Saving the World (of TV Animation): The “Avatar the Last Airbender” Complete Book 1 Collection
Water, Earth, Fire and Air are the four elements that the title character of Nickelodeon’s Avatar the Last Airbender must master as part of his quest to save the world. Similarly, the show’s success lies in its mastery of four different elements: Setting, Story, Characterization, and Technique. The first season, recently released on DVD, proves audacious and daring, especially for a show ostensibly aimed at children, and proves to have an appeal well beyond its target demographic. It’s simply one of the best action cartoons on TV today, and may ultimately exceed the gold standard of animation for all-ages set by Batman the Animated Series and its spin-offs.
The world of Avatar is divided into four nations: the Water Tribes, the Earth Kingdom, the Fire Nation, and the Air Nomads. The most powerful warriors of each nation are able to bend their native elements to their will as weapons. The pinnacle of elemental bending ability is the Avatar, who is able to master all four elemental disciplines at once to maintain balance between the nations and bridge the gap between the real world and the spirit realm. On his or her death, the Avatar is reborn in a different nation, ensuring that the Avatar belongs to all nations and to none.
The show’s mastery of setting comes from its skillful blending of real-world Asian cultures with wild fantasy elements. The most visible lift is in the fighting styles of the separate nations, each of which are modeled after different styles of Chinese kung-fu. While Chinese culture and art are the foundations for Avatar, there are also many influences from other real-world cultures ranging all over Asia, the Pacific Islands, and the polar regions. As a result, the show evokes the weight of age, history, and tradition. Like the early Star Wars movies, there is the sense of centuries of history, much of it forgotten, that still cast shadows over present-day events. The setting of the show is never realistic, but always undeniably authentic.
The plot to Avatar is driven by a war started by the Fire Nation nearly a century ago, which also seems to have been the moment when the last Avatar vanished from the world. At the start of the series, two members of the Southern Water Tribe – the teenaged novice Waterbender Katara (voiced by Mae Whitman) and her older brother Sokka (Jack DeSena) – discover the latest incarnation of the Avatar: a 12-year old Airbender named Aang (Zach Tyler Eisen), who has been in suspended animation for over 100 years. Aang proves full of boyish enthusiasm and good intentions, but is sorely lacking in the fabled bending skills and wisdom expected of the Avatar. The three soon find themselves on a zig-zag journey to the North Pole in search of a Waterbending instructor, assisted by the giant flying bison Appa and Momo, the flying lemur. They are pursued by the deadly forces of the Fire Nation, as well as the relentless and scarred Prince Zuko (Dante Basco), charged with capturing the Avatar to end his exile from the Fire Nation and restore his stature.
Avatar proves the exception to the conventional wisdom on the length of time a TV show needs to find its stride. The two-part premiere may be justly criticized for overplaying Aang’s immaturity and relying too much on childish slapstick and heavy-handed storytelling, but these weaknesses are relatively minor and quickly overcome in later episodes. Chapter 4, “Warriors of Kyoshi,” presents morals about the dangers of arrogance and jealousy, but integrates them into a wonderfully layered story that elevates it beyond the thinly veiled public-service moralizing of lesser shows. Chapter 6, “Imprisoned,” continually defies clichés and seems to take great pleasure in finding the most convoluted path possible to its expected ending. The following two-part episode, “The Winter Solstice,” sets up events for the remainder of the season and for the seasons to come, taking a huge step in storytelling sophistication without putting the show beyond the reach of its target audience. Episode 13, “The Blue Spirit,” is a marvelously constructed episode, where an unexpected ally appears for a dazzling battle sequence that is followed by a surprising and bittersweet ending. It is a high point that is quickly surpassed by “Bato of the Water Tribe” two episodes later, which delivers its emotional payload with the same impact as the stunning climactic martial-arts battle between Aang and Prince Zuko. Finally, the marvelous two-part season finale, “The Siege of the North,” uses a massive Fire Nation invasion as the backdrop to bring many of the simmering conflicts to a boil, brilliantly switching back and forth between the larger-scale battle and the more personal combat of the major players.
Characterization, the show’s third element, is another aspect where Avatar surpasses much of its competition. At first, many of the show’s characters seem rather superficially defined: Aang is the naïve, childish stand-in for the show’s target audience of pre-teen boys, Sokka is the buffoonish slacker comic relief, and Katara plays den mother to both. However, these thinly sketched out characters quickly gain surprising dimension. Aang proves to be far more aware of the magnitude of his role and his task than he lets on initially, turning his childishness into a coping technique rooted firmly in denial. Sokka may suffer from more than his share of comedic pratfalls, but still proves himself to be far smarter, braver, and more dependable than the average cartoon series buffoon. While she may be the most emotionally mature of the three, Katara also proves to have outsized streaks of jealousy, stubbornness, and pride that often get her into a lot more trouble than she can manage. Above all, the three are completely believable as teenagers attempting to cope with a chaotic situation with little adult supervision. They are marvelously flawed human beings, and it is a real treat to watch them grow and change throughout the season.
However, the creators’ skill at characterization truly shines with the antagonists. In the early episodes, Prince Zuko is a two-dimensional caricature that exists purely to make the heroes’ lives difficult. However, our sympathy and admiration for him grows as his nobility, sense of honor, and determination are uncovered as the season progresses. One of the most winning characters in the show turns out to be Uncle Iroh, Zuko’s mentor and a former Fire Nation general voiced by veteran character actor Mako. Sly, wily, and much wiser than his clownish behavior would suggest, Iroh is full of surprises and manages to steal nearly every scene he’s in. Mako’s sensitive and masterful performance as Uncle Iroh makes his recent passing even more keenly felt.
The final element of the show’s success lies in technique, which applies on multiple levels. The storytelling and characterization skills of co-creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko and the Avatar staff have already been dealt with, but watching the show in larger blocks exposes how each individual episode links with the others to produce a powerful unified whole. Nothing is ever introduced carelessly or without reason, as seemingly throwaway elements eventually prove to have great significance. The episodes combine into a grand, sweeping epic developed in intimately personal half-hour installments.
To borrow a well-worn phrase, the show’s kung-fu is strong and forms another aspect of the show’s powerful technique. Fighting consultation and choreography come courtesy of Sifu Kisu of the Harmonious Fist Chinese Athletic Association, and the extra effort in assuring authenticity pays off. Each nation’s fighting style is easily distinguished from the others, and animation brings the “magic kung-fu” to life even more effectively than in movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It is also worth noting that martial arts and comedy are both skills that require split-second timing – moving too soon or too late can ruin a punch or a punch line. Avatar shows great skill at both, knowing how and when to leaven a situation with humor, how to produce humor organically from the situation, and how to get a real laugh out of the audience.
Most of all, however, Avatar is beautiful to look at, flinging a powerful gauntlet in the face of those who believe that the art of 2-D, hand-drawn animation is dead. While many vehicles, bending effects, and background elements are done via computer, the majority of Avatar is hand-drawn and simply beautiful. One of the outsourcing studios animating Avatar is DR Movie, which has done work for Studio Ghibli and other top-notch anime companies, and they have clearly brought their top game to the table. A character’s design and movement will often communicate volumes before a word is ever spoken. The fight sequences are painstakingly choreographed and animated, surpassing almost every other American action cartoon and even challenging live-action martial arts movies. Avatar the Last Airbender is a refreshing change from other American shows, which seem to be locked in a contest to see who can produce the cheapest, poorest quality animation.
AVATAR ON DVD
Nickelodeon created some bad blood with Avatar fans by releasing several single DVD releases of Avatar before stating that a complete season boxed set was to be released. The Avatar Complete Book 1 Collection packages all 5 of the original single-disc releases along with a new sixth disc of bonus features. The set comes in a cardboard triptych sleeve that’s just barely smaller than 2 regular DVD cases – a nice nod to those of us short on space for ever-growing DVD collections. For newcomers, there is no question that the boxed set is a better value, but the decision for those who bought the single disc releases will come down to how much they want the extras on the sixth disc.
Those fans can relax – the sixth disc of extras is rather short and is probably not worth the double-dip. Two of the “behind the scenes” features on it are short and shallow. The “Avatar Pilot Episode and Audio Commentary” is the 15-minute feature used to land approval for the show with a commentary track by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. It would be a gem of a bonus for Avatar fans, except that there is no way to simply watch the pilot without commentary – a strange and frustrating omission. Finally, “Inside the Korean Animation Studios” is a 30-minute feature that sends Bryan Konietzko to speak with employees of the Korean animation studios which animate Avatar. The American Avatar team gives the Korean animators significant latitude and creative input into the final product, and the feature interviews several animators about their contributions to the show. Unfortunately, the Korean segment just doesn’t seem as interesting as it could have been. Many of the answers seem scattershot or overly technical, and there are times when the translation seems to capture words more accurately than meanings. There are some interesting bits, such as how digital and hand-drawn techniques meld to create the beautiful backgrounds of Avatar, but this bonus ends up being a disappointment. In the end, the extra disc is diverting, but not essential. While there is very little duplication of bonus features between the bonus disc and the original discs, there is also little really new.
The other extra in the boxed set is a small reproduction of the world map shown in the opening credits, with the disc contents printed on the other side. Quality-wise, the shows are all presented uncut in their original full-frame format with a Dolby Digital stereo soundtrack. They all suffer from common TV on DVD annoyances – forced trailers at the start of every disc (which can be skipped, but never entirely avoided) and no chapter stops within episodes. Each of the five main discs comes with at least one special feature, with the worst being the rather pointless live-action reference films on disc 2 and the best being a toss-up between the animatic for “Bato of the Water Tribe” on disc 4 or the full commentary tracks to all episodes on disc 5. Honorable mention must go to the all-too-brief featurettes on disc 1 where Sifu Kisu explains and demonstrates the real-world martial arts that are the basis of the fighting styles in Avatar.
It looks as though Nickelodeon is really gearing up for an Avatar marketing blitz – in addition to the DVDs, Avatar toys are in stores now along with a collectable card game. Burger King provided the inevitable fast-food cross-marketing promotion, a video game is set for release in October, and Nickelodeon has begun re-airing Avatar daily. Over-promotion always runs the risk of a backlash, but Avatar the Last Airbender is one of those very rare shows that manages to live up to the hype it receives. The Complete Book 1 Collection serves as a fine way to relive the first season and preserve it for generations as the classic it is destined to be.