The Magic of Animation: Avatar

Avatar: The Last Airbender

Spoiler Alert!!  While I will not reveal every secret of this show, I will be getting into the details, which will give away some of the storyline and character development.  I hope I shared enough to convince you to watch the show.  There is so much more that is hard to fit into a single blog post. 😊

At the time of this writing, this show is available for viewing on Netflix (US) and available for digital or physical purchase.

World Building:

We start on a world split into four nations: Air, Earth, Water, and Fire.  Each nation has its own culture, but the belief systems is all based on The Avatar.  Select people from each nation have the ability to “bend” an element that corresponds to their nation.  It is considered a gift.  A person with this gift (called a “bender”) usually tried to develop their gift to improve.  If they are lucky, they will find a master to teach them to control their abilities.  While only a few have this gift, the Avatar has the ability to wield all four bending powers.  The spirit of the Avatar passes from one person to the next in a cycle following the order of the elements.  When one Avatar dies, the spirit finds its next host.  The new Avatar travels the world to master the elements and keep the power of the nations in balance.  The idea is that no one nation could overpower the other as the Avatar would intervene to stop them.  There is also a strong focus on spiritual connections.  Entire episodes are dedicated to learning how to breathe, meditate, focus, and connect with the spirits.  We are introduced to the Spirit World as the Avatar is the bridge between the physical and spiritual.  The detail of how the Spirit World truly works is explored in The Legend of Korra. 

Our story begins with the discovery of Aang, the current Avatar, frozen in a huge glacier in the South Pole.  He is a 12-year-old boy that only has mastered Air-bending.  He is discovered by Katara and Sokka, brother and sister from the Southern Water Tribe.  They are surprised to find an Air-bender alive, as no one has seen one in over 100 years.  Aang finds this confusing as the Air Nomads were all over the world before he “left” and was frozen in ice.  He finds himself in a world where the Fire Nation has declared war on all the other nations and murdered all the Air Nomads in the process.  Aang, being 100 years out of time, decides he will fulfill his destiny of being the Avatar and to bring balance to the world.  With his new friends, he goes on the ultimate adventure.  The goal: learn all the elements from masters and not get caught by the Fire Nation.

Playing opposite of our heroes, we have the Prince of the Fire Nation, Zuko, and his loyal uncle, General Iroh.  Zuko, like Aang, puts a lot of pressure on his destiny.  After being banished from the Fire Nation by his father, Firelord Ozai, for speaking out of turn during a war meeting, Zuko is trying to restore his honor by capturing the Avatar.  (Did I forget to mention this is a kid’s show where most of the main characters are teenagers?)  That is the beauty of this show!  We will not stray from the hard topics.  Avatar has friendship, family, coming-of-age, sacrifice, redemption, morals, ethics, spiritual beliefs, and all the teen angst you could want.  😊

Writing / Characters:

The overall theme is very serious.  After 100 years of war, the Avatar must restore balance and defeat the Firelord (i.e. Emperor).  However, as this is a show for kids and young teenagers, there is plenty of witty dialogue and more puns than you can count.  Sokka is written as the comic relief, but each character has their own chance to be funny.

One of the best arcs that we follow is Zuko.  His struggle to find his true self is pivotal to the story and will challenge the pure “Good vs Evil” perceptions.  We meet Zuko at the beginning of the series with Uncle Iroh.  Their relationship is tested throughout the series as each of them have to make sacrifices to endure the situation.  Zuko is our champion of teen angst in this series.  As we get closer to the end, we see that Zuko and Aang share other qualities as well. 

The show is based off a series of comic books, and thus, each season is called a Book.  Each season has its own adventures, but follows the overall arc of Aang’s mission.  The entire series covers a year of our beloved characters’ lives.  Learning three elements and becoming a fully realized Avatar in 12 months is extremely impressive.  We learn through flashbacks and stories that most Avatars train for years before using all their powers effectively.

In the second season, we meet new characters from the Fire Nation: Azula, Ty Lee, and Mai.  These three close friends have a quite the range.  Azula, brother to Zuko, has enough confidence for her entire family.  Even in childhood, she was plotting her way to the top.  While some describe her character as shallow or single-minded, I enjoy watching her world slowly crumble around her.  There is a key moment closer to the end of the saga that changes her forever.  In a series of events that are increasingly out of her control, she loses her best friends.  A villain during the entire series, we don’t much think of her as human.  From this moment, we start to see her quickly drop off the sanity cliff.  Her entire worldview destroyed.  Her only comfort is her anger.  Her paranoia builds rapidly until she is not able to trust anyone, even her servants. 

The final showdown between Azula and Zuko is terrifying.  It’s not the magic of bending fire.  It’s not that Azula is basically the best fire-bender in the world.  The mental state of Azula during this duel shows a truly broken person trying to survive on her own.  She has no support system.  Her hair and clothes are in disarray.  Her eyes are overstressed and filled with fury.  When she is eventually defeated, with the help of Katara (resident water-bender) we see Azula.  She is chained to a grate and unable to escape.  She cries out in anger, in pain, in disgust.  Tears stream down her face as she tries to break free.  It is a chilling scene.  For me, that four seconds of horror defines the entire character.  This is the first time we truly see this monster of a person in a vulnerable state. 

Ty Lee and Mai have their own interesting back stories.  Ty Lee introduces us to the concept of Chi-blocking (temporary loss of bending power) with her fantastic display of gymnastics.  She doesn’t have any powers of her own, but she is quick and can take down more than a few people at a time.  Ty Lee is the bright pink smile of Azula’s group.  She is a big flirt and knows it.  Her cuteness balances the dreary mood of Mai.  Wearing all black, all the time, and being constantly bored is what makes Mai.  When she is able to break away, her fighting style is quick like Ty Lee, but there is a forcefulness to it.  She employs an attitude of “vengeful older sister” with an unbreakable focus in her eyes.  She also brings a type of dark humor that compliments Azula’s overall demeanor.

Book 2 also introduced one of my favorite characters of the series:  Toph.  She is the blind earth-bender that has a deep desire for adventure.  She is a young girl and her parents are the classic overbearing, overprotective types.  She runs away with the Aang, Katara, and Sokka to escape the torment of sheltered life.  Toph is extremely independent and is never afraid to share her opinion.  She constantly takes advantage of people’s perception of her.  We later learn that she is not only a phenomenal earth-bender, but will learn a brand-new version of bending.  This new form of bending is a core element of another Avatar story: The Legend of Korra.  Toph’s early years were pretty sad, but she makes up for it with a heavy dose of sarcasm.  She brings a sharper humor to the group that was needed after a whole season of slap-stick and puns.

Animation Style:

The television show is based on the original comic books and thus we have beautiful hand-drawn characters and effects.  There is a lot of dialogue and exposition in the show, so you will find long panning shots of the group of characters and close-up of the speaker’s face as they come to a critical point.  The magic of this world is bending the elements and the detail on each type is incredible.  Air is clear and flowing.  Water is slow to start and then picks up energy (sometimes becoming ice daggers) before striking the target.  Earth is versatile and flexible.  Fire is considered dangerous, even to fire-benders.  The amount of personal control you have affects how well you are able to use each bending power.  As our characters develop their skills, you can see the animation becomes more focused.  The animators immerse you in this world that still stands-up to comparison after almost 15 years from the first episode.  There is a quality of work by all involved.

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