Animation Wednesday: Avatar: The Last Airbender
This post is part of the Animation Wednesday series, a weekly column which looks at animated TV series and movies of the past, present and future.
Nickelodeon had a pretty prolific output in animation during the early 90’s, with a number of series running for many seasons and movies, including Rugrats and Hey, Arnold! Their shows were critically acclaimed, but all of them were pretty firmly rooted in broad comedy. So when Avatar: The Last Airbender premiered in 2005, some people were understandably skeptical of an anime-influenced fantasy series from a company well-known for bathroom humor.
But here’s the thing: Avatar: The Last Airbender is, in my opinion, the greatest animated series of all time.
A:TLA is the story of Aang, a happy go lucky twelve-year-old who is also the avatar, a being whose job is to bring balance to the world. Said world consists of four nations, each centered around a classical element which some of its citizens can manipulate through an art called “bending.” The Fire Nation is currently pursuing an aggressive campaign to conquer the other four nations, which is where Aang comes in. As the avatar, it is his destiny to master all four bending arts and confront the Fire Lord. There are also spirits and flying bison and platypus-bears.
It’s a fanciful world, and it’s all the more interesting because it draws heavily from Indian, Asian, and Inuit cultures. It’s easy to pull from Western folklore and history when crafting worlds, and while it’s great for things like Lord of the Rings, non-western philosophy and style are, at least to me as a viewer, much fresher and more novel. Everything from Chinese martial arts to Hindu spiritualism is referenced and homaged, but in a way that feels natural and organic.
The show is great on basically every front. The character design is varied and eyecatching, the music is evocative and subtle, the vocal acting features impressive performances from both veterans and relatively new young talent. Although it’s not straight comedy, Avatar still features some of the best gags I’ve ever seen in animation, and it manages to retain humor and lightness even when dealing with themes like war and self-sacrifice. It manages to appeal to children and adults without having to drop in wink-wink, nudge-nudge innuendo or gratuitous violence.
A:TLA is also a textbook example of why longer isn’t necessarily better. The show was planned to be three seasons from the beginning, and it has a clear beginning, middle and end. Characters develop and grow in satisfying ways, and events build at a methodical and intentional pace. A lot of shows suffer from a lack of an end goal, and characters kind of flounder around waiting for the next bad guy to fight. Everything that happens in Avatar happens for a reason, and the end result is much more like a series of novels than a conventional cartoon series.
Avatar: The Last Airbender is available on DVD and Netflix. It’s not to be confused with M. Night Shyamalan’s abysmal live-action adaptation The Last Airbender. I’d recommend catching up in anticipation of the upcoming spin-off miniseries The Last Airbender: The Legend of Korra, coming in 2012.