Now that's the Korra I know and love. Book Two has been inconsistent, but when the story is streamlined and Studio Mir handles the animation, The Legend Of Korra reaches the heights I've come to expect from the series. “The New Spiritual Age” abandons all the various subplots of this season for an episode solely dedicated to Korra and Jinora's voyage in the spirit world, and it is awesome. The animation is slick and expressive, the story is emotionally poignant and philosophically dense, and the action is incredibly dynamic, making this a chapter that delivers on every level. It also considerably elevates the stakes for the rest of Book Two, as the episode ends with the good guys in their worst position yet.
Avatar and Korra have always done great work balancing Eastern and Western influences, and that talent is on full display in this episode, which takes more than a few cues from Alice In Wonderland. To start, Korra and Jinora were led to the spirit world by Furryfoot, this show's equivalent of Alice's White Rabbit. And when Jinora is separated from the avatar, Furryfoot returns to continue guiding the young girl, who proves remarkably clever when faced with the obstacles of this new environment. During the separation, Jinora fares much better than Korra, who reverts to her child self when she's gripped by fear, similar to Alice drinking a potion that shrinks her to symbolize her feeling of being overwhelmed and powerless. Think I'm stretching? Korra spends a considerable amount of time at a tea party, hosted by none other than everyone's favorite Fire Nation uncle, Iroh, who’s decided to spend the rest of his days in the spirit world since his time in the material world is up.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” Those are the first words uttered by Jinora in the spirit world, and she’s damn right it is. The colors are lush and the setting and character designs are ripped straight from a Studio Ghibli film, creating a world that immediately captivates with imaginative visuals. In just the first few minutes, there are a slew of stunning moments: Korra touching a neon pink flower that transforms into a glistening butterfly, Korra and Jinora getting devoured by a giant underwater reptile spirit and getting separated in a raging water vortex, Korra surrounded by creepy dark spirits in a dead forest, the shot of Jinora and Furryfoot flying to Wan Shi Tong’s spirit library. Studio Mir has such an amazing handle of the spectacle of this show, and it only gets better as the episode continues, especially once the action comes into play.
Somehow, blinking has become a major point of discussion in these reviews, but those small eye movements are representative of a larger attentiveness to the way bodies move and react in real life. Studio Mir doesn’t just bring the blinks, it brings expressive eyebrows and hand movements and a general emphasis on revealing character through body language, which makes everyone seem a bit more lifelike. The opening conversation between Tenzen, Bumi, and Kya showcases these little details, revealing how those added motions fill out a conversation and grab the viewer’s attention more than just static dialogue. Expect that level of heightened expression for the rest of the season, because Studio Mir’s is sticking around until the finale! YAY!
Iroh shows up to comfort Korra when she reverts to adorable pot-bellied weeping toddler mode (wonderfully voiced by Cora Baker), inviting her to a tea party celebrating the marriage of two lizard spirits joined at the torso. At the tea party, Iroh explains to Korra that in the spirit world your emotions become your reality, and because she’s the Avatar, the bridge between the two worlds, her emotions have an even bigger effect on the environment around her. If she gets scared or angry, the spirits around her go from light to dark, and if she feels like a child, she turns into a child. She must stay positive if she’s going to survive, which is something Korra has always had trouble with. “Even in the material world, you will find that if you look for the light, you can often find it,” Iroh tells her. “But if you look for the dark, that is all you will ever see.”
I’m no expert on philosophy, but it sounds like what Iroh is describing to Korra is the law of attraction, where focusing on positive or negative thoughts garners positive or negative results. It’s a more immediate spin on karma; rather than being rewarded or penalized for good or bad actions in the next life, those consequences are felt in the present depending on how people choose to focus their thinking. (The philosophy was recently popularized by The Secret, a book that spawned a phenomenon when TV personalities like Oprah and Ellen Degeneres began singing its praises.) Korra starts thinking about finding Jinora in hopes that her friend will magically appear, but things are more difficult than that.
While Korra is learning about the power of positive thinking from Iroh, Jinora goes to Wan Shi Tong’s spirit library to find a map of the spirit portals’ locations, but before she can do that, she needs to get past the Wan Shi Tong, the imposing owl spirit voiced by Héctor Elizondo. The episode’s funniest moment is when Jinora offers some new knowledge to add to the library in order to gain access to the books and she asks if he knows how a radio works. “There is a box,” the owl says. “And inside the box there is a tiny man who sings and plays musical instruments.” Jinora goes on to explain how radios actually work, gaining entry to the library where she discovers what she’s looking for, but things quickly go south when Unalaq appears and captures her.
Iroh suggests Korra will find Jinora if she helps her new dragonbird pet get back home, so she makes her way up a scary-looking mountain full of confidence, turning dark spirits light as she ascends. As a big Harry Potter and X-Men fan, I have an affinity for dragons and phoenixes, and when Korra brings the dragonbird to its nest and it joins together with its siblings to create a massive golden dragonphoenix, I have to admit I got a bit verklempt. The combination of the breathtaking animation and the sweeping strings of musical score trigger an intense emotional response, and that combo comes into play again when Korra and her dragonphoenix fly to Jinora’s rescue.
In case anyone had any doubts that Unalaq is a totally evil son of a bitch, he kidnaps Jinora and threatens to destroy her soul if Korra doesn’t open the northern spirit portal. Threatening kids is so not cool. To make matters worse, he has his bending because he entered the spirit world through a portal rather than through meditation, so Korra is severely underpowered in this fight. Unalaq says he will let Jinora go if Korra opens the portal, but he’s a total liar, and when Korra opens the gateway, he attacks her and puts her in one of those purple spirit vortexes, nearly wiping out her soul if it weren’t for Korra’s new flying friend. I straight-up cheered when the dragonphoenix flew down and smacked Unalaq with its tail, knocking him out of the way so it could save Korra.
The shot of the creature swooping down from the sky, shaking the camera with the force of its wings, is exactly what I want from action sequences on this show: a moment full of power and grace. After being rescued, Korra wakes up in the material world and has to tell Tenzen that his daughter is still trapped, and I can’t wait to see Korra, Tenzen, and the rest of the group team up to unleash the full extent of their rage on Unalaq. There’s still a bunch of subplots to deal with as Book Two races toward it’s conclusion, but the presence of Studio Mir for the rest of the season gives me a lot of faith that the upswing of this week’s episode will continue. And at least now we know it’s going to look fantastic for the rest of the way.
- Héctor Elizondo is so good at playing characters that are stern and authoritative but also a bit aloof, making him the perfect choice to voice Wan Shi Tong. I’m happy to hear him reprising his Avatar role.
- The beautiful woodcut-like animation style used in “The Beginning” makes a return when Jinora looks up information on the Harmonic Convergence, and it’s as remarkable as it was last time. Studio Mir is just phenomenal.
- Those are some foxy librarians in Wan Shi Tong’s spirit library. Yeah, that’s a horrible joke.
- Kya: “Wake us up if you need some company.” Bumi: “Or if any spirity stuff happens, like their start floating around and you need someone to help you grab them before they fly off.” I’ve really enjoyed the Tenzen sibling dynamic this season.
- “I tried to fight it, but she really grew on me!” I love a good conjoined lizard spirit joke.
- Much thanks to Emily for letting me take over these reviews while she’s on her own spirit world vacation. She’ll be back next week.