My wife and I have finally gotten around to watching Avatar: the Last Airbender. I put myself through watching the film adaptation and saw lots of potential for storytelling underneath the surface. I was a bit thrown by the odd juxtaposition of breathtaking martial arts augmented with special effects and some dreadfully bland exposition crammed into stilted dialog. I knew hand-drawn animation could still look impressive, and with more breathing room, I hoped the characters would develop more naturally as the story grew through their actions.
Having seen the first ‘book’ of the series, I can see why it has so many fans.
For a show on a children’s network, Avatar deals with some pretty heavy themes. It begins with a world that’s been at war for 100 years, not a light and rosy prospect on its own. Then, before you know it, the show’s writers are bringing up things like genocide, sexism, and parenting bordering on abusive. With so many heavy themes weaving into and out of the ongoing narrative, your central characters need to be natural and dynamic, people to whom the audience can relate and as human as possible.
Thankfully, for Book 1 at least, this is the case. Aang, despite being a youngster, is a very solid lead for this show. While precocious and not always focused on the task at hand, his natural abilities and easy-going charm smooth over a lot of his rough patches. When things become serious, he never goes too over the top with his reactions. Indeed, more than once he’s shown to possess a rather quiet fury, the mark of a mature warrior-monk with true goodness in his heart and a willingness to fight for his friends and what he believes in.
His friends, at least the two other children that discover him, balance his personality well. Kitara is supportive while Sokka is critical; the sister concerns herself with spiritual matters, and the brother is more of a tactile, even scientific sort. Together they introduce Aang (and us) to their world as it is now, and ensure that the young Avatar has companions other than his small lemur and titanic flying bison.
While Team Avatar is well-balanced and well-presented, it can be difficult to really feel deep empathy or connections to them. Their stories, while well-told, are not terribly complex. Perhaps this is due to the characters of the Fire Nation, specifically Zuko and Iroh, having much more checkered pasts that are mostly hinted at over the course of the Book. Iroh in particular is something a jovial mystery, and when we see some of the decisions Zuko makes as the series continues, he reveals more and more layers that indicate he’s far more than a typical villain with a grudge.
The use of real martial arts in the animations for bending not only make the actions stand out but also underscore the essence of each element. For water, Tai Chi was used as a pattern. The graceful, largely peaceful motions lend themselves naturally to the flow and ebb of the water Kitara, Aang, and others manipulate, and are a stark contrast to the aggressive motions of Northern Shaolin used by firebenders.
More to come, as Book 1 is now closed and Book 2 awaits…