Animation: Avatar: The Last Airbender Season 1

Hooray for pseudo-professional reviews! Ahem [reviewer hat on]. Let’s talk Avatar. [Spoilers may follow, but I’ll try to keep them to a minimum.]

If you just want my opinion/analysis, skip down to where it says Review. I’m going to recap some stuff for anyone too lazy to look at the Wikipedia page.

No, this is not the James Cameron movie that cost $450 million-ish to make and made over $2 billion, but the 2005-2008 “Animesque” Nickelodeon series Avatar: The Last Airbender. The three-season series is set in an Asian-influenced, four-elements themed world in which the four peoples (the ascetic Tibetan monk-like Air Nomads, the Inuit-inspired Water Tribes, and the Earth Nation and Fire Nation, which seem to be based on imperial China and Japan with a little Korea mixed in) lived in harmony before, a hundred years before the series takes place, the Fire Nation started making war on the other nations and completely wiped out the Air Nomads. Each nation has people with the ability to manipulate, or “bend” their respective element, with some creative interpretations (waterbenders and firebenders both manipulate heat as well, with waterbenders often using ice as a weapon and firebenders able to melt metal). The Avatar is the person tasked with keeping the balance between the four elements and the four nations, and between the physical world and the spirit world, and s/he is reincarnated cyclically as members of each of the four nations. Among other abilities, the Avatar can bend all four elements. In season 1, Aang, Katara, and Sokka (and Appa) make their circuitous way to the North Pole, followed constantly by Zuko and Iroh.

Notable characters:

  • Aang: the Avatar, a 12-year old airbender who vanished mysteriously just before the annihilation of his people and has been stuck in an iceberg with his pet/spirit animal Appa for the last hundred years and is now the last of his people. He has to master all four elements in order to end the war and restore balance to the Force…I mean, the world.
  • Katara: the only waterbender in the Water Tribe at the South Pole. She and her younger brother, Sokka, find Aang in the iceberg and accompany him on his journey so that Katara can find a waterbending master at the tribe at the North Pole.
  • Sokka: Katara’s sarcastic, non-bender younger brother, who accompanies them on their journey.
  • Appa: a sky bison (with six legs) that can fly. He’s their main source of transport.
  • Zuko: the exiled crown prince of the Fire Nation, who is looking for the Avatar as a way to restore his lost honor and be able to return home.
  • Iroh: Zuko’s uncle and brother of the Fire Lord, Iroh is a former Fire Nation general who acts as a wise old mentor/father figure for Zuko and a hilarious crazy badass for the audience.
  • Zhao: an ambitious Fire Nation naval commander who also wants to capture the Avatar.

Review:

Initially, I wasn’t sure if I would like this show. The first few episodes clearly set up an overarching plot and goals for Aang, but he (probably realistically for a twelve-year-old who has a ridiculous amount of both power and responsibility and no adult supervision) seems determined to procrastinate with a grand world tour on the way to the North Pole. This results in a number of episodes that feel more like an “adventure of the week” than part of a coherent storyline. While most of these are eventually relevant to the plot, or at least provide important character backstory or development (in “The Storm,” for instance, most of the characters’ actions are irrelevant to the main plot, but the episode gives crucial backstory and characterization for Aang and Zuko), it feels a little disjointed. The tone tends to be quite light, mostly because there (initially at least) does not seem to be much real danger to the “Gaang.” The Fire Nation may have ships and catapults, but Aang and his friends can just outfly them. Some episodes are decidedly more serious (“The Southern Air Temple,” “The Storm,” and “The Deserter” come to mind) while others are sillier (“The King of Omashu” and “The Fortuneteller”), but most strike a pretty good balance.

The first two episodes were okay, but the third, “The Southern Air Temple,” is the first one that really drew me in. I think the main reason for this is that it shows several sides to both Aang and his enemies. Aang’s destructive rage when he finds the skeleton of his mentor demonstrates the potential of the Avatar to destroy, even if he doesn’t necessarily want to. The conflict between Zhao and Zuko and Iroh paints a rough but interesting picture of the politics and militaristic culture of the Fire Nation and rounds out the cast of villains. It also sets up both Zhao and Iroh as foils for Zuko; Zhao is a respected member of the nation that Zuko longs to return to, and he and Zuko also share a measure of arrogance and rage that hampers their judgment and skills, but they are in competition to find the Avatar. Iroh, in contrast, is easygoing, polite, and practically serene; he is the only person Zuko listens to and looks up to besides the ideal of his father. He’s the only recurring firebender character we get to root for at this point, and the show does a pretty good job of teasing a pretty colorful backstory for him, including a trip to the spirit world that will hopefully be important later.

I won’t go into real details here, but I liked “The Blue Spirit” for the awesome dynamic between the Blue Spirit and Aang, “The Deserter” for giving us the very Mr. Miyagi-like firebender Jeong Jeong, and “The Storm” for its interwoven backstory for Zuko and Aang. The season finale, “The Siege of the North,” is appropriately epic: Zhao leads a Fire Nation fleet to destroy the Northern Water Tribe and capture Aang, while Zuko uses the attack as a cover to try to capture Aang himself, and the Gaang try to fend off the attack. Sadly, Sokka doesn’t get much to do except moon (ha, in-jokes) over the chief’s daughter Yue, but Katara and Zuko get a pretty good fight scene, Zhao’s plan is pretty diabolical, and we get to see Aang use the full extent of his Avatar abilities for the first time. Also, Iroh kicks some ass.

Bottom line: The first season of Avatar: The Last Airbender takes a while to get going, and it has a definite “silly stuff for kids” feeling at times. But the characters are interesting, relatable, and a lot of fun, the animation is gorgeous, and once the plot gets going, it brings high stakes for the last episodes and the next two seasons. If you want something to watch when you have half an hour to spare, give it a look!

[Featured image from The Woolly One on DeviantArt.]

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