Western animation in recent years has taken a lot of cues from Japanese anime, given both its popularity and its potential for innovative designs. And as Will “Suede” Dufrense put it in his own review, nowhere is Western anime better realized than in the Nickelodeon series Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Because the series is quite long and complex, I’ve decided that the best course to reviewing this whole saga is to break it down by each season or “book.”
And just to bring those of you who haven’t watched the show up to speed: this takes place in a fictional world where people using “bending” to manipulate fire, water, earth, and air, giving rise to fantastic technologies and geopolitics. War threatens the land unless Aang, the new Avatar and last of the Airbenders, can master all four elements and put a stop to the Fire Lord’s plans.
Book One: Water
The first season is an action-packed introduction to the entire saga: the Water Tribe and the Fire Nation, Sokka’s antics and Zuko’s struggle for honor, and Aang trying to reconcile his duty as the Avatar with his own fragile humanity. It does a brilliant job at worldbuilding, using that journey motif that Tolkien and so many creators before and since have used to let the heroes explore the world on the way to their ultimate destination (in this case, the North Pole).
Admiral Zhao (voiced by Jason Isaacs) is a good first-season villain. He’s a total contrast to the hero Aang: vain, ambitious, calculating, and heartless. All that matters for him is victory, which involves annihilating whatever’s in his way. He is also a great foil to Zuko (voiced by Dante Basco), who despite his obsession with capturing the Avatar is at least more sympathetic given his life as an exiled prince. Zhao is a stereotypical bully and given his due as such.
If there’s one thing that stands out for me about Book One, it’s Sokka (voiced by Jack DeSena). He’s by far the most human character in Book One and it shows. For all his wisecracking (which alone makes him my favorite), he’s also very proud about his culture and longs to prove himself as a warrior like his father before him. Blending that relentless sense of honor with an endless stream of jokes and sarcasm makes him incredibly dynamic and provides a great counterpoint to all the high-minded drama surrounding other characters like Aang and Zuko.
Book Two: Earth
The second season follows up on Aang’s journey as he seeks to learn earthbending, which means leaving the Water Tribe to enter the Earth Kingdom. There the trio of heroes earns a new member in the form of Toph (voiced by Jessie Flower), a blind girl who uses earthbending to “see” and whose temperament challenges the group’s sense of harmony. Ultimately, the four heroes end up in the fortified capital of Ba Sing Se, where they must contend with enemies both inside and outside the city, creating a suitably rich and dynamic setting.
With Zhao gone and Zuko becoming more of an antihero, the new antagonist is Azula (voiced by Grey DeLisle), daughter of Fire Lord Ozai and Zuko’s sister. Accordingly, her presence in Book Two raises the stakes, as Azula is much more cunning than Zhao and more deadly with her ability to wield lightning. She also provides an interesting foil to Aang in that she has her own companions, a throwing-knife expert named Mai (voiced by Cricket Leigh) and a bubbly acrobat and qi expert named Ty Lee (voiced by Olivia Hack). I like the fact that this show was able to make such an effective trio of female villains instead of just relying on the usual faceless male henchmen like Zuko and Zhao did.
While the main quartet of heroes gets a lot of good character development in Book Two, the highlight for me was watching the journey undertaken by Zuko and Iroh. While having different talents and attitudes, they manage to get along and show off new sides of their personalities while trying to hide from both the Fire Nation and the Earth Kingdom’s soldiers. Zuko in particular grows as an antihero, slowly seeing the injustices that the war brings about for commoners and learning some compassion. It’s also bittersweet because this was the final season for Iroh’s original voice actor, the famous Mako, who passed away before the season ended. Episode 15 (“The Tales of Ba Sing Se”) is dedicated to the actor and is an appropriately beautiful performance.
Book Three: Fire
The third and final season packs a wallop of a storyline, with “Team Avatar” infiltrating the Fire Nation twice to pull off an invasion and take down Fire Lord Ozai. Aang’s power and resolve are put to the test, especially when he has to master firebending and needs Zuko to teach him. Zuko’s arc finally reaches its culmination as he regains his honor by going against his sadistic father Ozai and equally mad sister Azula. The invasion storyline alone brings the series to a nice end, as characters from the past two seasons show up for the finale and one last shot at ending the war.
As the final antagonist, Ozai is magnificent. Not only is he larger-than-life and as evil as any fictional tyrant, but he’s also voiced by Mark Hamill, who sounds like he’s using the same voice as the Joker from Batman: The Animated Series. He also overshadows Azula as the villain, which allows her to have a more human portrayal than in Book Two. We see just how tortured Azula is, having only known her father’s way of life and how it ultimately hinders her, leaving her friendless and paranoid while Ozai’s claims of absolute power eclipse her own.
There is a lot in this season to enjoy: the humanizing portrayal of the Fire Nation’s citizens, the Order of the White Lotus, the invasion arc, Sokka’s reunion with Suki, and the progress of Zuko and Aang’s relationship from reluctant allies to fire-forged friends. It’s safe to say that the show saved its best for last.
As a cartoon, Avatar: The Last Airbender is a triumph. This is a show that both kids of all ages will enjoy (and most adults, too). It’s an epic tale of war, friendship, and destiny that seems lifted from any number of old Asian tales, despite being conceived and fleshed out as a Western series.
On a final note, I have to address the inevitable comparison between this series and its highly-panned 2010 film adaptation, The Last Airbender. Having seen the show for myself, I can say that its success is taking a cartoon premise and developing a fictional world, characters, and story arcs that are believable. The Last Airbender’s failure was in translating that believable world to the silver screen; the actors, the writing, and the special effects all lacked the same energy and flow as the cartoon, while ironically trying to be more realistic and “believable.” I’m still on the fence about live-action adaptations of anime and animated shows, but I do know such projects need a lot of love and effort–like the kind shown in this amazing series and its sequel, The Legend of Korra.
Bibliography: Avatar: The Last Airbender. Created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Brian Konietzko. Written by Michael Dante DiMartino, Brian Konietzko, Aaron Ehasz, Tim Hedrick, John O’Bryan, Elizabeth Welch Ehasz, and Joshua Hamilton. Directed by Lauren MacMullan, Dave Filoni, Giancarlo Volpe, Ethan Spaulding, and Joaquim Dos Santos. Produced by Michael Dante DiMartino, Brian Konietzko, and Aaron Ehasz. Nickelodeon Animation Studios. February 21, 2005 – July 19, 2008.