Monday, June 4, 2012

TV Series Review: Avatar: The Last Airbender (Book One: Water)

So, back in 2005 I had just recently been introduced to Miyazaki and had been seeing a lot of advertisements on Neopets for a new, American cartoon airing on Nickelodeon called Avatar: The Last Airbender. So I sat down to watch it the first night it aired and it was a bit different than I had expected, which was okay, but it hadn't quite grabbed me. The third episode wasn’t what I expected at all, I had been expecting something like Pokemonwhere the villain, Prince Zuko, chases the characters across the world in strange hijinks every week, not genocide and seeing other characters who Zuko went up against who seem like the real villains. So I kept watching and then the mid-season episode, “The Spirit World” happened. By this point I was already enjoying the show and, since this was the age of nigh-nu-programmable VHS players, I had to resort to watching this episode as I babysat a two year old neighbor instead of missing the episode and the bits that I caught blew my mind. The idea that the series would have a clear and concise beginning, middle, and end and that the episodes would not be random ones that could be watched out of order but rather following a cohesive plot was completely new to me and I loved it and that's what kept me coming back for the next three and a half years.
So where does that leave this review? Well, despite being a huge fan of the series I’ve never re-watched it entirely and there are a number of episodes I’ve only seen once so I had planned on re-watching the whole show before The Legend of Korra premiered. However, since Nick only announced the show a month before it’s air date (given their other, scheduling issues in the past, I thought I’d have a few months heads-up) that didn’t happen so now I’m trying to balance it out with everything else I’m watching. So here's the first season of the first show with both my current thoughts on the show and remembering how this seemed to a 13/14 year old with no experience with long form stories being told in anything other than books or magazines and certainly no experience with cartoons actually looking good.   

Avatar: The Last Airbender (book one, water, re-watch)

Summary: In another world there is a very specific kind of magic that allows people to manipulate one of the four elements (water, earth, fire, or air) called bending. Out of all these benders there is only one person who can control all four elements at once, one who is the reincarnation of the planet itself’s spirit (fittingly called The Avatar). But something has gone wrong, one hundred years ago the Fire Nation declared all out war on the rest of the world (the two Water Tribes, the great Earth Kingdom, and on the four Air Nomad temples) and completely wiped out the air nomads, the nation the avatar had recently reincarnated into and the avatar vanished. Things have been bleak ever since, that is until two kids from the Southern Water tribe, siblings Sokka and Katara, discover the avatar encased in an iceberg, named Aang, and set off to train him in the other elements so that he can save the world.

The Good: Re-watching the show I was surprised to see just how sarcastic the characters were all the time (I remembered that Sokka was, it’s in his nickname, but not how snarky Katara and even Aang could be) and the dialogue really felt like something my friends or I would have said in high school which is really hard to pull off. The characters do act rather mature for their age, to the point where it’s odd to see Aang act more like a 12 year old (especially compared to the later seasons), but they never seemed so mature that it jolted me out of the show. In addition to all of that (and as I mentioned earlier, a sturdy central plot) the show never treats it's viewers like idiots which isn't the most common thing for a show aimed at 8-12 year olds, the fact that a show aimed at such a young age group has such a large following in older fans is testament to how strong and engaging the writing, and really the whole show, is.   

The Bad: There are some random episodes in this season (special mention goes to “The Great Divide” which, when I first saw it, didn’t think it was so bad but was cringing when I re-watched it) and has the most “filler” of the three seasons. I don’t mind the “filler” episodes as much, they help establish characters and introduced others that would reappear in larger roles later on, but only about half of the 20 episodes were truly crucial to the overall plot. I did notice on the re-watch though that Zuko is especially slow to grow and develop and I wish he had grown a bit more here (especially considering how the entire show is set over just one year meaning that most of his latter character growth is in the course of just a few months). And I was a bit confused by Iroh, he doesn't undergo character growth like Zuko does but he's portrayed quite differently by the end of the series which again seems like such a huge change I wonder if that was something added in last minute.

The Audio: As I’ve said time and time again, I often don't pay much attention to the music in a show but I have been doing so more and more with each year. Even before I re-watched this show I could clearly remember specific bits of music when I watched this show in it’s original 2005 run, that’s pretty special music. I still adore the music used and it really does add to the scenes, I remember seeing “The Southern Air Temple” and being suspicious why there was such triumphant music being played during Zuko’s parts (I didn’t know the term anti-hero back then but the music tipped me off that Zuko was more than a bad guy, without it I never would have picked up on that). 

The Visuals: Re-watching this on Netflix has reminded me that this show didn’t have the largest budget when it started but they made good use of it. There is some rather conspicuous CGI on various fire nation vehicles (I remember seeing the tanks as the kid and being confused why they looked a bit different from everything else but couldn’t figure out why) but the numerous battle scenes look amazing every time. The choreography in this show is great, since the show aired I’ve seen some clips and demonstrations martial art styles and whenever I see one that was used in the show (Tai Chi*, Northern Style Shaolin, etc) I can immediately see where the inspiration came from and a few times I’ve been able to look at a clip and tell what style it was, the show managed to capture the martial arts just that well. I was surprised on the re-watch to see just how “cartoony” the characters and their facial expressions sometimes got, one thing I had liked about the show was how it seemed less cartoony than anything else on Nickelodeon/Cartoon Network/Disney/Kids WB but after seeing literally hundreds of other comics and cartoons since my take on that has changed a bit. It’s not a bad thing, just not a thing I had been expecting to discover.

So, when I find the time next (I'm currently watching 11 different anime series among other things) I'll continue on with book two and continue my re-watch. Actually, I've got another Avatar related review later in the week as well.....

*not technically a martial art but oh well

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