Monday, December 14, 2015

Avatar: The Last Airbender - Season One

Have you ever heard about something that's insanely popular, but you just avoided it anyway?  Maybe you think that things the "masses" like are invariably low-brow and for people without good taste, like Transformers movies, or the music of Ariana Grande, or (ugh) 50 Shades of Gray.   Perhaps you're just dissatisfied with the "big, huge" events that become movies, TV shows, or music, and you prefer simpler things.  Maybe you're a hipster.  Maybe there's just so many amazing things out there that you just don't have time to see them all, so when you do finally decide to give it a chance, you're hopelessly behind and can't catch up (see: my experience with Lost).

Whatever reason people have, it means that sometimes you miss out on something that's actually really good.  For example, during a brief "pfft, how good can a cartoon for kids be these days" phase some years ago, I found out that a lot of people were really into this series called "Avatar: The Last Airbender."  I was convinced at the time that every cartoon that was something adults would like tended to be something akin to Dragonball Z, Squidbillies, or Aqua Teen Hunger Force, namely bad animation with weak stories that were often just links between dumb action sequences or stupid jokes.

I didn't really realize just how huge it was until I heard a movie was going to be made based on it, at which point I went "okay, maybe there is something to it if it's going to get a movie franchise like The Hunger Games or the Harry Potter series."  This was, of course, before we would learn just how much a movie can disappoint fans of a large franchise that wasn't Star Wars.

But after putting it off for years, I finally decided to give the show a shot.  I figured I owed it to myself to know what I was talking about if I said something didn't interest me or wasn't along my personal tastes.

Silly me, sometimes things are popular because they're actually really good.

Okay, so here's the set-up.  In this world that clearly isn't Earth, there are four nations.  There's the Fire Nation, Earth Nation, Water Nation, and Air Nation.  Fire and Earth have their own massive continents.  Water has a heavy presence at the two poles as well as across the large seas that separate the two main continents.  Air is a bit nomadic, but they have several large temple complexes across the map.  People native to each nation can sometimes be born with the ability to control the element their nation is named after, but not everybody has this gift.

Keeping everything in balance is the Avatar, the one person in the world who can control all four elements.  The Avatar's role is to maintain balance, and is often reborn every time it dies, in a cycle across all four nations so that no single nation can claim to "always have him."

However, one hundred years ago, the Avatar vanished.  This happened at about the same time that the Fire Nation started invading every single other nation across the planet.  Now, two young siblings in the Water Nation named Sokka and Katara discover the last surviving member of the Air Nation, Aang, trapped in an ice floe.  Aang also just happens to be the missing Avatar.  Now he needs to learn to control the elements other than air and face the Fire Lord to stop the Fire Nation's assault on the world.

That's...pretty heavy for a series for kids.

So let's talk about the bad first, because otherwise it's going to look like one massive love letter.  Not every episode is gold.  It actually starts a bit slow, working on building the world and introducing a few interesting characters rather than focusing on any real part of the plot.  Aang and his friends (later referred to as the G'aang, which is cute) visit an air temple, an island full of female warriors, the spirit world, other temples, some cities, and generally just wander around as they try to get to the Northern Water Tribe (which, yes, is part of the Water Nation, see, there are two tribes and- oh, never mind) to find a master who can teach Aang to control water.

Now, granted, it is a first season for a series, and you have to build a world before you can just travel somewhere and expect people to know what you're talking about, but considering some of the world building done in Book Two and Book Three (oh, right, each season is a "book," not just, y'know, a season), it's just not done as well.  Some characters who become important later just feel rather wasted here, or simply displayed as filler.

The primary villain, Admiral Zhao, isn't really all that impressive.  He has military might behind him, but is significantly weaker than any other character in the series by the end except perhaps Sokka, and that's only because Sokka is the one person in the team who can't wield an element.  Zhao gets his in the end (and is shown again receiving a pretty extreme punishment in the next series, The Legend of Korra), but considering the impact a lot of the other villains in the series have, it seems like a bit of a waste that he's introduced, almost immediately shown up, and tends to just be a bad guy to make other "bad guys" seem more sympathetic.

Which gets us to the good parts of the series.

This world is amazingly well-built.  A great detail for any original world that's built is to look at the wildlife and creatures that exist in the background.  Do the sea monsters look appropriately monstrous?  Do the creatures living in the woods just look like ordinary squirrels, or are they something truly unique?  Every animal in the world of Avatar is visually amazing, from the flying air bison Appa that the gang rides to creatures like the sabre-toothed moose lion, the eel hound, or the badgermole.  It's details like those that really help you get the feeling that this is an amazing world and not just "Earth with different types of cities."

Pictured: How Earth has failed us in terms of The Best Species Ever.
Prince Zuko and his uncle, Iroh, are essentially the true antagonists of the first season, and they're magnificent.  Voiced by Dante Basco ("Ru-Fi-O! Ru-Fi-O!") and Mako Iwamatsu, the two are on what's initially thought to be either a self-imposed hunt for the Avatar or something assigned to the Prince from his father, the Fire Lord, but it winds up being a lot more than just that.

Yes, the scar is explained.  And it is a fantastic back story for a character.
Zuko is angry and bitter, determined to capture the Avatar at any cost, while his uncle seems a bit doddering but cares deeply about his nephew.  There's a powerful story behind those two, and I'm not going to spoil it here.

Mae Whitman as Katara, one of the two siblings, is also pretty great.  It's amazing the range she has as an actress, though I know we don't see her as often in big live-action roles.  She does seem, however, to be truly settled in to doing some absolutely great voice work roles, such as April in the newest TMNT revival (not the Michael Bay one, the good one), and Tinkerbell.   The other voice actors aren't as well-known to me, but they all so absolutely fine in their roles.  Zach Tyler Eisen is appropriately young as Aang, and Jack DeSena has a little difficulty as Sokka at first, but he quickly grows into the role.

June, voiced by Jennifer Hale.  She's scary, rides a giant tracking eel hound around, and is voiced by Jennifer Hale.  She's so great.


This show has some of the absolute best fight choreography I've seen in a series.  Period.  Adding elemental abilities (especially when one of them is wind, traditionally invisible) to traditional martial arts (more of this in my series-wide summary) is a neat trick, especially when you see how different people use similar fighting styles but come out with completely different maneuvers and techniques.

The humor is actually pretty funny.  I laughed quite often at some of the comedic scenes, and I think that's because they played off classic comedy more than "modern" comedy.  Some genuine slapstick, witty innuendo, and clever word play often beat out gross-out humor or juvenile jokes at the expense of others.

Overall, the series starts off a bit shaky, but it has a few distinct characters who grab your attention and you want to learn more about what happens to them.  The story builds, leading to a huge confrontation involving a princess who might or might not be connected to the moon (listen, it's complicated), Zuko, Zhao, and Aang going full-out with his Avatar powers and facing down the brunt of the Fire Nation navy.  It's a great conclusion that also introduces a new character in the last few minutes who I'll be talking a LOT about in the next season of the show.

If I had to rank the season in terms of stars, I'd give it a solid three out of five stars.  It's not amazing, the primary villain needs work, and it spends a bit of time finding itself and introducing people, but it's an okay beginning to a bigger story that, from the moment the first season ends, you know is going to just build and build.

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