Can I get a “yip yip,” y’all?
See, that’s how excited I am to be reviewing one of my favorite children’s series for the AVC this summer. Avatar: The Last Airbender is a show my pre-schooler heard about in daycare some years back and insisted that we watch together. I was reluctant at first because the name of the show seemed particularly daunting, but I’m glad I gave in. Unlike so many entertainments that appeal to 5- and 6-year-olds, this one was a fantasy narrative meticulously crafted from a obvious love of anime and Eastern philosophy (as opposed to, say, a show about a little boy who rescues animals with the help of a jaguar and some seriously cloying patter). To my great surprise, I was floored by it and looked forward to watching new episodes as much as my kids did.
It may have helped that I raised my kids on the lighter films of Hayao Miyazaki. I have been a fan of his work since catching Princess Mononoke in its brief theatrical run back in 19-dickity-99 (that film would not qualify as one of the lighter ones). When my kids were old enough to watch movies, one of the first we would watch together was My Neighbor Totoro. Totoro is perfect for little kids with its rich artwork, realistic child protagonists, minimal conflict, and fun fantasy elements. (Among the many reasons for the secular sainthood of John Lasseter of Pixar is his championing of Miyazaki films in the West. I would like Lasseter even more if he would stop yapping all over the the beginning of the Disney-released Miyazaki DVDs, but that’s another story.) Miyazaki’s films are an excellent introduction to the language of anime that so heavily informs Avatar.
As in Miyazaki’s films, Avatar features a child hero who must undertake a momentous task for the good of the world. The idea of the child hero isn’t a new idea; there have been child heroes as long as there have been stories (or anime series and films). However, in the traditional child hero story, either the stakes are relatively small (I’d even include the stories like "Hansel and Gretel,," where children save their own lives here, because while those are personally high stakes, they aren’t exactly worldshakingly important) or the hero grows up during the story. (I know there are older stories than this, but Luke Skywalker is leaping to mind, meaning that I should really go crack open The Power Of Myth.) While I'm sure someone will produce a counter-example immediately, it seems that narratives in which a child undertakes a hero’s journey with world-historical consequences while—and this is key—remaining a child are a fairly recent idea. They have been quite popular in recent times, though: Harry Potter, the His Dark Materials trilogy, A Wrinkle In Time, and The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe, to name a few. I don’t know why this would be, but I suspect that it has something to do with modern ideas of romanticized innocence.
Avatar takes place in a world with four distinct civilizations, each defined by their relationship with one of the classic elements. In each civilization are certain individuals who can manipulate this element through the physical motions of a martial art. The Water Tribe is based on Inuit culture and is split between the North and South Poles. Waterbenders employ movements much like tai chi to manipulate their element. The Earth tribe appears to be primarily Chinese in origin and occupies the largest land mass in this world. Earthbending techniques are based on Hung Ga kung fu. The Fire Nation occupies a series of islands to the West. While firebending is based on Northern Shaolin kung fu, a Chinese art, their culture seems to be based on that of medieval Japan. (Some people may not realize that Japan is a different country than India, which I mention because... wait, I don’t want to talk about the movie yet.) The Air Nomads appear to be generally based on Tibetan culture, live on the peaks of mountains across the Earth kingdom territory, and employ bagua zhang, which is similar to tai chi, in airbending. Each episode of the series has a short introductory segment that provides some background for novices.
The series opens with a two-parter, “The Boy In The Iceberg” and “The Avatar Returns.” All of the episodes start with a demonstration of elemental bending as a girl’s voice intones the different elements. “The Boy In The Iceberg” has a slightly different intro from all of the following episodes, though. After our bending demonstration, a girl describes how her grandmother told her stories of the Avatar, a master of all four elements who traditionally kept balance in the world. However, the Avatar vanished some 100 years prior, about the same time that the Fire Nation started a war with the other nations. For adult viewers, this 100-year-war is a little problematic, because the timeline does not make much sense. Nothing much appears to have happened for large periods of time. No explanations are forthcoming, however, so I recommend that we just go with it. The girl’s father and the other men of her tribe sailed off to fight the Fire Nation some two years previous. And she believes that the Avatar will return to save the world. Will the Avatar return? I don’t want to spoil anyone, but the name of the show might be an important clue.
Right away, we meet this girl, Katara, and her brother, Sokka, who will be playing the roles of Willow and Xander throughout our epic adventure. Katara is a novice waterbender, and when we meet him, Sokka appears to be a terrible navigator. For a guy who has grown up in a village made of ice and certainly fished in ice floes for his supper all of his life, he gets their canoe smashed up through inept steering quickly. This whole “stuck on an ice floe in the middle of freezing water” situation leads to a little dust-up between our siblings, and Katara inadvertently raises a giant glowing ice sphere from the depths of the ocean. Frozen inside is a little bald boy with arrow tattoos on his head and arms and a six-legged bison. As we will learn, he is our titular Avatar, an airbender named Aang (pronounced "aing" not "ahng," as in the horrible movie), and the bison is Appa, who can fly. We also meet, some distance away, one Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation, a badly-scarred, short-tempered teenager who is on a quest to find the Avatar. As his Uncle Iroh makes clear, this is supposed to be a fool’s errand, but Zuko takes it quite seriously.
I will spare you a recap of all of the events in the two episodes but will point out that we learn a lot about our major characters through them. We learn that Aang is a fun-loving 12-year-old who has run away from his destiny as the Avatar. He has been frozen in the ice for 100 years, somehow arresting his own biological development in the process, and is only now learning about the war and what it might mean for him personally. Sokka is a 15-year-old who, as the oldest male in the village, feels responsible for protecting it, although this will not keep him from joining the epic quest. Katara is his 14-year-old sister who wants to learn more about waterbending, even though this means leaving her home to travel to the opposite end of the earth, the Northern Water Tribe at the North Pole. When Prince Zuko briefly captures Aang, he learns that even though Aang is a little kid, he is still a formidable opponent. With all of this, we are off!
- Netflix has the entire run of Avatar: The Last Airbender available for instant viewing, and the DVDs are also widely available. I’m planning to cover two episodes at a time and hope that readers will watch along with me. I will try not to discuss the godawful 2010 film adaptation The Last Airbender today, but it will have to come up from time to time as we go forward.
- How far from their village are Sokka and Katara at the beginning of the episode, anyway? After discovering Aang, they spend a long, long time on Appa’s back, their trip lasting even through the better part of the night.
- Nice touch that Sokka finds Katara’s waterbending to be so offputting. It makes sense that the only benders he has ever encountered other than her are the firebenders who raid his village from time to time.
- Another nice touch: Most of Sokka’s weapons appear to be made of sharpened jawbones.
- I didn’t mention the humor of the show in this review, but I do want to point out that while much of of it is crude enough to appeal to little kids, it is not all snot and potty humor, and I appreciate that. However, there is plenty of snot and potty humor to keep kids and sympatico adults in hysterics.
- There’s a tonal problem when the little girl we’ve never seen before runs up and says, “Aang, don’t go” in a cutesy little voice. I’m glad that the show rarely does this sort of thing. They make up for it immediately by having Katara lash out at her grandmother with realistic teenager snottiness.
- Gran-gran’s about-face on Aang was rather sudden. I guess we needed to move things along. It's another nice touch, though. Immediately after Gran-gran’s change of heart, we see Zuko talk wistfully about how Aang never knew his father, and we get to see how Iroh immediately tries to improve on Zuko’s imperiousness with him and the men on his ship. Little character touches, to be sure, but those can make or break a show. Here, they make it.