Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Review: Avatar - The Last Airbender


In 2005 Avatar: The Last Airbender premiered on Nickelodeon. It scored critical praise and incredibly high ratings. In fact I’m fairly sure if you haven’t heard of this cartoon before than you might have been living under a rock. I was not living under a rock when this series came out but I still refused to watch it for years. Why you ask? Well first of all I had no faith in Nickelodeon’s ability to create decent cartoons. The last couple of toons they produced were either really boring or awful or canceled before it could go anywhere, with maybe three exceptions. A lot of this had to do with my seething hatred of SpongeBob SquarePants as well. The second thing was what little I’d seen of Avatar didn’t impress me at all. Part of it was the fact that the show was clearly heavily anime influenced. I’ve said in the past that Japanese cartoons aren’t universally better than North American ones but when I was young and stupid I was a little more snobbish about such things, so I tended to view Western toons being influenced by such things as being posers and inherently inferior. Plus I did see a little of it and it didn’t impress me at all. It just seemed like a dumb, silly show that was clearly overrated…you know, like SpongeBob SquarePants.


Seriously, why are you popular?

But now, over two years after the show ended, I’ve finally gotten around to watching the whole series. Were my initial suspicions correct? Is this an overrated, over praised piece of hype with one of the most idiotic fanbases in all of fandom?

[Warning: This review may contain spoilers]

The world is split into three different nations: The Water Tribes, the Earth Kingdom, the Air Nomads and the Fire Nation. Within each of these nations the people are able to control their corresponding element, an ability called “bending”. The Avatar is a mystical being who can control all four elements and uses this power to keep the balance between the countries. He’s able to do this throughout the years because of a reincarnation cycle. One hundred years prior to the story he vanishes and soon the Fire Nation, because they are horrible dicks, start a war against all the other countries resulting in all the airbenders being killed. In present day two teenagers from the Southern Water Tribe in the south pole, Katara and Sokka, discover a twelve year old airbender named Aang frozen in a block of ice who is soon revealed to be the displaced Avatar from before the War. The three thus go on a quest to help Aang learn waterbending from a master in the Northern Tribe…which eventually leads to a much more grand adventure to restore balance to the world.

"Hey everyone! Who wants a frosty milk shake?"

Let’s address the anime stuff now while I’m thinking about it. Just looking an episode for more than thirty seconds makes it clear that the creators love anime and took a lot form it. Characters faces, reactions, and designs in general all were clearly done in that style. Often when Western animation does this is strictly for laughs and to give a lighthearted vibe to an otherwise fairly mundane series (I am unable to take Teen Titans or Super Robot Monkey Team Hyper Force Go! very seriously) but luckily, while there is a lot of that sort of humor present, they were able to avoid making that the entire series. I can see past that and view the series for something other than a over stylized Japan tribute (Coughcoughteencoughtitanscough). Also one of the best things about this show is something that I found very anime-like: the fact that it ends. One of the problems I have against Western cartoons is that either they don’t have an ending in mind when they begin and thus there is no conclusion or something happens to keep them from reaching the ending they planned (Like with Spectacular Spider-Man...those dicks) or they leave the ending open-ended to leave the door open for a direct sequel that may or may not happen. They often (Not always) go on forever, usually longer than they should, and eventually get redundant. Here Avatar has a clear beginning , middle and end and when it reaches its conclusion it truly feels like a completed work. Basically it leaves before it wears out its welcome. This is a trait I see a lot more in anime (Including every anime I’ve reviewed in this blog) than here in North America. It’s the difference between a show ending and a show stopping. I love Beast Wars: Transformers but its ending felt rushed and somewhat anti-climatic while shows like Last Exile and Gurren Lagann, and now Avatar, ended with significantly more closure involved. Not enough Western cartoons do this.

Pictured: Character Development

Stylistically this show might rate second to none compared to its contemporaries. The setting, heavily based on Asian architecture and culture, is gorgeous. The animation was pretty okay in season one but progresses throughout the series. By the beginning of season three it all looked great. The fight choreography is fast and fun, the character designs are memorable and more importantly always in a constant state of subtle change.

The cast is great, which is really the best sign to whether a work of fiction is any good. The main characters and the main antagonists, I think, all work very well in their roles. Aang, our hero, was a pleasant surprise for me. From his first line in the series all the way through the end of the show is portrayed as a goofy, fun-loving little kid which is refreshing compared to some main characters who spend their stories dong nothing but brood and angst (And Aang does do his share of angst but he usually reverts to his normal persona fairly quickly). His happy-go-lucky attitude was infectious and he’s easily one of the most likable main characters in any show I’ve seen. The writers also manage to use Katara and Sokka effectively throughout the series as they could have ended up being typical “Damsel-in-Distress/Team Mom and “Comic Relief Loser” stock character; instead they were able to greatly expand beyond these parameters. Zuko’s alright, but I don’t share the fandom’s love affair with him. He’s fine, but it’s so clear from the beginning where the writers were going to take him that I really wasn’t super invested in him. Tip: If a villain keeps talking about things like “honor” when the heroes aren’t around he’s probably not meant to be a villain for long. Yawn. His sister Azula is much more interesting to me because she’s written, and wonderfully portrayed, as a irredeemable sociopath with no empathy and a dangerously cunning and methodical way of thinking.

Their father The Fire Lord is an effective Bogey Man throughout the first two seasons. He’s said from the beginning to be the true villain of the show but he is never fully seen until season 3, using the idea of less is more. And even after he shows up he appears fairly sporadically and never confronts our heroes until the finale. In fact Azula also manages to avoid direct defeat in the times she shows up which mean that all the main villains avoid what I call “Team Rocket Syndrome” where villains who are portrayed as a threat in their first few appearances become a laughably ineffectual gag villain based solely on how much they are beaten by the heroes (Of course Zuko does get beaten up a lot. Maybe he doesn’t quite escape the syndrome). The basic thing I’m getting gat us that the main characters are either well developed or deliciously and effectively evil.

Some teenage girls can't be bought, bargained or reasoned with

Some girls just want to watch the world burn

Before I forget I should point out that this is one of the better cartoons for showcasing females in empowering roles out there. No less than two of the primary heroes are women who actively participate in the action and the drama (One of whom is apparently the most powerful of her bending school) and the most successful reoccurring villain is a girl who is so powerful that she usually cannot be defeated in one-on-one combat. And yet the toy companies refused to make action figures based on the girls. What the hell?

Katara: More Bad Ass Than Thou

The plot flows pretty well with the exception of some filler episodes that don’t really further the plot much or give any decent character development but that’s fairly minor. However no work is perfect and this show, beloved as it may be, is no exception. One problem as the secondary cast; there were tons of characters floating around that no one seemed to have any idea what to do with. Many secondary or one-shot characters that wound up coming back for whatever reason tended to show up, say something that implied a very two-dimensional personality and then fade into the background. In fact at some point the main characters flee a battle with several minor characters who seem to join their group about mid-way through the third season...except they do precisely nothing at all for the entire time they’re around (Which was about four episodes or so). They barely even talk! The writers apparently couldn’t figure out how a wheel-chaired bound tinkerer, a pint size warrior, or a teenage earthbender teased to be a romantic interest for Katara at some point could possibly be useful for the plot or useful in character development. There are also some moments where a Deus Ex Machina shows up to save everyone, usually in the form of Aang’s Super Saiyan form Avatar State.

Also the show can dip into “for kids” territory, which isn’t too surprising because at the end of the day it’s a “kid’s show that adults can enjoy.” But even so one has to wonder what a version of Avatar where the creator’s didn’t have to worry about certain aspects of the show being toned down for fear of offending parents would have been like. Stupid parents. Also it lacks a memorable theme song. Okay okay, this is obviously me nitpicking but when you think about it all the best cartoons have catchy theme songs that help grab our attention. Batman: The Animated Series, DuckTales, Darkwing Duck, Animaniacs, Daria, and tons of others all had iconic songs to go along with the memories of those show’s epicness. All Avatar has is Katara spouting exposition. Maybe it shouldn’t have but it bothered me the entire time I watched the show. The background music was really good, I should say as a counterpoint.

Slaughtering enemies with the power of friendship

Those are very minor complaints that do nothing to take away from this show. This cartoon is awesome and it is a strong contender for best cartoon of the 2000s. Characters who grow and learn as time moves on, memorable villains, great visuals, and a solid ending are traits that too few TV shows have and sadly that’s especially true for Western cartoons. I loved watching this show and it is a pure example of what I’ve been saying all along: cartoons are as viable a means of storytelling as anything else and not something just to distract your dumb kids with pretty pictures (Err...not your kids, of course. Your kids are surely gifted…especially if they’re fans of the Saturday Morning Cartoon Show). If given the chance a cartoon can rock your world regardless of your age. Amusingly this is the same mindset anime fans have about Japanese cartoons but if you erroneously refer to Avatar as an anime fans of that show will eat you. Hm.

Avatar: The Last Air Bender gets 5 Adorable Pandas Flying Bison out of 5.


Pros

-Well developed main cast

-Great visuals

-Important female characters

-Fun fantasy setting

-A clear cut ending that was clearly planned from the beginning

Cons

-Secondary characters not nearly as developed

-Restrictions of being a kids’ show sometimes hurt the series

-As a result of a 5 Panda rating I’m forced to eat a serious amount of crow


By the way…the sheer amount of porn I came across trying to find images of this show was extremely depressing. Rule #34 indeed! The internet can go die!

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