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Avatar: The Last Airbender

I don’t like things that are for children. I don’t like cartoons, especially not anime-style cartoons. But for some reason I liked this American anime cartoon series called Avatar: The Last Airbender.

This is a high-concept fantasy series. Because it is an anime-style cartoon, the civilizations in this fantasy world are heavily based on aspects of Asian culture and spirituality. Its story is set in a fantasy world, complete with a map that appears during the opening title sequence.  In this world, people called “benders” have the ability to manipulate the elements around them. You don’t need to know much more about the backstory other than the little bit of exposition that comes with the titles. That goes something like this:

“Water, earth, fire air. Long ago, the four nations lived together in harmony. Then everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked. Only the Avatar, master of all four elements, could stop them. But when the world needed him most, he vanished. A hundred years passed and my brother and I discovered the new Avatar, an airbender named Aang. And although his airbending skills are great, he has a lot to learn before he’s ready to save anyone But I believe Aang can save the world.”

This bit of dialog is spoken by Katara, a waterbender girl who, as she said, discovered the Avatar named Aang with her brother Sokka. The three of them, along with a flying Bison named Appa and a winged Lemur named Momo—yes, this show is weird—embark on a journey together with the mission of training Aang in the ability to bend all four elements and to defeat the fire nation. They get sidetracked a lot along the way.

In a lot of ways, Aang is like Caine from Kung Fu. He’s bald, and a martial art expert. He travels from place to place, meets people, gets into adventures. The difference is that he has two friends and two strange animals who accompany him. And he also has a sense of humor.

Aang’s travel buddies, Katara and Sokka, both serve important narrative roles. Katara is a waterbender, so she can teach Aang how to waterbend. She’s also hot in a Lolita kind of way, so she serves as Aang’s primary love interest. Sokka is powerless, brave, and stupid, so he mostly serves as comic relief.

What’s impressive is how well these characters are developed. At the start of the series, they’re children who cannot fully grasp the importance of their deeds, who never stop laughing and playing games. By the end, they’re teenagers who fully understand that they’re at war. Along the way, they befriend a badass earthbender who is also a little girl named Toph. They also deal with the kinds of issues that young viewers might relate to, like the difficult courtship of young love, and familial strife.

Even the villains are fully realized characters who grow and evolve. One of the chief antagonists is a Fire Nation prince named Zuko. He starts out as a whiny bitch who must hunt the avatar to regain his honor for reasons that at first seem trite and cliché; later, he settles into the role of an outcast anti-hero, and his motivations become apparent. That’s good writing.

The show is divided into three seasons—or “books”—named after the elements Aang has to learn—water, earth and fire. The first season is mostly episodic, and the second tells a more mature ongoing story. The third season takes a little while to get up to steam, and contains a number of filler episodes, but it finishes with an astounding climax.

What else is there to say? This cartoon is extremely well animated. I’m someone who doesn’t watch many cartoons, but I recall the animated shows from the 90s where a layer of simple animation would be layered over a backdrop. You could always tell which door was going to open, or which item the hero was going to interact with, because it was less detailed than everything around it. But Avatar has a surprising level of details, both in its characters and the amount of the background that’s animated. More often than not, everything on the screen is fully animated. And the animators even used shadows and shading to give the idea of detail.

I don’t know much about animation, so I’m probably wrong about the specifics of why the animation is done well. But I do know that the action scenes in Avatar: The Last Airbender look really cool. It’s just a well produced show.

There is one problem. Because this was a show for children produced for the children’s network Nickelodeon, the producers couldn’t or wouldn’t depict or even talk about death. They could show mass acts of violence as long as it was clear that nobody was actually killed. In some ways, this played into the show’s moral message; Aang was a pacifist, and he spoke of non-violence and spiritual balance more often than he beat people up.

Often, the show skirted its mandate against violence by showing the Avatar literally launching enemy soldiers into the atmosphere; but it only got so far with this nonsense when depicting a war. There are moments where the mandate against depicting violence lessened the dramatic stakes of the show. Katara and Sokka’s mother was killed by a Fire Nation soldier, but the actual act of her death couldn’t be shown. Several other important deaths happened off screen.

These sorts of things made me aware that I was watching a kid’s show, that I wasn’t part of the target audience. It made me wish this show had been made fore a more mature audience.

But it’s still better than the bad movie that was based on it.

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The Last Airbender – a critical response

The Last Airbender is a weird movie. It is a bad movie. But it is the kind of movie you can enjoy if you’ve read other critics’ reviews and found out its flaws ahead of time. It is also the kind of movie that benefits from you being drunk.

Other critics – ones with more prestigious publications than this blog – have said that The Last Airbender is rushed, and too quickly paced. They have said that it suffers from stilted dialog with too much exposition, and that this dialog is often poorly delivered by bad child actors.

They are right on all counts. But the movie isn’t quite as bad if you know these things going in. Especially if you have had several beers and/or joints beforehand.

The movie takes place in a weird world where there are four nations representing the four elements dictated by stupid Greek people – fire, earth, water, and air. The story is about this bald white kid Asianly named Aang who is found by some white kids from the water tribe. In this story, the different nations can each for some reason manipulate their respective elements, except for one being called an Avatar who can manipulate all of them. Aang is almost definitely the latest Avatar, and I’m sick of giving exposition already.

The movie gives this exposition. The critics are right that the exposition is overlong, and that the child actors delivering it don’t know how to act. They are right in saying that the movie’s pace is too quick because it attempts to summarize a twenty-episode cartoon series in less than two hours. Certainly the movie has a cartoony feel to it.

What is weird is that the movie is less than two hours long. It didn’t need to be. For the money he was budgeted, writer/director/producer M. Night Shyamalan could have made the movie maybe half an hour longer, and then the pace wouldn’t have been so rushed.

But the other critics have said the movie’s too-fast pace and excessive exposition made it incomprehensible, which it is not. The movie is based on an Anglican anime-style cartoon by Nickelodeon. I have only seen a few episodes of that cartoon, but I still understood what was going on in the movie. It was a fantasy tale about primal elements and their balance.

And it was visually gorgeous. The other critics knew that. But they deemphasized how awesome the special effects were. They deemphasized how brilliant the composition of the cinematography was. Filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan has always been a better director than a writer. He has always been better at visual composition than working with actors. In his past movies, he’s had better actors to make up for these flaws. The Last Airbender emphasizes his strengths and flaws more than his previous productions.

Shyamalan does amazing visual work with camera focus, left-to-right composition, long shots, close-ups, and whatnot. The scenes where the characters do their “bending” of the elements feature a dance like martial arts and brilliant special effects. These are beautiful. If you’re drunk enough, maybe you won’t notice that the story isn’t so great.

There have been two other major criticisms leveled at The Last Airbender.

The first is that the 3D, which was converted from 2D film, sucks. The obvious answer to this problem is to see the movie without the 3D gimmick. I saw the movie in 2D and it looked gorgeous. Maybe someday movie studios will realize that audiences don’t want to see bad 2D-to-3D conversions.

The other major criticism is that M. Night Shyamalan is racist because he cast white people in the lead roles, contrary to the races of these characters in the Nickelodeon cartoon. This is a stupid criticism because Shyamalan – as you might have guessed from his last name – is Indian himself. He cast the villains from the Fire Nation as Indians. Either this is an case of self-hatred on a race level, of Shyamalan cast race-blind. Either way, this shouldn’t be an issue to white critics.

What is more an issue is that Shyamalan cast most of the prominent Indian actors working today. There aren’t many. This means that he cast Dev Patel – who you remember from Slumdog Millionaire – as the lead villain. And he cast Cliff Curtis and Aasif Mandvi as the other two prominent villain roles. Aasif Mandvi is one of the latest correspondents on The Daily Show. For liberal white people like myself, it’s hard to take him seriously as a bad guy in a big budget, overbloated fantasy production.

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