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.