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"Avatar: The Last Airbender" Complete Book I: Bending Backwards

by on June 22, 2010

Okay, before you flex your fingers, hunch over the keyboard, and start tapping out that talkback post—the one where you tell me that I can’t and shouldn’t judge Avatar: The Last Airbender just from its first season, and that it gets really good in season two, and that I’m a miserable excuse for a human being and probably some kind of monster because I don’t love it as much as you do—

Before you do any of that, let me make a few things clear:

1. Many of my colleagues at Toonzone News have already told me all of the above—except for the bit about me being a monster; they know better than to taunt the vicious beast that I am—and if they didn’t change my mind then you’re probably not going to either.

2. I’m here to talk about the first season of Avatar: The Last Airbender, not the series as a whole. So it doesn’t matter how awesome the later seasons are. The first season shouldn’t suck—period.

3. If as a viewer I had to balance my judgment of The Last Airbender, Book I, against the genius of the later seasons, then I’d have to balance my judgment of The Empire Strikes Back against the awfulness of The Phantom Menace. And who here wants to argue—as you’d be forced to—that the original trilogy is made worse by the prequels?

So by now only the densest readers won’t have anticipated my opinion of Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Complete Book I (Collector’s Edition). Anyone of tender sensibilities who can’t stand to see the blood of a beloved icon gushing over the floor should bail out now. It’s only going to get worse from here.

I can say only one good thing about the episodes on this set: They have very pretty visuals. Avatar: The Last Airbender is gorgeous, boasting liquid movements, rippling animation, and solid shapes and forms. The color palette is strong without being oppressive, and there is a lot of nice eye candy in the backgrounds, the animals, the vehicles, and the architecture. The martial arts movements are executed with zest and skill, and a lot of ingenuity has gone into realizing some fantastical settings, like a polar city carved from ice. If the series were a fake, animated documentary it would be quite a nice little show. Not nearly as popular with viewers, but infinitely better.

Unfortunately, it comes with a story and characters. Well, technically, it comes with things that are supposed to function like stories and characters. If you wanted to be descriptive and not merely analytical, you’d say that it comes with a bunch of two-legged sausages that spend nearly 500 minutes stumbling and bumbling into the scenery and into each other. The sausages aren’t really people—not anyone you’d recognize as a psychologically plausible or attractive human being if you met them in real life, anyway—and the pratfall-plots are boring when they aren’t face-smackingly dumb. I am told that during the first season the network asked the creators to give it more “kid appeal.” Apparently the creators have a very low opinion of children, and think that stupidity is just the thing to appeal to them. That’s the only reason—other than lethargy and incompetence—that could explain why they filled the first season with this kind of stuff.

I could go on this way, being merely brutal and dismissive. But this first season of The Last Airbender is a very good—though very negative—example of all the ways that American animation producers (both the creative and the executive types) can badly bungle an otherwise promising project. So it deserves a thorough dissection and not just a hurried burial before the stink gets too bad.

(Note to newbies: This series is so well known and highly regarded that I’m just going to assume reader familiarity with the characters and overall plot. Google will take you to lots of places if you need a tutorial. My God, will Google take you to lots of places if you want or need to read about this show.)

A big problem—and something probably related to the aforementioned network diktat—is that it can’t decide whether to be Batman with vaudeville routines or Freakazoid with emo-drama. Either choice would lead to disaster; its inability to choose leaves it a bewildering double disaster. At one moment Aang will be a Looney Tune frantic—he can even deploy a set of Stimpson J. Katt eyes when he wants—and then he’ll spin around and transform into a glowing and putatively awesome Weapon of Mass Destruction. The bad guys are cruel and horrible and genocidal, and they inhabit the same universe as a dotty herbalist and a royal goof whose antics would make more sense in a Peter Cook sketch. These competing tendencies toward baggy-trouser nonsense and constipated drama occasionally combine in weird, non-ironic dialogue that is Monty Python stupid without being Monty Python funny. Every episode contains at least one (and usually more than one) of those wheezy old jokes where a character utters a set up line so the camera can pull back to give an “ironic reveal.” (Note to comedy directors: This stopped being funny somewhere around season four of The Simpsons.) Possibly the producers told themselves they were doing a Princess Bride kind of thing. But Princess Bride was an unashamed comedy that found its heart and drama and conflict inside the jokes, and expressed its adventure and romance through them. It’s a trick that is hard to pull off, because it requires a delicate blending of comedy and sentimentality. You can’t just cram those qualities next to each other—like asparagus and ice cream—the way The Last Airbender does. The silliest thing a series can do is treat its characters like jokes and yet expect the audience to take them seriously. But that is exactly what these episodes do.

It all might still be sufferable if the characters felt real. But they don’t; they are scriptwriterly conceits. They are, as I said above, sausages: meat sacs stuffed with a mashed-up pulp of genre types. The four main characters in this arc (Aang, Katara, Sokka, and Prince Zuko) are graspable within thirty seconds of their first appearance, and by episode 20 they haven’t advanced beyond their introductions. This doesn’t make them strong and vivid; it only proves them clichés. They are the Magic 8-Ball, Princess Spunky, The Jerky Boy, and Kid Vader. They talk and act like sloppy sitcom smart alecks. Their facial repertoires are limited to the three stock Disney expressions (bemusement, fear, and goofy-comic-despair) and their “acting” consists of flipping rapidly between these in emotion-numbing sequence. Their voices are thin and bodiless. They would fit right in on Kim Possible, though only as minor, disposable supporting faces in the crowd.

They are, as I say, familiar types, so I do understand why series fans like them—it’s a Pavlovian reaction to cliché. I’ll even defend the characters this far: They are not distinguishably worse than similar characters in other, better series. They are, however, distinguishable for the hatred that the series creators apparently feel for them. That is the really deplorable thing about Book I of The Last Airbender: No writer who actually loves his characters would treat them with the careless contempt suffered by the characters in this show.

Consider Sokka. This is a boy in his early teens. Many of his actions suggest that he is (or should be) restless, ambitious, loyal, sturdy, and idealistic. His circumstances suggest that he is pained by the absence of his father, though he doesn’t speak of it. We glean that he wants to be a man, and that he is eager to do whatever he must in order to make himself into one. He is often impatient and is quite capable of getting himself into trouble, but he also has (or should have) the courage and the nerve to get himself out. He should be an attractive character, and if people like him (even on the basis of this first season) it is probably because they recognize this kind of potential within him.

Put it this way: As a character, he isn’t (or shouldn’t be) all that different from Luke Skywalker, who has pretty much the same background and set of basic attributes. But does anyone look at Sokka and think “Luke Skywalker”? Of course not. That’s because Luke was a hero, albeit one in-the-raw. But Sokka is just a joke. A jerk. A punch line.

Watch the first twenty episodes again. Is there one spot—one thing Sokka says or one thing Sokka does—that isn’t designed to set him up for a sock in the face? His instincts are 100% wrong—an entire episode is built around his bad instincts, and the other characters snigger ceaselessly over them. He almost always says exactly the wrong thing at exactly the wrong time, and those few times that he is right he is made to act like a jerk so that someone else can smugly deflate him. The other characters play jokes on him. He is never the hero, and the few times he manages to save someone or contribute to a success, his actions are glossed over in the rush to get to some other plot point. When any other character does something right, countries on the other side of the world celebrate by declaring a national holiday. When Sokka does something right, everyone rolls their eyes.

Here is the brutal truth: Sokka is the designated schmuck, the boob who sets up the ball the other characters can tee off. Everyone else looks wiser, stronger, quicker, smarter, and funnier when they are standing next to him. And that is his only purpose: to make the others look good. The writers could have made Katara and the other characters look good on their own. Instead they chose to make Sokka look bad so the others could look kinda-sorta not-pathetic by comparison.

This is why I accuse the writers of hating him, because this is an utterly ignoble way to treat a character and to write for him. It also reflects no credit on the other characters—on Aang and Katara—that they can only look good because Sokka looks bad. It makes them look contemptible, too.

At this point, certain readers are probably dying to argue that Sokka is meant to grow and evolve over the course of the story, and that he has to start off as this raw moron if he’s going to turn into a seasoned and halfway intelligent fighter. But that’s a non sequitur. You don’t have to make a character a relentless dumb-ass or everyone else’s punching bag at the start of your series so he can get better as it goes along. What you do is give him some good, attractive, but irrelevant qualities at the start and then let him acquire other good but needed qualities as the story progresses. But what positive qualities does Sokka start with? You might argue that he starts with bravery and ambition, but the stories don’t portray these qualities positively. On the contrary, from the very start they play him as a doltish, cloddish, clueless nimrod.

I’ve dwelt on Sokka because he’s the one whose failure of characterization is most catastrophic. But the others come off almost as badly, mostly because they are stranded by the writers’ inability to make layered revelations. Instead of flashing us many of their facets, the writers will build an entire episode around one or another big facet, spotlight it until it smokes under the glare, and then completely drop it after the credits roll. Is Katana jealous of Aang because he’s a water prodigy, quicker at picking up the bending art? Why, yes—for one episode. Then the writers drop this promising source of conflict so they can turn Katara herself into a water-bending prodigy by the end of the season. Does Aang develop a serious crush on Katara, so that all their encounters become weird and awkward? Why, yes—for one episode. After that, it’s easier to imagine the Sokka-Katara bickery turning into cutely forbidden incestuous puppy love than to picture their sexless little cueball friend feeling anything but a eunuch’s tepid affection for a colleague. Meanwhile, what little development Prince Zuko gets is done in a talky-talky episode full of backstory exposition, and with a few moments when he ostentatiously refrains from kicking a dog. (The latter moments are offset by other moments when he chases and kicks two dogs, just so we won’t miss the contrast.) Only Uncle Iroh suggests layers and evolves in a believable way; and his evolution feels like the result of writerly neglect as they were busily sucking the life out of their principals.

This stubby-fingered ineptitude even crops up where the series is strongest, in the mythos and the creation of a “secondary world.” The magic is woefully inconsistent and opaque in its rules. Katara quickly metamorphoses in skill from a fumbling and easily discouraged amateur to a master who can presume to instruct and train the Avatar himself, and this happens without an obvious explanation. It does no good to invent excuses—She was getting closer to the north pole! It was that waterbending scroll! The Moon was in Virgo, shopping for shoes!—because this just pushes the lack of explanation back a stage. Any magical object or technique that is introduced into a show has a special responsibility to behave in a predictable way, or else it just becomes the all-purpose fixit for getting characters into and out of trouble at the writers’ convenience.

Which is exactly what it feels like in The Last Airbender. There is no telling from moment to moment how potent someone will prove in battle—no telling, that is, unless you cheat by looking at the DVD clock. If it is two minutes from the climax, then the good guys will suddenly acquire amazing skill, or the bad guys will suddenly lose all of theirs. If it just before the commercial break, on the other hand, the bad guys will display astounding prodigies and the good guys won’t be able to lift a hand without poking themselves in the eye. This sort of thing isn’t unusual in the genre, but there are better and worse ways of handling it. Kryptonite may turn up at convenient moments in a Superman story, but at least its potency doesn’t depend upon when in the story it turns up. Avatar, though, would make kryptonite more dangerous than plutonium at one moment, and as harmless and delicious as fudge at another, if it suited the writers’ needs.

The series also can’t decide how seriously to take questions about logistics. This may seem like a pissant complaint, but more than once the plot will turn upon our heroes’ running out of both food and money, and once you open this kind of door, you can’t close it. If they have run out of provisions and cash by episode ten, how do they survive the subsequent adventures? In one episode a bunch of migrants have to dump all their food before crossing a canyon, yet no one asks the obvious question: What are they supposed to eat once they reach the other side? (This is not a country with a McDonalds at every highway exit.) Of course you’re not supposed to notice such things—like you’re not supposed to wonder how our heroes, if they’ve been airborne for 48 hours, have evacuated their bladders and bowels—but the series will foolishly insist on shoving such issues forward in a way you can’t ignore. Sokka’s bottomless hunger is treated as (another) joke at his expense; but after their empty packs have become an important plot point, why does Katara treat her brother’s interest in food with a lot of eye-rolling and nose-sighing? Isn’t he right to worry that they might starve in the wilderness? Or are Katara and Aang among those fortunate types who can go a whole year on a single grain of rice? The writers would have been wiser to not raise the issue, for in raising it they have violated what we might call the necessary corollary to Chekhov’s Gun: If in the first chapter you’ve established a desperate need for a gun, and yet shown that there are no guns to be had, then in the second and third chapters guns shouldn’t fall out of drawers and cabinets every time someone opens one.

The plots themselves depend too much upon deus ex machina developments. If it isn’t a sudden onset of martial skill, it’s something else. In more than one episode the good guys arrive at a happy ending because the writers took them by the scruff of the neck and dragged them to The Only Person in the Whole History of the World Who Could Possibly Solve Their Problem Du Jour. I almost put my fist through the screen at the point where The Worst Person in the World (And I’m Not Excepting the Fire Lord Either, That’s How Awful He Is) turns out to have once been sweet on someone’s gran-gran—a gran-gran who long ago moved to the other side of the world, no less—and instantly transforms into a cuddlebunny on that account, and everything turns to dimples and sugar, and a little girl’s dreams All Come True.

Now, I have gone on and on (and on and on and on and on and on and on, you may feel) about these things, but it’s not because I feel a special hostility toward this show. It’s because these flaws ruin much that is potentially good in it. It may be—and again, you will probably jump into the talkback to assert just this—that the series shakes off these bad habits and blossoms into something rare and wonderful and life-changing. If so, then good on it and good for you. But as I said at the start, that won’t salvage this first season. And people should not look at the first season of The Last Airbender and think that it contains lessons—except negative ones—on how to do things. It suffers from lazy, contemptuous characterization, banal storylines, and illusion-shattering lapses of logic, largely because the producers (for whatever reason) seemed caught up in imitating the worst aspects of contemporary Disney and DreamWorks movies. A much better example of what Airbender could have been, it seems to me, is The Tower of Druaga, another epic-minded comedy/fantasy series, but one that is much more deft at combining comedy, drama, fantasy, adventure, and sentiment because it is first and foremost about real and recognizable characters with real and recognizable passions and hungers—not pandering, manipulative, plot-driven imitations of these.

All that being said, if you are a fan of the show, you will adore Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Complete Book I (Collector’s Edition), which collects the first twenty episodes on five discs, and comes with two bonus discs of extras. That doesn’t mean you should run out and get it: mostly, it appears to be a repackaging of the 2006 DVD release of Book 1. But it is a magnificent-looking set, coming in a sturdy and beautifully rendered cardboard box. In-box extras include four short documentary featurettes, most of which feel like extended bumpers from the Nickelodeon network: “Behind-the-Scenes with the Avatar Cast & Crew”; “The Making of Avatar: Inside the Sound Studio”; “The Making of Avatar: Inside the Korean Animation Studios”; and “Avatar Pilot Episode with Audio Commentary.” The latter two are the longest and the most worthwhile, though they are not without their wrinkles. “Inside the Korean Animation Studio,” as you can guess, features lots of questions put to some very interesting and affable animators, but I hope you enjoy reading subtitles, because it is a Korean studio. The pilot is shorter than a regular episode, but if there is some way of watching it without the commentary then I couldn’t figure it out. The commentary, by the way, is not very informative, and mostly consists of co-creators Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko talking about how great it all looks. (And, yes, it does look good.)

DiMartino and Konietzko are at the center of the other bonus disc, which is entirely given over to a 30-minute documentary about the making of the series. It’s a well-made and slightly idiosyncratic piece—the director clearly had ambitions to make more than the usual “talking-head” video—and it is much more informative than the sum of the other featurettes. The co-creators, meanwhile, come across as cheerful, unpretentious sorts, which makes the lavish praise directed at them (which they accept with a certain graceful embarrassment) easy to take. There is also a glossy 47-page booklet of The Art of the Animated Series, which advertises an 184-page hardcover. That too looks like it will be very handsome.

Only one thing mars this release: Episodes lack chapter stops.

Those who don’t like double dipping should look askance at the $55.98 list price for this Collectors’ Edition. Those who have the 2006 release may be legitimately tempted by Amazon’s $26.99 discounted price, but they should be aware of what they’d be getting for their money: a handsome and sturdy display box; a 30-minute documentary; and a slick ad for an Avatar book.

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