Soooo, it’s a kid’s cartoon. But once you’re over that your socks will be rocked right off! For many years, I felt no compulsion to watch the cartoon because the movie was a horrible cringe-fest of weird child acting (not to mention a distinct lack of asians playing the main roles…I guess Eng-rish wasn’t acceptable). But, the movie version is totally in a different league of crap so don’t be like me and let that influence your decision to experience the cartoon!
I only started watching the cartoon by chance while I was waiting for friends to come over to watch Attack on Titan (an anime which disturbs me to no end). I was charmed by episode 1. The world is cozy and refreshingly different from anything I’ve seen in a while. I knew I had to add Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Complete Series to my collection of neat fantasy worlds to indulge in. I’m really late on the bandwagon but here are 6 reasons why you should try sampling some asian flavor with Avatar the Last Airbender:
1) It’s got a simple, classic but at the same time totally unique and intuitive elemental-based magic system that is activated by kung fu!
I’ve watched my fair share of kung fu movies as a kid. I think it was kind of a 1990s thing. Anyway – I miss how cool it looks! One of the creators – Bryan Konietzko – studies shaolin kung fu himself and so the Avatar team goes above and beyond to get the moves down right so that everything looks rather authentic. The show highlights four different styles of kung fu to match the four different elements and their accompanying personalities so that everything feels really intuitive. The martial arts associated with air is full of very playful-looking moves, water martial arts is full of fluid tai-chi-like movements, earth is full of foot-stomping, vein-popping movements and the martial arts associated with fire is like a crazy passionate dance, full of quick high energy moves. I was very impressed with this level of in-depth thinking for the construction of the magic system. It totally does not look lame! (except when it’s in live-action) In addition to cool kung fu moves, there is a certain logic to their elemental based magic that fits in with the theme that the various elements have differnet aspects to them. For example, with fire-bending, you can, of course, create giant fire-balls etc. but you can also focus your fire-bending energy to zap someone with lightning. With water-bending, you can whip someone with the force of water, but you can also control plants and humans which have water (blood) flowing in their veins. With earth bending, you can move huge swathes of earth around but you can also bend metals. Very well thought-out and satisfying for a world-building enthusiast like me!
2) It feels like it captures the essence of many ancient Eastern philosophies
And I’m not saying that just because the show features a little bald monk at its main character. And don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of old geysers spouting cryptic words of wisdom to the young’uns. Overall, however, everything somehow manages to avoid feeling awkward and pretentious. The lines are delivered with a healthy teacupful of tongue-in-cheek humor that manages to retain a certain tone of reverence. Ideas such as the balance of opposing natures, the understanding of the universe as interconnected, the idea that all life must be respected and nothing is purely evil or one-sided – so many aspects of Eastern philosophies such as Buddhism and Hinduism are included in a very natural way. As to whether or not any of the depictions are accurate – I have no idea as I’m not familiar with many of them. At the very least, The Last Airbender can stand alone as a satisfyingly wholesome depiction of an eastern inspired world.
3) You’ll want an animal hybrid plush toy after watching the Last Airbender
There are all sorts of animal hybrids in Avatar. Except human-based ones, of course. That might generate hybrids too creepy for Nickelodeon. From the first episodes, I was already wishing I could frolick with Appa, the vegetarian sky bison that looks like its been crossed with some sort of six-legged insect. When Momo, the chittering bat lemur appeared on screen, it was instalove! The creators really had fun with this aspect of world-building. Their idea is really simple and maybe even nothing unique since it is sort of intuitive to come up with scrambled up animals when you’re creating creatures to fill your world. In any case, the world and story are further enhanced by the cuteness of these animal hybrids. There are even entire episodes dedicated to following their solo adventures (I’m thinking of that vignette episode, “The tales of Ba Sing Se“, involving Momo trying to find Appa as well as the Appa episode right after in Book 2). I especially like the idea that humans learned about bending the elements from studying some of these animal-hybrids.
4) Creative and distinct soundtracks that can lullaby you to sleep or get you on the edge of your seat
Oftentimes movies and TV shows can be obnoxious simply because the music is loud, loud and really unoriginal as well as loud. I feel old complaining about noise levels but we get blasted by enough loud ads and loud-mouthed over-excited people in media everyday, I think we can try toning down the music or at least make each note mean something again. I appreciate the more meditative and subtle use of music and sound in the Last Airbender. Here, the Track team experimented with weird and unusual instruments such as zithers, pipas, duduks, tsungi horns, taiko drums and more to create a whimsical and melancholy sound that is at times soothing at times rousing to resonate with the themes explored in the story. I really love the use of the kalimba, especially in one of the main Avatar theme songs. The song that twanged its way into my heart the most is “Leaves from the vine” where Zuko’s Uncle Iroh sings a song while thinking of his son who died in the war.
5) Character tales that are worth following
I will watch or read stories with horrible plots or illogical settings if I love the characters. Great characterization can steal the show for me anytime. The Last Airbender is very much a character driven story. Everyone from Aang, Sokka, Katara and Toph to Zuko, Azula and Iroh are given time in the spotlight to present their case to the audience and why you should and will like them despite their flaws. The characters question their motivations, their humanity and their destinies and everyone clashes with each other in a very organic and natural way that results in a story driven by believable motivations. In my opinions, humor is the key humanizing factor, here, and the reason why I ended up liking even the most obnoxious and villainous characters. Each character shows their serious and their silly side and you can’t help but be touched by their stories. My favorite character interaction to follow was that of Zuko and his Uncle Iroh. Angry, frustrated, obsessive and angsty Zuko is perfectly foiled by his wise-cracking, laid-back, tea-loving and forgiving Uncle Iroh. If it weren’t for Uncle Iroh telling Zuko to cool-it, I would have found Zuko’s seemingly infinite rage unbearable.
6) It actually ends
Don’t underestimate the power of a planned ending! You’ve got to respect the creators for resisting the urge to milk their franchise for all it’s worth. Many a TV show enters that dark alley of dirty dealings and artificially prolongs a show so that it ends up a crappy product overall, no matter how well it started. This is also the same reason why I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer. You can trust that Joss Whedon will end the show where it was destined to end. With the Last Airbender, there won’t be any comments like, “Oh, the show is good up until season X but don’t bother watching it after that!” Albeit, the last season of Avatar does move a little fast for my taste but I’m still glad to know that it was planned and wrapped up the story with an epic finale. Avatar is a rather short series compared to other cartoons, spanning three seasons with about twenty 30 minute episodes each. I finished it within a few weeks (but I could have finished it sooner except I didn’t want to rush through it like I did for Buffy and feel sad after it’s over).
Well, there’s my happy rant about Avatar.