Thursday, January 13, 2011

Warming Up to Avatar: The Last Airbender

Episode 1: "The Boy in the Iceberg"
Writers: ‎Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko
Director: Dave Filoni

It would be difficult, with a son soon turning nine, not to be aware of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Joshua has been re-watching the entire series repeatedly for the past couple of years, and has often asked me to watch it with him. Being a nice dad, I kept finding ways to avoid having to do so without hurting his feelings.

Not being a fan of anime, I was initially put off by the styling of Avatar (I've been told the show isn't technically anime since it wasn't produced in Japan, but still, if it walks like a Japanese-animated duck and talks like a Japanese-animated duck, it's a Japanese-animated duck). As such, I tended to ignore the show whenever it aired while I was in the room, even though so many people—fans, critics, kids, teens, adults, friends, strangers—seemed to be raving about it.

But a funny thing happened.

Flash back for a moment to the early 1980s, when I was still in high school. One of my sisters used to watch General Hospital every day, and I'd mock her for it. Because I knew that my mocking annoyed her, I began watching the series as well, so that I could keep making fun of it. But it wasn't long before I started actually paying attention to its convoluted and ridiculous plots, and when she eventually stopped watching the show, I stayed with it for a good year or two before finally realizing, "Hey, what the heck am I doing? I'm watching a stupid soap opera, for crying out loud!"

Avatar: The Last Airbender isn't General Hospital, in that it's neither a soap opera nor stupid, but history seems to have repeated itself. Despite my best efforts to ignore Avatar, I began finding myself paying attention whenever it was on, and although I missed more than I actually saw, I began to wonder if I'd been hasty in my prejudgment of the series.

Last year, I took Josh to see M. Night Shyamalan's film adaptation, entitled The Last Airbender (so as not to confuse the masses who'd already seen James Cameron's Avatar). I had my doubts that I'd enjoy it, and given the largely negative reviews it was receiving, I wasn't sure Joshua would, either. But I think the reviewers may have been a tad too harsh in their trashing of the film. Yes, The Last Airbender was a clunky film, marred by plot holes and subpar acting, and yes, it was odd to hear the main character's name mispronounced—but visually, it's a feast for the eyes. Airbending and firebending are COOL to watch. More importantly, I could tell, with what limited characterization the film offered, that if handled properly, the story might actually be worth knowing more about. In other words, the film's greatest strength is that its weaknesses made me more open to seeking out its animated source.

Josh's disappointment in the movie—he liked it, naturally, being a child of eight, but like so many others, he considered the TV series far superior—cemented it for me: It was time to watch Avatar: The Last Airbender. So, I did what any self-respecting TV-on-DVD junkie who enjoys watching television shows with his children would do: I bought Josh the entire series for Christmas.

Last night, we sat down to watch the first episode of the series (not the unaired pilot, which I'll watch and review after finishing the aired episodes, since it differs greatly from the final product). And you know what? Josh was right. The critics were right. The raving masses were right.

Although, at first glance, the show seems... well... cartoony (a rather absurd thing to say about an animated series, I realize), and although the dialog and occasional sight gags may seem aimed at children, it turns out that there is a good deal more to The Last Airbender than meets the eye. This show, I'm surprised to discover, is funny. Very funny, in fact. It's fast-paced and exciting. And, at times, it's sad. Most notably, it's an ongoing story with an epic scope—an atypical concept for children's cartoons on Nickelodeon, to be sure.

Avatar, for all its silliness, is the stuff of which legends are made. It's Star Wars. It's Harry Potter. It's The Lord of the Rings. In a version of the world similar but not the same as our own (presumably in some distant past, given the relative lack of technology), humanity is made up of four nations, each representing a different element: the Water Tribe, the Earth Kingdom, the Fire Nation and the Air Nomads. Within each nation, certain individuals have the ability to manipulate the corresponding elements—a practice known as bending. Benders are kind of like Jedi or wizards, but with powers specific to the individual elements of their particular nation (by weird coincidence, George Lucas' original name for the Jedi Knights was the "Jedi Bendu").

In episode 1, "The Boy in the Iceberg," two Southern Water Tribe teens, siblings Katara and Sokka, discover the long-lost Avatar—the planet's spirit incarnate in human form, whose duty it is to master all four elemental disciplines in order to maintain balance among the four nations (in other words, he's Anakin Skywalker, Harry Potter and Frodo Baggins, all rolled up into one, with a bit of Swamp Thing thrown in for good measure)—frozen inside an iceberg. Every generation, only one Avatar is born, and this one has been missing for 100 years.

A century prior, the boy had encased himself within an orb of ice to prevent himself from drowning after falling into freezing antarctic waters, and had remained thus preserved until the siblings' discovery of his frozen form. The Avatar is a young child named Aang, and though he is playful and immature, it is clear there's more to him than meets the eye. The two youths—whose garb appears to be based on Inuit culture—bring Aang back to their simple Eskimo-like village, where all are amazed to discover that he is an airbender. The wind-manipulating, flight-capable airbenders are thought to have been rendered extinct during a genocidal war waged by the Fire Nation, so the sudden and inexplicable appearance of a child displaying their abilities is awesome (not in the modern-day "Woah, that's totally awesome" sense, mind you, so much as the word's actual meaning—the Water Tribe is filled with awe upon seeing Aang effortlessly flying through the air and summoning wind—though I suppose both meanings would apply).

Katara, a waterbender with fledling skills, is fascinated by Aang's abilities. A wide-eyed optimist, she believes he can return hope and peace to the war-ravaged nations, despite his age. (Plus, there seems to be the spark of romance budding between them, even though she's a few years older than he is... think Anakin and Padmé, only more believable and better acted.) Sokka, unlike his sister, possesses no supernatural abilities, and seems a bit defensive about this fact, and perhaps even jealous of her skills. An immature teenager, prone to whining and pouting, Sokka nonetheless is clearly a good soul, and it's obvious, even in this first episode, that he will become a great ally to Aang as the series progresses, and a hero in his own right.

This inaugural episode also introduces two other important characters: Prince Zuko, a facially scarred Fire Nation prince hell-bent on proving the Avatar still lives, and on delivering him as a prize to his father, and Zuko's uncle, Iroh, a portly, sleepy-voiced old warrior—not your typical Fire Nation type (think Sith, or Death Eaters, if you prefer)—whose easygoing and hedonistic manner contrasts that of his hotheaded, emotionally charged nephew. The two have traveled the seas in a massive vessel, searching for the Avatar, and one gets the feeling that Iroh is less than thrilled by the assignment, and that he'd rather be peacefully drinking tea and enjoying a nice meal than tracking down the Avatar—but as Zuko's kin and protector, he seems determined to keep the angry teen from unduly harming himself, or others.

With a cartoon episode running only 20 minutes or so in length, there's only so much storyline that can be crammed into each chapter. And yet, Avatar: The Last Airbender's first outing is a strong one, hinting at a much larger universe yet to unfold. There's a great deal of humor, particularly with regard to Aang's desire to experience the joy of childhood play despite the much heavier fate awaiting him, as well as Sokka's clumsy mishaps and awkward attempts to assert his competence in the company of two individuals possessing powers he could never hope to wield (and with a dose of sibling rivalry complicating the issue).

But beneath that underlying humor is a looming darkness that could—and, if the film is at all accurate to the series, will—eventually engulf and consume the characters. Aang's youthful naïvete will give way to pain and suffering as he grows older, and his hero's journey, accompanied by Sokka and Katara—his own personal Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger—looks to be a fascinating one. Sokka's teenage immaturity will fade as he develops a strength of character to match his youthful bravery. Katara's earnest drive will lead her to help her people and improve her waterbending skills. And Zuko's furious quest to find the Avatar and earn his father's respect will see him question the nature of good, evil, right, wrong and the roles he and his family play within those constructs.

Count me in, Josh. You were right all along.

Avatar: The Last Airbender, episode 2—"The Avatar Returns"


  1. I've been watching this with Kate for a while. It is good. There are books too. They go into much more detail than the show and I've read them all! Kate's into ALL this stuff.

  2. I'll have to pick up the books--thanks for the heads up!

  3. I'd been avoiding this for more or less the opposite reason, not in spite of people raving about it because of it. I think it's OK to call things not Japanese "Anime", it is a French word after all. I gave ep 1 a look get my own perspective on your review. It's OK, but I'm not getting the epic. Then again, I get that with most anime series. It was certainly better than I was expecting which was probably more Dragonball or Pokemon. The sight gags are very anime, though, the style that they have in even some of the adult stuff. They'd appeal to kids, sure, but I'm not sure that's why there's there.

  4. Duggy: My son says the show gets less silly and more serious as the story goes along--kind of like the Harry Potter books, which start out as lighthearted young-adult fiction and progress toward a much more serious final chapter.

  5. Huh, I've heard of this, but never read or watched it. I'll be interested to see how it progresses as you watch it!

  6. I always knew you'd like this! I'm glad you finally listened to Josh and started taking Avatar seriously. :)

  7. Amanda: I remember discussing this series with you one night at dinner, and thinking to myself, "This just doesn't sound that original or interesting." Original... well, not so much, as Avatar is built upon a number of archetypal story points and characters. However, it's a LOT more interesting than I'd given it credit for.