Legend of the Avatar

10 Jun

Avatar: The Last Airbender is set in an Asiatic-like world in which some people can manipulate the classical elements with psychokinetic variants of the Chinese martial arts known as “bending”. The series combines anime with American cartoons, and relies on the imagery of East Asian, Inuit, South Asian and New World societies. For the uninitiated, the series takes place in a world defined by water, earth, fire and air. Only the Avatar, master of all four elements, can stop the evil Fire Lord from enslaving the rest of the nations. As it happens, the current Avatar is the last of the Air Nomads, a young boy named Aang, who must learn the ways of waterbending, earthbending and firebending if he hopes to save the world. If you haven’t already seen it, Avatar is seriously a must-watch. In my opinion, it’s one of the greatest animated series of all time. The series was commercially successful and was universally acclaimed by audiences and critics, with praise for its art direction, humor, cultural references, characters, and themes. It was nominated for, and won, Annie Awards, Genesis Awards, a Primetime Emmy Award and a Peabody Award. The series inspired a critically panned but financially successful live-action film, The Last Airbender, directed by M. Night Shyamalan; action figures; a trading card game; three video games; and a sequel series, The Legend of Korra, aired from 2012 to 2014, which perhaps rose to even greater heights.

The show itself, set in a world where martial art forms control the elements, is impressive in its sophistication. It can nimbly jump between massive battles of ships or tanks to a complete joke fest to a five-minute short about one character’s grief over his dead son. Though the series starts with a focus on Aang, a young boy with the potential to master all four of the elemental control forms — known as bending — it quickly establishes a large and varied cast of characters who aid the program’s shifting tones. Sokka, Zuko and Uncle Iroh are but a few of the characters who not only populate the world, but grow and change as the series develops. Sokka and Iroh are initially presented as comic relief, but receive a surprising amount of depth. Zuko’s growth as a character from a one-note villain to a richly textured but confused young man is astounding. By its third season, the world is expansive enough to feature an army composed of guest characters from previous episodes. It also makes its most compelling narrative leaps with one major character switching loyalties, Aang facing his toughest decisions and deep explorations of the characters’ traumatic pasts. A handful of episodes break format, like one told entirely from the point of view of the villains while on a brief vacation and an ingenious series recap told via an in-universe stage play that both lampoons and honors the work done up to that point.

The writing is backed by excellent animation. Incorporating anime techniques and grammar, the characters have a tremendous range of expression. The series also boasts some of the best action choreography ever animated for TV. Fights are thrilling and the use of the elements is powerful. Some scenes may recall the work of Hayao Miyazaki, a clear influence on the production. But as opposed to a straight homage, Avatar builds on his principles and makes it work on a television budget. Voice performances are also top notch, from Mae Whitman‘s Katara to guests like Ron Pearlman and Jason Issacs. Tying it all together is the voice of Aang: Zach Tyler. He brings child-like delight and a mature intensity depending on the story requirements. His voice never grates, even when the material intends for him to be a particularly annoying brat. Special mention should be made of both Mako and Greg Baldwin as Uncle Iroh. Both bring serenity and an occasional hedonistic streak to the performance and Baldwin thrives in the unenviable position of replacing Mako after his untimely death. Also, Dee Bradley Baker performs a host of additional voices, but excels as the voices of both Appa and Momo, animal companions to Aang and characters strong enough in their own rights to carry episodes.

Like its parent show, The Legend of Korra received critical acclaim for its production values, such as its animation quality, art style, and musical score. The series was also praised for addressing sociopolitical issues such as social unrest and terrorism, as well as for going beyond the established boundaries of youth entertainment with respect to issues of race, gender, and sexual identity. It featured a brave, strong, brown-skinned female lead character as well as a bevy of diverse female characters of all ages, focused on challenging issues such as weapons of mass destruction, PTSD and fascism, and was infused with an Eastern spirituality based on tenets such as balance and mindfulness. While The Legend of Korra was produced in the United States and therefore not a work of Japanese animation (“anime”) in the strict sense, the series is so strongly influenced by anime that it would otherwise easily be classified as such: its protagonists (a superpowered heroine, her group of talented, supporting friends, a near-impervious villain who wants to reshape the world), its themes (family, friendship, romance, fear, and death) and the quality of its voice acting as well as the visual style are similar to those of leading anime series such as Ghost in the Shell and Akira. I could go on forever about the various and sundry ways The Legend of Korra is a show worth checking out. I could say it’s telling the same kind of dense, serialized stories that children’s shows rarely attempt. I could point out that the animation is gorgeous and the action scenes are among the best on TV. In fact, I could tell you that it’s Game of Thrones for kids but even that would not be enough of a compliment. Just watch it – I doubt you’ll be disappointed!

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One Response to “Legend of the Avatar”

  1. Zezee June 10, 2018 at 3:00 pm #

    That’s a great overview of both shows. I’m a fan of Avatar the Last Airbender. Unfortunately, when Avatar Korra came out, I was too preoccupied by the fact that it’s not strictly a continuation of Airbender to really appreciate the story and characters. I’d love to rewatch it with a more open mind, though, toward its end, I gradually began to accept it for what it is and liked how it wraps up.
    There is a Nickelodeon podcast where the creators talk about developing the show and touched on matching fight styles to bending forms. It made me appreciate even more the amount of work and thought that went into the project.
    Sidenote: Uncle Iroh is one of my favorite characters. My fav episode is Tale of Ba Sing Se and though it’s simple, one of my fav bending scenes is when he redirected lightning.

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