending to complete her quest to become a fully realized Avatar. Unfortunately, her prospective mentor, Tenzin, who is also Aang's son, is unable to take time out to teach her because of his duties in Republic City, capital of the United Republic of Nations. (Exactly why Tenzin bothered to fly himself and his family all the way to the South Pole just to tell Korra he couldn't move down there to teach her airbending when he could have just sent a message or something isn't explained. They have phones and telegraphs, for Pete's sake.) And the Order of the White Lotus isn't too keen on her leaving the carefully guarded compound in the South Pole, so Korra decides to go to Republic City herself to learn Airbending there. Moving in with Tenzin's family on Air Temple Island, she meets up with local pro-bending brothers Mako (named after Iroh's late voice actor from the original series) and Bolin. She also gets acquainted with Asami Saito and Chief Lin Beifong, daughter of Toph Beifong from the original series. Unfortunately, there's a bad guy in a mask named Amon leading the Equalists in an anti-bending revolt meant to usher in "equality," and a slimy politician from the Northern Water Tribe named Tarrlok out to take control of Republic City through the power of legislation. Woof, that's a large cast to flesh out in just 12 episodes... Wait, what? Only 12 episodes in one season?

Okay, I'll admit, there are a quite a few things that Korra gets less than one hundred percent, especially when compared to the original series. However, it is not defined by these misfires, and gets more than enough stuff right. Case in point, Korra herself. She's a likeable, badbutt, and well developed protagonist. At the same time, however, she's also a bit of a jerkhole, but we see her steadily grow as a person throughout the series, going from haughty bruiser to empathetic heroine. A few of my friends who are also fans of the show (who are also female) have told me that they found Korra to be an annoying character. I agree with them in part, but I think that there's larger point to this issue.

The creators of the show, Bryan Konietzko (don't as me how it's pronounced) and Michael Dante DiMartino, wanted to build a character who was the polar opposite of Aang from the original series. Where Aang was calm, wise, playful, and well mannered, Korra is brash, impulsive, intense, and not a little rude. Was this a good idea? On the one hand, we have a lot more room for Korra to grow as a person (we saw that with Aang, but it was a much longer and less overt process). On the other hand, we have much more in-story time crammed into half the number of episodes, so such development would be hard to handle properly. And it is. Also, if the first few episodes of Book 2 are anything to go by, Korra's back to square one anyway. But I love the amount of emotional depth we get from Korra here in Book 1. She may think that she's badbutt, tough, and ready to take on the world, but she's still a teenage girl with a lot of character development to get through, as masterfully demonstrated in "The Voice in the Night."

Speaking of characters, this show has a lot of them. The main cast alone (consisting of 5 to 8 characters, including Korra, Tenzin, Mako, Bolin, and Asami) is pretty large to jam into only 12 episodes (hilariously demonstrated in the final episode where New Team Avatar Plus Allies are all crammed together in one room), whereas we had the much smaller regular cast in Airbender (3 to 5 characters) over the course of 20 episodes per season. Obviously, there's a manifested lack of filler episodes, with the closest thing to a filler episode being "The Spirit of Competition," which is more of a breather episode than anything else. One might think that the lack of filler episodes is a good thing, and in a way, it is. The plot moves a lot faster, for one thing. It has to! But at the same time,  we don't get those fun little episodes which serve to give some really fun and funny moments to the characters. Episodes like "The Fortuneteller" and "The Warriors of Kyoshi" or "The Northern Air Temple" or "Imprisoned." Heck, even "Avatar Day" and "The Blue Spirit" could pass the test. I can just imagine an episode where the cast helps Shiro Shinobi (the pro-bending announcer guy/re-cap narrator) follow up a story he covered during his crime beat reporter days (all there in the manual, folks). They'd have the Triads, mystery, drama, even a little comedy from the characters interacting with Shiro, who'd probably be narrating everything. This is not to say that the series didn't have a lot of funny and cool moments, oh, far from it. I love the scene in "Welcome to Republic City" where Tenzin's daughters team up with Katara to demonstrate DiMartino and Konietzko's trolling creator tendencies. The series just didn't have quite the same build up and payoff system to it.

The amount of comparisons I'm making to the original series is only to expected, I suppose. The whole world looks different, with the presence of motorcars and radios alongside the magic kung fu stuff. But at the same time, the feel of The Legend of Korra is just like that of Avatar: The Last Airbender, but also quite different. The same general approach to storytelling is the same: a healthy balance of humor, drama, and action, with at least two action scenes per episode and the occasional use of exaggerated facial expressions. The humor remains intelligent enough, though I did notice a few examples of rather lowbrow bathroom humor, such as when Korra and Bolin engage in a belching contest, or Tenzin's young son Meelo's predilection for airbending through passing gas. Fortunately, such instances are the exception, not the rule. However, there are several marked departures from the way Airbender did things. The themes are a lot more serious and grown up, a status which is reflected by the older cast. Where Aang was a mere lad of twelve, Korra is seventeen. Where Avatar: The Last Airbender dealt a little with themes such as war and sexism, The Legend of Korra deals much with heavier, more contemporary themes such as civil unrest, terrorism, and vigilante justice. The settings are also very different. In contrast to the original series's adventure travelogue format, this series is set in a central location in which all of the cast's adventures take place.

Korra is a strong, likeable protagonist, and is helped hugely by her solid supporting cast. Everybody from Bolin to Tahno to Amon himself are well fleshed out, with great personalities that are easy to like, or if they're a villain, to love to hate. Amon himself is a great, badbutt villain, not to mention the subject of one of my favorite memes. He really is a force to be reckoned with, leading our heroes on a merry chase around the city. He's charismatic, smart, badbutt, genre savvy, and evil for a reason. I love that guy. It helps that he's voiced by veteran voice actor Steve Blum, Mr. Blum perfectly capturing the charisma and menace that the character needs. The only character that I felt was particularly lacking, even if it was only to a small degree, was, believe it or not, Mako. His original motivation was to keep him and his brother off the street and out of the gangs, but when that problem is essentially solved, his characterizations slows down to a near complete stop, his only character development resulting from how he relates to others. In the third season of the original series, Zuko got everything he always wanted, and he didn't stop developing. It was the central conflicts of the first half of the third season! Here, Mako just sits back and accepts it like nothing ever happened. Bolin shows more appreciation for their new situation than him.

What else is there to say about what this series got right? To view it from a technical manner, everything the original series got right is only improved upon in The Legend of Korra. The animation is gorgeous, drawing (no pun intended) heavily on anime style, but it's not exaggerated or cartoonish, as some anime tend to be. It's just beautiful. The music is awesome, capturing the '20s Shanghai/New York mood perfectly, once again thanks to the Track Team. (For those of you interested, the music for The Legend of Korra is available for purchase on iTunes.) The voice acting is top notch, from the aforementioned Steve Blum to J.K. Simmons as Tenzin to Janet Varney as Korra to Dee Bradley Baker as Tarrlok (Baker also voiced Appa and Momo in Airbender).

However, I do have my fair share of gripes about this show. For one thing, the writing has some holes in it where you wouldn't even dream of seeing any in the original series. For instance, Korra is shown in "A Leaf in the Wind" to (apparently) be an enthusiastic fan of pro-bending, but shows complete ignorance for its rules later in the same episode. "The Voice in the Night" has Tarrlok, a politician, leading police raids. I don't know how police work in the Avatar-verse is supposed to work, but if our politicians were that gutsy, I'd sure vote for them. Of course, that may have been the desired effect... Anyhow, how did Tenzin and co. get captured again after they escaped? They never explain that. Anyhow, there's also the culmination of Korra's airbending training. She finally unlocks it, but not after a personal revelation like Aang had in "Bitter Work." I would have appreciated it if the creators had spent more time on this aspect of Tenzin teaching Korra airbending. Any amount of time teaching her airbending at all in fact. But that only ties in to the two larger problems the series has: pacing and plot structure.

The pacing and plot structure of the series don't suffer so much from overall execution as they do from the opening of the series and the conclusion of it. The first two episodes are primarily groundwork episodes, and with the last two episodes, a large amount of time is spent building up, following only a paltry payoff, before closing by tying up all the loose ends in a pretty rushed manner.  I suppose this is because they wanted to clean things up just in case they didn't get to do another season, but I'm not totally sure. At any rate, the way they dealt with Amon and Tarrlok kind of rubbed me the wrong way, especially since this is supposed to be, you know, a kid's show. I mainly just want to know... why? Why like that? Getting back to the pacing issues, it's like I said, this series has essentially no filler episodes. There's no protracted build up to the big finale, with every episode introducing a plot element which will be important later. Even "The Spirit of Competition" introduced Tahno. But I say again, this is not necessarily a bad thing. The bottom line is that The Legend of Korra manages to do in 12 half-hour episodes what Once Upon a Time couldn't do in 11 forty-minute episodes: Give us a good, engaging set up, introduce and flesh out interesting and likeable characters, and build it up until it all culminates in a competent finale. (It was mainly the last of these that Once Upon a Time was having trouble with, the least of its problems, to be brief, but that's another blog post.)

My favorite characters are easily Tenzin and Tarrlok. Tenzin quite readily fits the role of the only sane man in the series, being a perfect foil to Korra, though the same could be said for Amon. He is wise to Korra's brashness, levelheaded to her headstrong, bald to her long hair. Likewise, in the tradition of Zuko and Azula, Tarrlok is a villain you just love to hate... until the end, that is. In fact, I like just about every character in here. Despite some drawbacks, DiMartino and Konietzko once again managed to create an awesome cast.

My final verdict is that The Legend of Korra, while not nearly as good as Avatar: The Last Airbender, manages to stand on its own as a good series in this first season. By and large, everything that the original series got right, this series also gets right, and sometimes even improves upon. It looks and sounds fantastic, the mood shift is brilliantly handled, the dialogue and characterization are at their height, and I'm seeing a lot of potential for the future. I even dig the new opening credits thing, with the '20s movie serial deal (my dad doesn't seem to like Shiro's voice much, though). All in all, a worthy successor to the original series. Here's hoping that Book 2 manages to turn out even better.

RATING: 8/10

Image courtesy of wikipedia.org