Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Toon-arama: Avatar: The Last Airbender

by Kit

"You know, Prince Zuko, destiny is a funny thing. You never know how things are going to work out. But if you keep an open mind and an open heart, I promise you will find your own destiny someday." —General Iroh

If you asked me a year ago what the greatest animated series was I would have answered affirmatively the early 90s Batman: The Animated Series. Today, while Batman holds a special place in my heart, I would have to go with Avatar: The Last Airbender. The show raised the standard of animated television by giving viewing audiences great stories, writing, characters, voice acting, and animation.

First, a disclaimer: this show has nothing to do with either James Cameron's 2009 feature-length movie Avatar or with the 2010 M. Night Shyamalan adaptation of this cartoon series.
Story
Avatar is best described as your typical funny Saturday morning action-adventure cartoon but with an epic story-arc on the scale of the original Star Wars trilogy or The Lord of the Rings. This is attested by the fact that each season of the three seasons are referred to as "Books" with Season 1 being called Book 1: Water. The overall story was planned from the get-go having the occasional alterations and/or additions as the show moved on, none of which damaged or changed the basic integrity of where the show was heading.
The show is set in a fantasy world of four countries, each of which is based on the four elements, they are the Fire Nation, Water Tribes, Earth Kingdom, and Air Nomads. In each country there are people capable of "bending" their community's particular element to their will called "Benders". Waterbenders can "bend" water by causing it to levitate, create waves, etc., earthbenders can levitate dirt or stone and throw it or create walls, airbenders can turn the air into a huge gust of wind, and firebenders can create flames and throw them at opponents (firebenders are the only ones capable of creating their element out of nothing, the rest must rely on what is present). Now, a bender can only bender his or her element, but there is one exception to this rule: the Avatar, a person capable of bending all four elements and charged with keeping the four elements in balance and is capable of entering his "Avatar State", where he becomes near all-powerful but is also a danger to those around him. The Avatar is born in every lifetime, reincarnated after his or her death, resulting in a Dalai Lama-style search after the death of each Avatar.

When the show begins we are told that once the four countries lived peacefully together until the Fire Nation began a war with the other four tribes 100 years ago and the most recent Avatar, an airbender, was nowhere to be seen.
Then we meet two siblings, Sokka, a young man who has taken over hunting for the Southern Water Tribe since his father left with the rest of the men to fight in the war, and his sister Katara, a waterbender. On a hunting trip finding the most recent Avatar, a young boy named Aang and his flying sky-bison in a block of ice. Aang, Katara, and Sokka decide set off for the Northern Water Tribe so that Aang can learn waterbending from the masters living there. They must do this while evading Zuko, a scarred and banished Fire Nation Prince who hopes he can "reclaim his honor by capturing the Avatar" and is being helped and mentored by his uncle Iroh. And that is just season 1.

Each of the 3 seasons has its own story arc that moves things closer to the finale. The first season is called "Water", during which Aang must learn Waterbending on a journey with two Water Tribe siblings Sokka and Katara, the 2nd is "Earth", where Aang travels across the Earth Kingdom to learn how to earthbend as well as meeting fan favorites Toph, a blind earthbender, and Azula, Zuko's borderline sociopath sister. The final season is called "Fire" where Aang and the rest of the group must secretly enter the Fire Nation so he can learn the art of firebending and hopefully bring an end to the war by defeating Fire Lord Ozai. The result is a mind-blowing climax that is, in my opinion, one of the greatest TV finales of all time. Still, the key to the show's success is the characters.
Characters
To be successful, a family show must have characters you want to spend time around. This doesn’t mean they have to be perfect little angels (who wants to spend time with those?) but they need to be likable and enjoyable enough to bring the short attention spans back next week. In this Avatar succeeds brilliantly. Nearly all of the principle young characters are likable and enjoyable. Even the villains, such as Azula, who may not be likable per se, are compelling. The reason for this is that these characters have depth far beyond what you would expect from a normal children's show or even most "adult" shows. Yet the show never dwells in their angst. In fact, rather than punctuating the drama with humor and action, it punctuates the humor and action with drama and as a result even the most brooding character, Zuko, never gets annoying because the angst and brooding are not the emphasis of the show.

Moreover, the show provides us with this depth through the character's actions and, sometimes, through humor, rather than exposition. And the show can be very funny at times. The most obvious example of the show's use of humor to bring out depth would be when the evil and power-mad Fire Princess Azula tries to sweet-talk a handsome boy at a party. Azula's typical M.O. is operating from a position of power using threats and, if necessary, using her incredible firebending abilities, abilities which make her a truly dangerous villain. But when she has to actually woo a guy at a beach party with charm and nice words… she bombs. Big time.
But the humor in that scene is not purely mean-spirited. While there is some schadenfreude in seeing the evil Azula taken down a peg, we also chuckle because most of us have been in similar awkward situations. The scene also teaches us about her character. As I stated above, her usually M.O. is to use threats and walk around like she owns the place. But at the Beach Party, because she is attending as a normal Fire Nation citizen, she cannot play up her position as fire Princess or use the threat of firebending to coerce others. Therefore, she blows every social encounter and the result is we learn something about her: Princess Azula has difficulty relating to others on an equal level and is possibly very lonely and insecure, perhaps trying to cover for them by threatening and ordering others about.

Many shows might have had her give a brooding speech about her problems. This show relays all of that information in a few awkward social situations that, combined with everything we've seen about her so far, giving us a far more compelling portrait of a villain who is truly multi-layered. More importantly, it’s subtle. Not that any of this means she will be redeemed but the added depth makes the character more interesting than a simple hammy, over-the-top bad-guy.

By giving each character, even the villains, at least some degree of depth, the show is able to have some of the most fascinating and engaging characters in animated history. And then the show allows its characters to grow and mature over the three seasons. Indeed, none of characters ends at the same emotional place were they began, and just about every character must deal his own fears, doubts, and insecurities however small or large those problems may be. And how they confront, or refuse to confront, those problems is what tell us who they really are underneath. Nowhere is this more clear than in the story arc of Prince Zuko, who is constantly forced to confront the question of who he is and what kind of person he will be.
Animation
The animation is also top-notch. The action scenes are fun and well done and the show is drawn beautifully with stunning backdrops and brilliantly uses its colors to create atmosphere and mood. The first season, featuring Aang's quest to learn waterbending, is largely bright, appropriately with a lot of bright blues thrown in. Only sporadically getting straying from light until the bittersweet finale where the show's first major character death (sort of) occurs and the colors get very dark with lots of deep navy blues thrown in. The 2nd season is mostly greens and browns to reflect Aang's journey in the Earth Kingdom. The lighting here, while darker than season 2 is not that dark as things still look up, at least until the end where you have lots of black and dark greens. The third season, the darkest and packed with the most character development, features lots red and black reflecting the dire straights the heroes are in and the emotional tension as they move to the show's climax, which is gorgeously animated on a level that rivals the best Disney movies.
The Rest
I touched on the humor but more must be said. The show has some gut-busting moments in it with jokes that form the characters. They even manage to make the jokes referencing pop culture work within the world they built whether its a WWF-style Earthbending fight or a group of waterbending hillbillies in a swamp.

The voice acting is great too. Both the child and adult actors deliver fine performances. Special mention must go to Grey Delisle (Daphne Blake since 2001) for her performance as Azula, the late Mako (Adm. Yamamoto in Pearl Harbor) for Iroh, and Dante Basco (Rufio, from Hook) playing Prince Zuko. The latter two prove beyond a doubt that the failure of the award-bestowing elite to recognize voice acting in any way is an unforgivable slight. The individual episodes are well-written as well with stories that run the gamut of drama and comedy.
The Flaws, Real and Possible
The only major flaws are, one, that the stories in the first season are hit and miss and, two, the jokes do not start getting funny until season 2. But most shows often have trouble in their first season and, given how amazing season 2 and 3 were, these sins are forgiven as the people behind the show eventually are able to find their footing and deliver.

Some conservatives may not like the heavy use of Eastern philosophy in the show and there are some occasional environmental messages but only in one episode did it move close to the anti-humanism so often seen today in the Environmentalism of the left where Aang finds a group of people living in an abandoned Air Nomad Temple and is upset by what their additions to it (lots of steam pipes). By the end of the episode, however, he is at peace with it saying that he is happy that someone else could make it their home... that’s not exactly Captain Planet. The other environmental moments are few and far between and deal only with issues most conservatives would agree with like not dumping lots of pollution into a fishing bay thereby depriving them of the right to clean water.
Conclusion
Avatar is one of the best shows I’ve ever seen and is also among my favorites, ranking right behind Firefly and Doctor Who. Very few live action shows are as good as Avatar. This show aired on Nickelodeon so if you're expecting dark and gritty, stay away. But, if you want a television show with great writing, great animation, great humor, and great characters then check it out.

18 comments:

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, Thanks for the interesting review! I haven't seen this, but you and others have told me it's very good, so I will be checking it out. I love good cartoons. :)

Kit said...

It is a VERY good cartoon. I could go on for pages about how great it is.

Jrggrop said...

I'll second that recommendation - you really should give it a try. The first season has several weak episodes, especially at first, but the remainder of the show, especially season two, more than make up for it. Good characters, good story, great worldbuilding, excellent animation and voice acting - it very much all clicks into place.

AndrewPrice said...

Jrggrop, I've heard nothing but good about this series. So I am looking forward too it.

Jason said...

I remember when I first heard about this series. It didn’t impress me a whole lot. I figured, okay, martial-arts cartoon on Nickelodeon? I know how this’ll go down. It’ll be very campy, goofy, lots of kiddie jokes topped off with some zany fight sequences.

I was very, very wrong.

I cannot believe Nickelodeon created this show. It’s not totally out of place – it still is for kids, but the story, the characters, the themes are more than I would have ever expected. For one thing, the story deals with genocide – all the airbenders except Aang get wiped out (off screen of course). There’s also an episode where Katara is taken by Zuko to find her mom’s killer, and there’s little doubt she means to kill him. Revenge – you know, for kids! (though the episode manages to find a nobler ending)

Of course, the show isn’t all heavy, it’s actually very funny in places, and the humor itself is also well done. The fight sequences, again, really good. True effort was put into this series, and it shows.

I hadn’t seen all of the cartoon when I saw the Shyamalan-directed live action film. I thought the film was drab, and it played like the first season on fast forward, all in all it was…meh. Once I finished the cartoon, I switched to *loathing* the movie. It is like Shyamalan hooked up a machine to the cartoon, sucked out the color and joy from it, and the movie is all that’s left.

So, Avatar, like Dragonball Z, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Gargoyles, joins a company of shows I thought I wouldn’t enjoy at all and turned out being among my favorites.

Kit said...

Jrggrop, Andrew,

Some of the early episodes were rather weak. But that is true of most series. And season 2 was so amazing that it makes all of the mistakes in Season 1 forgivable.

tryanmax said...

Oh wow! I have so much on my list of recommendations, I fear I'll never get to them all. I was pretty much unaware of what Avatar was until recently and this recommendation makes me want to see it all the more. Hopefully. Hopefully.

Kit said...

Tyranmax,

It is definitely worth watching.

Just avoid the movie.

ScottDS said...

A friend (who's older but has a son) recommended this to me. I haven't gotten around to it and I honestly doubt I will... but when I saw you were reviewing it, I had a feeling you'd like it. That feeling is based on nothing, but I doubt you would've reviewed this if you didn't like it. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I review a lot of things that suck. Some of those are my best reviews.

ScottDS said...

I know... it was just a feeling with this one. I saw it on the Blogger page and my first thought was, "My friend and now Andrew, too?" :-)

I just found out now... Batman: The Animated Series is streaming on Amazon... put your Prime account to good use!

Kit said...

Scott,

Its a great show and I highly recommend it.

ScottDS said...

Kit -

I'll take your word for it, but I have a backlog of TV shows to get through and with school, I feel guilty if I'm not doing schoolwork... so it'll have to wait a bit. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Kit wrote the review. I haven't seen this yet, though several people have recommended it and I do intend to see it.

ScottDS said...

[slaps forehead]

D'oh! I missed that line. Apologies to all, though I was wondering why you (Andrew) weren't replying to all the comments. :-)

Kit said...

Scott,

Its ok, I've made that goof, too. ;)

The show is great and I actually do think it tops Batman. By the way, Avatar: The Last Airbender is also available on Amazon Instant (Alas, I do not have Prime).

Rustbelt said...

Kit,

Let me add my name to the list of people who have heard rave reviews about this show and would like to check it out one day, time permitting.

I really haven't seen any anime or anime-style shows (I realize this was made by Nickelodeon; the style just definitely seems anime) since my college years, when I watched "Big O" (co-produced by Cartoon Network) and "Inuyasha."
Come to think of it, your description of Princess Azula reminds me a lot of Inuyasha's full-demon brother, Sesshomaru. Although nominally a bad guy, the writers showed Sesshomaru, at times, dealing with loyalties and situations that forced to re-think his anger towards his half-demon brother. He clearly had an honor code, but it could be hard to figure out and how it would dictate his actions.

Kit said...

Rustbelt,

Its definitely worth viewing.

Azula is actually far more of a straight villain (an awesome one), but even she is given depths normally not accorded cartoon villains.
That character you described actually sounds far more like Prince Zuko.

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