Avatar: The Last Airbender
Originally posted at slangards.multiply.com on Apr 27, '09
Once in a long while, there's a story that is just so unbelievably good that you literally can not stop until you've reached the end. Of all the movies, TV shows, comics, and books I've read, there are only a few that become part of the geeky slush that fills my brainpan. The Star Wars saga (if you ask "Which ones?" I will smack you), Transformers (again, mention Bay and I will smack you), Claremont's X-Men, The Dark Knight Returns... Those are a few of the yarns that make up the framework of what I am.
The stories above were all introduced to me during my formative years, when I still wanted to be a colonial marine or a debonair archaeologist with a fedora. Unfortunately, I no longer have the same sense of wonder I once felt when the Enterprise broke the past the Warp barrier in "Where No Man Has Gone Before". Nowadays, I approach each new story, each new book with a degree of cynicism that borders on the pessimistic.
Which is exactly how I felt about the Nickolodeon cartoon series, Avatar: The Last Airbender.
The series, created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, isn't really an "anime" cartoon, but my initial reaction to it was that it was another childish, never-ending series of pointless battles like Dragonball or any number of Japanese TV programs. I frankly didn't want to bother with another boring show with one-dimensional characters whose sole purpose is to pose heroically as the "next week on..." screen pops up.
When I finally decided to give the show a chance, I was immediately drawn into the world created by the authors. Much like high fantasy novels like The Wheel of Time, the world of the Airbenders is rich with culture and alive with danger. It's at once familiar and yet totally wondrous. Politics, War, Genocide, Love, Hate, Retribution and Redemption all play a part in the show's 3 season run.
I'm sure you're familiar with the plot; world needs a messiah and one is prophecied to appear. In this story, the messiah is the Avatar, a child born once in a generation that can bend all four elements; Water, Fire, Earth and Air. He is the soul of the previous Avatars re-incarnated and a vessel for their wisdom and power. But unsure that he is ready to take up the responsibility of savior, he runs away and dissapears.
The evil Fire Nation, a kingdom of Firebenders, takes advantage of his dissappearance and conquers the rest of the world, ruling over the Water Tribe and Earth Kingdom, and exterminating the Avatar's people in their Air Temples. 100 years pass and he is discovered frozen in ice at the South Pole. The cartoon follows the Avatar as he learns what has happened to the world he left behind and what he must do to save it.
The cartoon series is populated with a great cast of characters, from the lost Avatar, Aang, to the exiled Fire Price, Zuko. All of them go through their own arcs during the the show, learning and growing as the writers reveal more and more of their world. The story follows Aang as he learns how to control the other elements of Water, Earth and Fire, meeting interesting people and escaping from his enemies.
The fight scenes are gorgeous, a testament to the animators. They aren't like anything I've seen before in Japanese or American animation. For that matter, I've never seen fight choreography like this in live action movies. Each bending style is based on a real world martial art that reflects the core of that kingdom's spirit. Water is adaptive and Waterbenders focus on breath and visualization of their goals. Their movements are copied from Tai Chi. Northern Shaolin Kung Fu uses strong arm and leg strikes, perfect for the Firebenders rage-fueled art. Bāguàzhǎng, a martial art whose practitioners are known for the ability flow in and out of the way of objects is what Airbenders use. Hung Ga Kuen, from Southern China, is famous for it's immovable stances and hammer strikes which reflects the skill that Earthbenders need to move rock.
The culture of each society is just as rich as their martial arts. The Water Tribe is a nomadic people like the American Indians or Eskimos. The Air Nomads were monks who isolated themsleves from the other peoples in magnificent temples. The Earth Kingdom was a thriving city society. And the Fire Nation is a nation of soldiers whose goal is glory. Each has it's own customs and character which shows through in the main cast.
Though the show only runs 3 seasons, don't worry, you won't be dissappointed when the end comes. The final 2-hour "movie" is something that gets you out of your seat, gasping at every matte painting and effect. When the climactic battle finally comes, you're holding your breath, anxious despite years of saturday morning cartoons telling you that good always wins over evil.
But believe me when I say, you're going to hate leaving these characters as much as Frodo and the Hobbits of Middle-Earth.