Threepenny Thursday – Avatar: The Last Airbender

12 Jul

I finished watching this show about two weeks ago, and have been feverishly telling anyone who’ll listen (and many who would prefer not to) that it’s the greatest thing since canned beer. I realize I have a tendency to lean toward the hyperbolic, but it isn’t an exaggeration in the slightest to say that Avatar: The Last Airbender is the best cartoon I’ve ever seen. And considering that I’ve seen everything from Spongebob to Samurai Jack, that’s a big claim. There are a lot of cartoons out there.

In the following paragraphs, and with the minimum amount of foaming purple prose, I will attempt to explicate why I enjoyed this show so much, and why I think it’s worth your time. No matter how old you are, no matter what you’re into, everybody with an imagination and a heart has something to gain by watching it. And if it helps, everyone I’ve spoken to who’s seen it has felt exactly the same way as I do.

The show takes place in a fictional universe based on mystical Asian culture, some of whose inhabitants can “bend” (i.e. telekinetically manipulate) the elements of earth, air, fire, and water through fighting styles similar to Chinese martial arts. Only one person can bend all four elements: the Avatar, reincarnated in turn among the four nations of the world, meant to bring balance to all life. The story picks up with two teenage members of the Southern Water Tribe, the brother-sister duo of Katara (a wise and nurturing Waterbender) and Sokka (a bumbling non-bending warrior boy). They stumble upon a block of ice containing a twelve-year-old Airbender named Aang, who turns out to be the latest iteration of the Avatar.

Together, they must face unbelievable odds and an apocalyptic threat as Aang learns to master all four elements and prepares to defeat the overlord of the evil Fire Nation.

From the first episode, the characterization is shockingly strong for a children’s show. The dialogue is tight and engaging, and the voice acting is well-cast and well-executed. Right off the bat, you like the characters you’re meant to like and hate the ones you’re meant to hate. Aang is crazy loveable, a fun and flighty monk-child with godlike power and an innocent soul. His teammates, essentially sidekicks at the beginning, grow into formidable and compelling characters in their own right. In fact, the character growth is probably one of the strongest parts of the show: over three seasons, we see alliances forged and broken, friendships won and lost, and bravery and maturity in the face of tremendous change. It is as much a story about growing up as anything else, and the reason you get hooked is because you really like Aang and his friends, and you want to share that journey with them. Their spiritual growth is just as important as improving their martial skills, and it works because you care.

Speaking of martial skills, I couldn’t go another sentence without talking about the fighting. Each element’s bending style is rooted in a real Chinese form: the speed and power of Shaolin kung fu provides Firebending’s aggressive strikes, while Waterbending’s fluid movements are born of Tai Chi. Earthbending’s firmly-rooted stances and immovability come from Hung Gar and Southern Praying Mantis Style, and Airbending is represented through the circular movements and direction-changing energy of Ba Gua. And, oh yeah: it’s turbo badass. Cool kung fu fights are one thing, but cool kung fu fights where fire and rocks and shit are flying around? Yes thank you I believe I’ll have seconds.

Avatar rips along at a satisfying clip, balancing character development with lots and lots of elemental action. The ones who are most often providing the catalyst for that action are the bad guys, who are too numerous and too awesome to individually name. I will tell you that this guy,

Fire Nation Crown Prince Zuko, and this guy,

his uncle, the retired Fire Nation General Iroh, are my two favourite characters on the show. Without spoiling anything, I can say that their arc across Avatar‘s three seasons is truly incredible, just masterfully done. Drama is only ever as good as its conflict, and a story is only ever as compelling as its antagonists. Part of the reason I really enjoyed this show was the fact that its bad guys were among the best I’ve ever seen.

Jesus, I could go on and on – the supporting cast is excellent too, not one single character out of place or without use (and in some cases, the smallest people become the most memorable). The sound design is spot on, and the music is full of that driving kung fu kettle-drum percussion and lilting Chinese flute-playing that make anything sound austere and dignified. The animation is an awesome bit of East-West alchemy, infusing American cartoon tropes with anime inspiration and flair. Just as bending takes its shape from real martial forms, so too does the philosophy mirror actual spiritual teachings: there are elements of Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism woven throughout the design of the show. Chi and life energy are prominently used, and at one point Aang actually apprentices under a sadhu yogi who teaches him how to unlock his chakras. This is the best kind of fiction: made-up stuff that is rooted in fascinating truth. Grounding of that kind really helps us, as an audience, connect with the material.

In conclusion, I hope that you’ll take my advice and give Avatar: The Last Airbender a try. Hey, it’s on Netflix, so it’s easy to get to. It’s a kid’s show, so it’s very digestable at three seasons of twenty episodes (each twenty two minutes).

You know that feeling you get, that light-headed warm-body “feel good” feeling that washes over you when the credits roll after a deeply satisfying movie? That’s what this show will do to you. ‘Nuff said. Go watch it. I await your return, so we can talk about how awesome of a time you just had.

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