Ok, so I’m pretty late to the party on this one. Avatar: The Last Airbender is a world famous animated series. It’s American animation, but done in the style of Japanese shonen anime. It’s also kid friendly, something that is very evident in the early episodes. For a long time, despite many assurance from friends that the series was very good, I had trouble getting past those first few episodes.
But a few weeks ago, after reading about the upcoming live action remake, I decided I needed to watch the show, and so powered through those early episodes. I started find it pretty compelling about the middle of the first season. Although its mostly episodic nature never really drew me into binge mode.
The setting is a fantasy world, with a roughly 19th century feel, but one where some people are able to telekinetically manipulate one of the classic elements: earth, air, fire, or water. They are known as benders, who do fire bending, earth bending, water bending, etc. But any individual bender can only bend one element. This has resulted in four cultures existing in the world, the Earth Kingdom, Fire Nation, Water Tribes, and Air Nomads.
Only one individual is capable of bending all the elements, the Avatar. The Avatar is reincarnated when they die. They have to be identified in their new incarnation each time. In typical reincarnation fashion, they have no memory of their past lives, and so have to be trained in bending all the elements in each lifetime, requiring them to find teachers. Traditionally, the Avatar deals with disputes between the kingdoms and keeps the world in balance.
However, at the beginning of the series, the Avatar has been missing for a century. In their absence, the Fire Nation has set out to conquer the world, leading to a century of warfare.
But in the first episode, a couple of Water Tribe teenagers stumble on a boy who appears to be frozen in ice. When they free him, they discover he is Aang, the missing Avatar. Aang is 12, and while a formidable air bender, can’t bend any of the other elements yet. And the Fire Nation is looking for him.
The show is famous for dealing with themes of war, genocide, discrimination, imperialism, authoritarianism, etc, as well as delving into eastern philosophies and themes of honor and redemption. As noted above, it has a very anime feel to it. At times it can feel a bit dark, but it’s a gentle kid friendly darkness. Almost no one dies, at least not onscreen. Which isn’t to say there aren’t epic battles and frequent mass destruction.
Overall, I enjoyed and recommend it, if like me you’ve somehow managed not to watch it yet. The characters are compelling, including the villains, some of which have interesting redemption arcs. And many of the battle sequences, particularly the one with the big bad guy of the series, are pretty impressive.
But I wouldn’t say it’s perfect. I’m not wild about characters born to be great. I prefer stories where characters carve out their own greatness. The series does often emphasize that people control their own destiny, but it’s somewhat muddled by the Avatar and their inherent role.
It also would have been good to learn more about this world and its history. The series does cover the source of some of the bending, and we find out about past Avatars, but a lot of questions remain unanswered.
Still, the series is a lot of fun and worth checking out.
Netflix is working on a live action remake. Given their past performance (see Cowboy Bebop), I’m not optimistic, particularly since the guys who created the original show dropped out of the remake’s development. But it means that, for now, the original and its sequel series: The Legend of Korra, are available on Netflix.
Have you seen the show? If so, what did you think?