I decided to rewatch Avatar: The Last Airbender
, a show I haven't seen since it ended 5 years ago. I finished the entire series and the M. Night Shyamalan movie over the last week.
I caught the show by accident when it first started in 2005 and although I enjoyed what I saw back then, I'm glad that I got to see it from a different perspective. It's no longer just a cartoon I caught and happened to like, it's an epic story and a phenomenon, and over the last week, I got to catch all sorts of things I missed the first time that either meant something or would become important later on. Watching the first few episodes, I found it to be rather kid-friendly, sometimes a little too much so, but it quickly got better and found its footing. It's very well written with with a lot of heart, good edge-of-your-seat drama and some wacky yet very clever laugh-out-loud humor that even an adult can appreciate. Then there's the animation. Rather than use computer generated tweened characters, they put a lot of care into crafting each scene and character expression so that everything and everyone comes alive and feels real, often with more nuance than filmed footage. In fact, I can't imagine how this show could be done in live-action while maintaining its tone and visual qualities. I also like how pretty much episode ends on a rather quaint and satisfying note. This is also the only show I could think of where every episode was important and advanced the story. No filler in 61 episodes as far as I could see.
Now for a few detailed observations for those who've seen the show…
BOOK ONE: WATER
THE LAST AIRBENDER
- Fun Fact: Azula is the firebender in the opening credits. I never new that.
- I noticed that the four nations, as listed in the show's order, seem to follow how our civilization has progressed. Water is first and it's organized as a tribe, the most primitive form of civilization among the four. Then we move on to Earth which takes the form of a kingdom, something a little more advanced. Moving forward, we have Fire which exists as a moderd-day nation or at least something closer to it than the rest. And finally, we have Air which takes us beyond nationhood to something more enlightened… a nomadic people with little need for the social structures that came before.
- It was nice watching Aang and Katara interact knowing that they'll end up together. Sokka even jokes about him being her boyfriend in the second episode.
- Each animal is indeed a combination of two animals, but they started adding "normal" animals in later seasons.
- Why is Roku the first one in the line of avatars at the temple? I'd think that he'd be positioned in such a way that they could add more statues pretty easily when the time came. I wonder if after every avatar, they have to move everything back a space so that the latest one is now first and center. I also wonder if Wan is there at the end.
- That lock at the Air Temple looked ingenious. I imagine that it can't be opened unless air is funnelled in with just the right force, making it difficult and time consuming for anyone to build a contraption to open it.
- I brought up some stuff in the past about about seven elements instead of four, the other three being sound, light and thought. This was based on the chakra system instead of the classic four. Looks like some qualities that should be associated with those other three got assigned to one of the existing four. Lightning, an aspect of sound (so says one source) got put with firebending and the sonic vibrations that Toph would use in Book Two, something that looks like an aspect of sound, got put with earthbending. I wonder what the manipulation of thought would go with.
- Gyatso was Aang's air bending teacher and Tenzin was Korra's. Both are derived from the Dalai Lama's name which is Tenzin Gyatso.
- The Fire Nation is truly cruel and oppressive, moreso than I remember and I found myself involved enough to genuinely not like them. For the first time, I can see why people thought that this war was a bigger deal than Amon's movement from The Legend of Korra's first season.
- Iroh is a bit of an enigma. He seems like a wise and spirited man, yet he allies himself with the Fire Nation's regime. When I first saw the show, I only noticed his "good" nature in later seasons because he and Zuko were on their own, ostracized from their nation but a lot of that goodness can be seen in Book One. He's not easy to figure out. Maybe he, like a lot of people, is complex. He's a product of his environment but his wisdom still manages to find ways to come out whenever and wherever it can and probably did so with more frequency as he got older.
- The world that was created for this show is vast and impressive with its great lands and cities. The show does well at capturing not only the imagination, but the peace and tranquility of a primitive land. This is a world I'd love to live in.
- I recognized the distinctive voices of George Takei, Rene Auberjonois and James Hong.
- They established a lot of things early on. We got to see the Kyoshi Warriors, the cabbage merchant, some mention of Ba Sing Se, the world map with the great wall and the Serpent's Pass, and some foreshadowing of Sozin's Comet. These are all things I either missed or couldn't appreciate the first time. Clearly a lot of planning went into crafting this saga.
- I always thought that bending would create jealousy and resentment among those who didn't have the ability but surprisingly, that wasn't the case. Early on whenever the issue came up, the characters would almost make it seem like bending was an aberration or an odd little curse.
- Aang and Katara learned waterbending together and there wasn't a whole lot of that going on. I didn't notice that the first time around.
- There was some talk in the Korra thread about there being no caucasians in this world. Well, it looked like there were at least two… A redneck type with a southern accent in episode 11 and someone else in episode 12.
- The avatar gets the best training that the world has to offer from the best teachers and masters, but now he has to rely on a tribe girl, a blind runaway and a former enemy. I didn't appreciate that situation the first time around.
- I noticed that benders have different power levels and can hone their bending to do all sorts of specific things. It's not just a matter of bending or not bending. There's variety. I also see that the avatar can have a great deal of power to bend a massive amount of any element, but doesn't necessarily know how to use an element in a creative way. For example, the avatar might be able to create a massive rock slide but may not have learned to turn metal into armor. Makes me think that the avatar, although powerful, may not necessarily be the most skilled bender around if he or she hasn't learned a specific trick or skill.
- I liked the firebending episode. It provided a great lesson on having power but not the training or wisdom on how to use it. It was a worthwhile sojourn from the "water" theme.
- I've always wondered how animals perceive people and what they think. Then to my surprise, we get a scene with Katara talking to Momo and we see and hear what Momo sees and hears as an animal that doesn't understand english and just hears mumbling. That was pretty neat.
- I didn't like the Northern Water Tribe's sexist attitudes and wonder how previous avatars learned water bending with traditions like that. I wish they could have gone into how the rule against women bending came about.
- We now know that the physical world isn't made up of four elements, but I do like something I heard about a modern day interpretation of the classic elements. Instead of earth, water, fire and air, we have solid, liquid, gas and plasma. Four states of matter.
Saw the live action movie for the second time right after completing Book One and oh boy! It was worse than I remember. I liked this movie a little better the first time I saw it
, because I was excited to see a live-action Avatar, but now I see it for what it is. The world and cinematography looked spectacular, as did the special effects, and despite the racebending, it was well cast with some great actors. So where did it fall apart? Poor story structure that glossed over a lot, too much exposition, a lack of heart and above all, Shyamalan couldn't elicit any sort of performance from his cast. Everyone was reduced to reciting wooden dialogue through no fault of their own. The whole thing felt like an amateur fan movie on YouTube. It was a struggle to finish it. I did like a few bits though… I liked that princess Yue's hair turned black again when she gave up the water spirit to save the fish and I liked that Ong defeated the Fire Nation without having to turn into Water Godzilla. The movie also mentioned that avatars can't have families. The show didn't go with that but it might have been interesting if it did.
BOOK TWO: EARTH
BOOK THREE: FIRE
- The world-building continues to be great and Ba Sing Se was an awsome sight.
- Despite being a kids show where kids are the main protagonists and often take on adult roles, this is the season where that is most apparent. It feels this way because the new antagonists are no longer adults, but Azula and her friends.
- I liked that little history lesson on Omashu and the first earthbenders. That's how you do exposition.
- I'm impressed with how they make the bending come alive like a real martial art. Standing on the shore, moving and easing the arms to-and-fro with the tides, etc.
- As much as I disliked Shyamalan's movie, I was and still am a little curious about how Book Two would have turned out. I'm especially curious about what his version of Toph would have been like.
- I wonder what would happen if the Fire Nation's royal family had an heir that wasn't a bender.
- Avatar Kyoshi is fleshed out pretty well. She impressed me in her brief appearances and looked great for someone who lived to be 230.
- The Kyoshi warriors do well without bending and so does Azula's friend Ty Lee with her chi blocking technique.
- I like how the show portrays the spirits. Being spirits, I guess they can take on whatever form pleases them… an owl, a giant centipede with many faces, etc. It's a nice creative way to do it.
- "The Tales of Ba Sing Se" and "Appa's Lost Day"s were among the most powerful and moving episodes of television I've ever seen. A great accomplishment for a kid's cartoon.
- It only occurred to me now that Toph is the only one who has a last name.
- I used to like Azula with her forceful personality and self-assuredness but on this second viewing, I mostly saw a cruel girl. The excellent writing however, made her more than that. She has an angry demeanor that makes others around her uncomfortable and that really comes through. She's not just a two-dimensional mustache-twirling villain. I also liked her blue-colored "cold fire" in "Sozin's Comet", not just for the contrast with Zuko's yellow fire but because it probably represented her descent into an even colder more sociopathic state.
- "The Beach" was another good episode. I liked getting some insight into the fire entourage and what shaped them into who they are. Then they ended the episode with style the way only Avatar can. That was a nice touch.
- We finally got some background on what caused the Fire Nation to get out of control. It's an attitude of "we're better, you're less and you can benefit from our rightful guidance". It's an attitude we've seen many times already in our history and one I see in many individuals.
- The epsiode where Aang went to school reminded me of Nazi Germany.
- Like Kyoshi, Avatar Roku was fleshed out pretty well. I got a great sense of this man and his life in just 20 minutes. I wonder if his life and his look were inspired by Moses from The Ten Commandments. Even the way he dealt with the erupting volcano reminded me of the parting of the sea.
- The first time I saw how Aang dealt with Ozai, I wasn't overly impressed but now I apprecite that outcome a lot more because the real lesson came before the confrontation. Aang struggled with the notion that he'd have to kill the Fire Lord but with a clear mind came more options that he couldn't see before.
- I wonder if Mai will end up being Zuko's wife and mother to the Fire Lord on Korra. We may find out soon enough.
I loved this show and haven't been this moved by an ending since Babylon 5
. I've been impressed by other endings, but not moved. I now consider Avatar: The Last Airbender
to be one of my favorite shows.
The current graphic novel trilogy called The Search
will be released as an oversized harcover book on Feb 5, 2014 just like The Promise
was. I read that it was pitched as a TV movie but Nickelodeon declined. What a shame, but at least it continues the story of Zuko's search for his mother. I hear that Azula joins Team Avatar. I also look forward to the next trilogy called The Rift
. It deals with the beginnings of Republic City.