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Hello everyone, and welcome to the conclusion of this extremely protracted First Thoughts series! It’s hard to believe I began over a year ago with The Adventures of Prince Achmed, but now we’ve finally reached Avatar: The Last Airbender, the classic Nickelodeon show that I never got around to watching as a kid. I have no good excuse – it’s just that by 2005, I was beginning to leave Nickelodeon behind somewhat, as they were cancelling most of my favourite shows and beginning to rely more and more heavily on SpongeBob. Avatar’s unusual art style and sequential plot structure also put me off (clearly, I had no taste back then), so unfortunately I never gave it a chance. Then, a few years ago, some friends of mine who were really into anime sat me down to watch the first episode, and I was intrigued enough to add it to my watchlist. Why oh why didn’t I watch this sooner?
As fans will already know, Avatar was produced for Nick by co-creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, with Aaron Ehasz serving as the show’s head writer. Set in a fictional Asiatic-inspired world, the story follows the adventures of Aang, a young boy who happens to be the latest incarnation of the all-powerful “Avatar” – an ancient being who is responsible for maintaining balance between the four nations, as well as bridging the divide between the physical and spiritual worlds.
After encasing himself in ice to escape a terrible storm, Aang becomes trapped for a hundred years, during which time a huge war erupts between the Fire Nation and the rest of the world. To make matters worse, certain members of each nation are able to use telekinetic variants of Chinese martial arts known as “bending”, with only the Avatar able to wield all four types – and Aang has only mastered one. Over the course of the show, and with the help of his new friends and teachers, Aang must master the other three types of bending so that he can put a stop to the war and save the world.
Konietzko explained that the series was first conceived in early 2001, with a sketch of a balding, middle-aged man whom he re-imagined as a child herding bison in the sky. DiMartino, meanwhile, had been watching a documentary about explorers trapped at the South Pole, and he loved the sketch when Konietzko showed it to him, suggesting a race of fire people “pressing down” on a race of snow people. The core concept for the story developed from there, and they successfully pitched their idea to Nick’s then vice-president and executive producer, Eric Coleman, just two weeks later.
The series was notable for taking a great deal of inspiration from various cultures (mainly Asian ones) for everything from its art style and action to its music and plot. Although an American creation, the series was done in a style which combined anime with western-style cartoons, drawing on South Asian, New World, Inuit and Sireniki influences for the designs of its various locales. It was animated mostly by the South Korean studios JM Animation (who did 32 episodes), DR Movie (19 episodes) and MOI Animation (10 episodes).
Cultural consultant Edwin Zane and calligrapher Siu-Leung Lee helped determine the show’s settings and art direction, which would come to include character designs influenced by Chinese art and history, Yoga, Hinduism, Taoism and Buddhism. Elsewhere, Jeremy Zuckerman and Benjamin Wynn were responsible for crafting the series’ music and sound design, and they experimented with a wide range of geographically appropriate instruments like the guzheng, pipa and duduk. Many of the fictional locations were based on real-life places, with China’s Great Wall and Forbidden City serving as the inspiration for Earth Kingdom capital Ba Sing Se, the Yellow Crane Tower inspiring the Fire Temple, and Inuit and Sireniki settlements providing the basis for Water Tribe locations. Apparently, the early designs for the Fire Nation were explicitly Japanese, but given the way that nation is portrayed in the show, the designs became more “broadly inspired” later on to avoid making any unfortunate implications about Japan, incorporating a more Chinese aesthetic to balance things out.
Of course, Avatar is best known for its “bending”, a series of complicated magical fighting styles employed by several of the major characters. The gestures and movements for these were derived from various types of Chinese martial arts, with Sifu Kisu of the Harmonious First Chinese Athletic Association serving as a consultant. Waterbenders’ movements were based on T’ai chi, with a focus on alignment, body structure, breath and visualisation, while Hung Gar, with its “firmly rooted stances and powerful strikes”, inspired the earthbenders. Firebending required strong arm and leg movements that were represented by Northern Shaolin, and Ba Gua’s dynamic circular movements and quick directional changes were perfect for airbending. Toph, a blind earthbender who develops a unique fighting style of her own, drew her techniques from Chu Gar Southern Praying Mantis style.
The show’s cast was led by Zach Tyler Eisen in the role of Aang, along with Mae Whitman as Katara and Jack De Sena as Sokka, the two water tribe teens who find Aang and join him on his mission. Dante Basco turned in an unforgettable performance in the demanding role of Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation, joined by the wonderful Mako as his Uncle Iroh for the first two books (Greg Baldwin inherited the role for the final book after Mako’s tragic passing from cancer). Grey DeLisle (now Griffin) is also a standout as Zuko’s malicious sister Azula, as is Michaela Jill Murphy in the role of Toph Beifong, a talented earthbender who joins the group. There are plenty of other great performances throughout the show, including Jennie Kwan as Suki of the Kyoshi Warriors, Dee Bradley Baker as both Appa and Momo and, of course, the ham king himself Mark Hamill as Fire Lord Ozai, but I’ll save a full cast list for another time.
Having finally seen Avatar sixteen years late, I’m just sorry that I didn’t make time for it back in the day. Guys, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you this, but it’s so good. The whole thing is fabulously written and directed, with excellent pacing that alternates between light-hearted and solemn episodes even into the final season, when things start to get more serious for Aang. I didn’t realise going into this how funny it would be, either; the writers made great use of deadpan, sarcastic humour which surprised me, since I didn’t think that style was as popular in America. Even episodes which might otherwise have been “filler” are enormously entertaining here – The Beach, Nightmares and Daydreams and The Ember Island Players are all a riot, especially impressive when you consider that the latter is just a clever plot recap episode!
On the more sombre side of things, the show is great at stirring up real emotion with its nuanced depiction of the effects of war, and episodes like Tales of Ba Sing Se and Appa’s Lost Days are already well-known among fans as tearjerkers. The same goes for the epic four-part series finale, Sozin’s Comet, which I was glad to see did not end in quite the way that we – or indeed, the characters – expected; the creators stuck firmly to their anti-war theme and resolved things peacefully, thereby keeping Aang’s character consistent as well.
What really sets Avatar apart, though, is its incredible character development. Its rare even today to see this level of depth and complexity in animated characters, but Avatar shows us what a difference such details can make to the quality of an already strong show. The core “gaang”, consisting of Aang, Katara, Sokka, Appa and Momo, and later rounded out by Toph, Suki and Zuko, are each given distinct personality types, skills and personal goals, with each of them going through unique struggles that grow and shape their characters over the course of the three books. A believable chemistry is developed between them that quickly gets the audience on board with their plight, and the writers frequently separate them to fully explore the different dynamics between each member (as Toph jokes in the last season, she ends up being the only one who doesn’t get a “life-changing field trip” with Zuko).
You might expect a “kid’s show” from a network like Nickelodeon to be very black-and-white in its depiction of war, demonising the Fire Nation and rendering its people into cardboard villains to be defeated – but you’d be wrong. No character, save perhaps Fire Lord Ozai, is portrayed as totally irredeemable, with even the cruelty of Azula being properly contextualised so that by the time of her final downfall, you actually find yourself feeling rather sorry for her. The effects of the Hundred Year War on members of the different nations are presented as realistically as the context will allow, showing us the indoctrination and propaganda that keeps those in the Fire Nation believing in the cause, while also exposing characters like Zuko to the pain and loss endured by the citizens of other nations. With characters like Jet, a rebel fighter who has begun to turn to darker methods in his efforts to stamp out the Fire Nation, and Hama, an elderly waterbender whose abuse at the hands of the Fire Nation has twisted her into a monster, the show also does not shy away from the idea that evil begets evil, that “good” people can do “bad” things under the right circumstances, and that war makes victims of everybody.
Personally, my single favourite aspect of the show has got to be Zuko and his intriguing character arc. It’s hardly an original opinion, I know, but there’s no overstating how integral this character was to the show’s success. Initially presented as your basic one-dimensional villain to escape from, Zuko goes through a long, painful transformation over the course of the show’s three books, encouraged by his Uncle Iroh to question the path he has always felt pressured to conform to by his family until he finally abandons it altogether. Destiny, he learns, is not fixed or defined by other people, but lies within a person’s own hands – as Hogarth Hughes once put it, “You are who you choose to be”. Zuko tries desperately to be the perfect Fire Nation prince, determined to hunt down the Avatar and impress his father, but as he sees the effects of his nation’s war on the world and begins to dig deeper inside himself, he slowly realises that he’s on the wrong side. We yearn for the catharsis of his redemption, just as Iroh does, making his acceptance into the “gaang” all the sweeter when it comes – from outcast prince to benevolent Fire Lord, Zuko’s arc has to be one of the most satisfying in animated television. Witnessing his internal struggles with his own morality, you almost forget that this is a Nicktoon at times.
I could go on, honestly, but I think it’d be best if I come back to this show someday for a full review; it certainly deserves it. Unsurprisingly, it was a massive ratings success in its original run and received acclaim for just about every aspect of its production – critics and audiences were unanimous in declaring it one of the best cartoons ever made. The fact that it presented such adult themes as war, genocide, imperialism, totalitarianism, indoctrination and the concept of free choice in a way that young audiences could digest was a particular point of praise, as was the superb character writing.
Avatar scooped up five Annie Awards, a Genesis Award, a Primetime Emmy, a Kid’s Choice Award and a Peabody Award, and the franchise was later extended to include an ongoing series of comics, a prequel novel series, an animated sequel series called The Legend of Korra (which fans were much more divided about) and an infamous live-action adaptation from 2010, courtesy of M. Knight Shyamalan, which almost everybody agreed was one of the worst travesties ever put to film. The show was also recently made available for streaming – notably on Netflix – and is now enjoying a resurgence in popularity that I am enthusiastically taking part in. Netflix are even producing a live-action remake of the show, although I don’t know whether it’s worth getting excited about that (I mean, is it even necessary?).
Avatar is definitely a new favourite for me, and I will be eagerly revisiting it one day once I can get on top of my life again. It’s been a long road getting here from Prince Achmed last year, but I’m glad I was able to end this First Thoughts series on such a fantastic note. Now, though, I must continue to do battle with The Incredibles, which has been stalled for weeks. Unfortunately, finding the time and energy to produce the full-length film reviews is becoming harder and harder to do; I now work about forty hours a week on average and my rare days off are needed for chores, errands and relaxation. I love to write and always have done, but with so much other work to do, I find myself procrastinating because I simply don’t have the energy for more work, even if it is for a hobby I care about.
From here on out, I won’t make any more promises about when to expect film reviews, but I will strive to deliver at least one article a month – even if it is only a book review. I miss writing about the films I love and I’m impatient to kick off the Pixar season which was meant to start over the summer, but I don’t want to do a hack job; The Incredibles deserves my full attention, so it’s best to wait until I have the energy to really dig into it. It will come, somehow, someday.
Thank you as always for reading, and until next time, take care and staaay animated!
https://avatar.fandom.com/wiki/Opening_sequence – credit for logo
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0417299/ – IMDb profile