Aug 14, 2010 – There are many, many cartoons that come and go, relying on poor fart jokes, slapstick, simple stories and minimalistic artistry to capture their audience. They spark in the air, fall hard to the ground and get swept off to that watery graveyard of lost memories. But then there are some cartoons that surpass the chaff and show the power of their medium while becoming iconic pieces of popular culture that remain important and enjoyable for all time as works of art. Batman: The Animated Series was one of the best examples of this. It was a show that combined smart writing, voice acting and skillful animation into one grand work that remains a staple of animated television shows now and well into the future. There are not enough animated shows like that. The hall of fame is a small one.
But thankfully, every once and a while, something emerges from the ice of television business to grow into something that bends all the elements of a good show into something more than its parts. Avatar: The Last Airbender is a cartoon show of such caliber as to be inducted into the upper echelons instantly; becoming a classic alongside the aforementioned Batman: The Animated Series and the few others that achieve the same.
I came to the series after having watched the dreadful M. Night Shyamalan film translation (or butchering, perhaps?) and I admit that the film clouded my first impressions of the series. But as I watched, the values of the show that the film lacked became apparent. Not only was the television format more conducive to the plot structure, but it also allowed for far more time to build characterization and a sense of time and place. Characters who were mere cardboard cut-outs in the film, with wretched dialogue, became greater and more fleshed out. The performances were better, and far more alive. In the biggest turn, the sad Avatar of the film was replaced with the child-like, joyful and yet complex Aang of the TV show. The show may have suffered slightly through the first Book(season) for how much I hated the film, but each season was better than the last, perfectly building upon what came before to set up something deeper and better.
The story is only generic in the sense that certain characters fit archetypes very well, Aang as the happy-go-lucky hero, Zuko as the outcast Prince, Sokka as the straight-guy to the fantasy around him, etc. What makes the show surpass cliché is how well the archetypes are done, with each character fitting the mold naturally according to their situation, personality and the events of the plot, rather than being forcefully adherent to predefined rules of how some character type should act. The terrific character arc for Zuko, taking him from pure adolescent rage born from shame, to his very different emotional range near the end, is especially arresting and gratifying.
The plotting, while being a simple tale of the hero’s journey, and of war between an evil empire and disparate nations, only appears simple from the widest perspective. The way the war is fought and portrayed is far more nuanced than it might appear at first glance. The hero’s journey follows a well worn but somehow never quite predictable path. What would be cliché in a lesser story is made iconic and polished in Avatar: TLA.
The voice acting is top-notch with only a few occasions where things felt too stiff or overdone. The ability of the people behind the voices to convey emotion and subtext far surpasses the ability of the live action counterparts from the recent summer blockbuster. It’s the voice acting that truly sells the already well done dialogue, and it is especially important when a character slips into exposition, which happens regularly enough to notice, but not enough to become annoying.
The animation compliments the story with expressive faces that are unique to each character, wonderful backdrops and smooth frame to frame transition. The style is, as has been noted by many, a blend of Anime and Western design, which could have been a failure, but instead borrows the strengths of both. Whether it was the writers or the animators or perhaps someone else entirely, the animated combat sequences are some of the best, most creative and most fluid I’ve ever seen in a cartoon. In some cartoons, combat is either boring or repetitive. Dragon Ball Z, and many other similar anime shows, waste loads of time with characters staring menacingly at one another while they power up for their next attack. Avatar never wastes time. Each scene is full of new frantic action that uses the environment and abilities of each character as skillfully as such a character might do in real life. And the fights themselves are expressive, carrying far more emotional weight than most fights in cartoons. Altogether, it’s the best action cartoon ever created.
To top everything off, the music is varied, appropriate and memorable. The composer made good use of exotic instruments to accompany the story in such a way as to punctuate the narrative without ever really drawing attention to itself.
Perhaps the strongest aspect of the show is the creator’s ability to know how to limit their story. Some shows will drag on and on forever, creating ever thinner plot threads in an effort to continue their run on television. This show is only three seasons long, despite its monumental success. There are filler episodes here and there, yes. But they are few, and still fun while doing a good job of illuminating characters and motivations. Each season is better than the last, and it has an epic, emotionally satisfying and climactic end.
I’m laying down a lot of praise for Avatar: The Last Airbender. While I wonder if I wouldn’t tone down the exclamations of praise a tad with more distance between myself and the show (I’m still on the high of finishing the last episode earlier today,) I know that it will remain one of my favorites even still. If you are an anime fan, a cartoon fan, a fantasy fan, an Asian culture fan, or simply a fan of well told stories, then give this a go. In the end, the best thing I feel I can ever say about a piece of art or entertainment is that I was sad that it was over, and this show fits that qualification thoroughly.
STAR RATING: (5 Stars)
For those of you who stuck around after the rating, I’ve got a segment called Spoiler Talk. This is a segment in which I discuss what I thought of certain elements of the story that is too spoilerish for the main review. What I say here doesn’t ever trump my review, instead it might give insight into what exactly made me give something the score I did. So let’s get started.
Whew. That finale was pretty sweet, huh? My favorite part was actually not Aang kicking the Phoenix King’s butt, but rather the portrayal of Azula’s character. Up until the end she was one of the most flatly evil characters of the show, making for an oppressive presence, but with little real character insight other than some vague hints about mommy issues. But the last couple of episodes did a lot to show just how fractured her mind really was. Looking back on the series, you can almost see the cracks showing. In reality she could have exploded into full-on looney bin territory at any time. She was a very fragile individual in the end, and I felt it was shown marvelously.
I’m not certain whom I would label my favorite character, I love them all for different reasons. But if I were forced to choose it might be Zuko, simply because of his wonderful character arc (Yeah, he makes a great good-guy at the end.) Also high on my list would be his uncle Iroh, who would make a perfect grandfather to just about anyone, methinks. Characters that surprised me for how much I liked them in the end included Mae, Zuko’s girlfriend, Sokka, who is easy to write off for being the regular guy of the bunch, and finally Azula, whom I’ve already talked about. I don’t actually like her, but I think she’s a wonderful evil character.
Her, and her father’s plan to commit genocide on the Earth Nation was a great way to raise the stakes after the defeat and conquest of Ba Sing Se. That’s something the writers truly knew how to balance well, increasing the danger and stakes every episode while never extinguishing the hope entirely.
Also of note were the White Lotuses. I found their involvement throughout the series to be nicely subtle, with their final appearance to be fun and interesting, though it was completely overshadowed by the other two fronts of the war being fought simultaneously. The fact that Iroh’s presence in the story was decrease severely near the end was necessary for Zuko’s development, but I still missed him.
The episode with the play put on about Aang and the group was also very well done, managing multiple responsibilities creatively. Not only did it give a recap of the story from beginning to end and provide relief from the building tension, but it also gave an opportunity for further character growth, interaction and self-reflection. On top of all that, it showed that the writers are capable of poking fun at their own work, which is endearing on one level, and comforting in another. It reassure the audience that, yes, they do know what they are doing, and every turn of the story is well thought out.
There are so many things I could talk about, from how cool the air-ball that Aang can travel on is, to the integration and alienation of the spirit world. I think I’ll refrain from going any further here, however, as there’s only so many hours in an evening.
On one final note, that poor cabbage merchant is one hilarious and long-running gag. I don’t think I ever tired of it.
– Edward L. Cheever II