In Which I Fanboy Over Avatar: The Last Airbender

We’ve finally finished watching all three seasons of Avatar: The Last Airbender. I’m going to go ahead and say this is one of the best shows I’ve ever watched. Here’s the official show description from the website, for anyone who’s unfamiliar with it:

Water. Earth. Fire. Air. Only the Avatar was the master of all four elements. Only he could stop the ruthless Fire Nation from conquering the world. But when the world needed him most, he disappeared. Until now…

On the South Pole, a lone Water Tribe village struggles to survive. It’s here that a young Waterbender named Katara and her warrior brother Sokka rescue a strange boy named Aang from a cavernous iceberg. Not only is Aang an Airbender–a race of people no one has seen in a century–but they soon discover that Aang is also the long lost Avatar. Now it’s up to Katara and Sokka to make sure Aang faces his destiny to save the tribe–and himself. Did we mention he’s only 12?

I don’t know how best to talk about a three-season, 61-episode show, so I’m just going to randomly celebrate some of the things that made it work so well for me.

The Characters: Almost without exception, every character has his/her own personality and story arc. The Big Bad Fire Lord was pretty much the only one who struck me as one-dimensional, and that’s partly because he barely even shows up until the very end. Everyone else felt fully human. They struggle. They make mistakes. You can connect and sympathize with almost everyone, even the villains. These are interesting people, and I wanted to spend more time with them.

The Animation: This is a beautifully animated show, from the background artwork to the various spirit creatures to the different cultural styles of dress and architecture to my particular favorite, the gracefulness of the four styles of bending. It’s gorgeous to look at.

The Joy: Aang’s backstory is incredibly painful. He’s the last of his people, a hundred years out of his time, and is tasked with saving the world. At the age of twelve. Yet he never loses his joy in the world. He jokes, he laughs, he plays, he dances. He believes in people … but not to the point of foolishness. The show hits notes of both very real pain and ridiculous silliness (poor cabbage guy), and the full range in between. That’s a hard thing to do well, and incredibly powerful when done right.

I’m putting the rest behind a cut tag, because of spoilers…




The Last Airbender Movie and Cultural Appropriation

Last week I talked about the first season of Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Well, my son had been curious about the live-action movie, and when I saw it was on TV this weekend, I recorded it so we could watch it together.

I had heard some of the controversy about the casting choices. (I’m not going to rehash the racebending fail here, but seriously, Hollywood – WTF??? And every time we saw Katara and Sokka or their grandmother, I kept wondering why M. Night Shyamalan thought this movie needed white people playing Inuit dress-up.)

Overall … I’m just going to quote my son, who said, “Well, I guess there were some parts I kind of liked.”

This was almost a beat-for-beat imitation of the first season of the cartoon, but with all of the magic and wonder and brilliance sucked out of the story. I did like a lot of the visuals, the way the movie brought to life the images from the cartoon. There were some good set pieces, and I liked seeing live-action bending. But all in all, this movie perfectly demonstrates that there’s more to telling a good story than just an idea or an outline of plot points.

As I was watching, my thoughts kept going to some of the more egregious instances of cultural appropriation in storytelling, by which I mean those stories where an author takes the “shiny bits” from other cultures and uses them in his or her story without any real understanding of that culture. This was driven home again and again as I sat through the movie, particularly by the fact that they couldn’t even pronounce the main character’s name right.

Shyamalan had some shiny bits: the big fire-nation ships, Sokka’s boomerang whipping around, Aang’s glider, nifty scenery pieces like the water tribe city, and of course, lots of bending. And it all somehow managed to be both flat and hollow (which I would have sworn was a physical impossibility).

What makes Aang work in the series isn’t just his responsibilities and his pain; it’s his joy. Aang plays. He creates fun and joy and delight, even in the midst of tragedy. That’s part of his power. When that Aang tells Zuko he thinks they could have been friends, you feel it. Dang, do you feel it. But when Noah Ringer says it, it’s empty and boring.

It was interesting seeing Appa and Momo brought to life, and there were one or two vaguely amusing scenes with Appa, but once again they were just there. You don’t see Aang’s love for his animal companions. You don’t get any sense that Appa is Aang’s one remaining connection to his past. You could erase Momo entirely from the movie, and absolutely nothing would change.

And then there’s Zuko and Iroh. Oh, M. Night Shyamalan, no. We see hints of Zuko’s depth and conflict, but they’re fleeting. Momentary flashes to torture us with what could have been. And Uncle Iroh … such an amazing character in the cartoon. Confident and strong, at peace with his tortured past, so incredibly protective and loving of his nephew. He’s amazing. Like Aang, he has learned to find joy. Having lived through war, he’s learned the value of peace, but push him too far or threaten his nephew, and he will end you.

And for Iroh, M. Night Shyamalan brings us … some guy sprawled out getting a foot massage from a girl. A man who stands there and watches the moon spirit get stabbed, and then lashed out with impressive but utterly ineffectual firebending, which only makes him look more useless.

Shyamalan has said he’s a fan of the show, that his daughter dressed up as Katara for Halloween, and that he and his family used to watch Avatar together. During development, the creators of the show talked about how Shyamalan respected their material (source).

Maybe he is a fan, I don’t know. All I can say is that watching this movie gave me flashbacks to college and that white kid who filled every wall and surface of their dorm room with Native American stuff they bought from the mall.

Stealing shiny bits isn’t enough. Sure, it might look pretty, but when you don’t understand or respect the source of your story, you’re left with a shallow mockery.

Avatar, Season One

After enjoying The Legend of Korra so much, I bought the first season of Avatar: The Last Airbender, and have been watching it with my son.

Quick synopsis from the back of the box:

After a lapse of 100 years, the Avatar–spiritual master of the elements–has returned. And just in the nick of time. The Four Nations (Water, Earth, Fire, and Air) have become unbalanced. The Fire Nation wants to rule the world, and its first conquest will be the Northern Water Tribe. It’s up to a 12-year-old Airbender named Aang to find a way to stop it…

It’s strange watching this after Korra. I feel like I’m moving backwards. The animation isn’t as sharp or polished, and the stories aren’t quite as tight. Avatar also feels like it’s targeted at a younger audience. (Which makes sense … Korra would be going after that same fanbase, now older.)

I enjoyed season one, and have already picked up and started watching season two. (We just met Toph Beifong tonight – woo hoo!) I think my favorite aspect of the show is Aang’s sense of fun and playfulness. I’m rather fond of characters who can find the joy in life, and that feels like something Korra sometimes lacked.

Of course, Avatar has it dark moments too … at times you sense that Aang’s childlike antics are covering up his grief and fear, his pain at sleeping away a hundred years, awakening to find everyone he knew dead and gone. (Almost everyone.) Not to mention his guilt at what’s happened to the world while he slept. You see how much this Avatar business weighs Aang down, and while he makes mistakes, he keeps struggling to take care of his responsibilities.

I felt like they weren’t entirely sure what to do with Katara and Sokka, Aang’s Water Tribe companions, at first. Katara apparently took a course in speed-bending, going from a very novice waterbender to a master over the course of a few episodes. Sokka, being the only nonbender in the trio, occasionally feels like a third wheel. He has some good moments and some good lines, but can’t quite keep up with the butt-whooping abilities of the other two.

And then there’s our antagonists, Prince Zuko and his Uncle Iroh. These two are, in my opinion, the best characters in the series. Zuko is wonderfully broken, determined to capture the avatar in order to prove himself to his father and redeem his alleged dishonor. And Uncle Iroh is just awesome, a warrior who’s been through hell and eventually found his way out to peace. He’s a man who takes joy everywhere he can find it, because he knows how quickly it can all end. Also, despite his portly appearance, he’s a total badass. Their relationship is wonderful, with Iroh trying so hard to help his nephew, even while it rips Zuko apart inside that he can’t get that same love from his father.

Overall, this felt like a first season, a show that stumbled a bit as it tried to find its way … but it’s a good first season. There were episodes that fell into more predictable paths (of course Aang doesn’t deliver the map to Katara and Sokka … sigh), but even in these early episodes you can see the story starting to take on more complex conflicts and veering away from easy answers. And while it’s a show aimed for children, it also shows some of the pain and loss and horror of war.

I approve, and will be watching the rest of season two post haste!

Jim C. Hines