Not to be confused with the terrible live action film. Or the other live action film with blue cat people.
Water. Earth. Fire. Air. Long ago, the four nations lived together in harmony, each possessing some citizens who had the ability to control, or “bend,” their respective elements. Then everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked. Only the Avatar, master of all four elements, could stop them. But when the world needed him most, he vanished. A hundred years passed and two children from the water tribe, Katara (Mae Whitman) and Sokka (Jack DeSena), discover a young boy trapped in an iceberg. It turns out that this boy is Aang (Zach Tyler Eisen), the most recent reincarnation of the Avatar. He was frozen for a century, during which time Fire Lord Ozai (Mark Hamill *Applause*), the new head of the fire nation, has been slowly attempting to dominate all four of the nations, having wiped out all of the Air Nomads, the benders of the Air nation, except for Aang. Together, the three set off to try and save the world. They are pursued by the Fire Prince Zuko (Dante “Rufio” Basco) and his sweet-hearted uncle, Iroh (Mako *May He Reign Forever*), as they journey through the water, earth, and fire nations. They are eventually joined by the blind Earthbender Toph Beifong (Jessie Flower) and opposed further by Zuko’s sister Azula (Grey DeLisle).
While I always have a soft spot for Disney and have to admire the number of good series that they have put forth over the years, including now, they have sometimes played it too safe. Even during the 80s and 90s, when Disney shows dominated the afternoon cartoon lineup, most of them were, in retrospect, pretty formulaic, from the stories to the characters to the art style. There were exceptions, of course, like Gargoyles, but for the most part they all kind of looked the same and felt the same. You could tell they all were cut from the same cloth. Then there was Nickelodeon, who due to starting out by importing cartoons from multiple different cultures, decided to take things in another direction with Nicktoons. If you can remember this far back, think about the fact that the same studio made the gross and shocking Ren and Stimpy, the slice-of-life Doug, the surprisingly lovable Rugrats, the brilliant and dark Invader Zim, and the zany Angry Beavers. If I’ve missed one of your favorites, sorry, but my point is that all of those shows were massively different, from tone to art style to audience, but Nickelodeon was willing to give them a chance. Avatar was no different, in that it was completely different.
Taking inspiration from anime for its art style and Wuxia martial arts films for its fighting sequences, Avatar forged a world that was simultaneously easy to understand and yet so complex that it kept you wanting to know more about it. Part of that was that it always blended together different storytelling elements and artistic styles while still celebrating and honoring what made each of the originals great. Each of the four nations was inspired by a real life culture, with the Water Tribes being based on Arctic tribes, like the Inuits, the Earth kingdom being based on Imperial China, and the Air Nomads being monks based on Tibetan or Shaolin Monks. The Fire Nation’s a little harder to nail down, but I think that’s because as a conquering empire, they’ve blended a ton of cultures together. Despite the fact that characters from each of these nations work together towards a common goal, their cultures are always respected and honored for their own unique traits. Given that the central villain in the series is an empire trying to destroy everyone that isn’t them, it’s safe to say that the concept of respecting other people’s heritage was going to be a central theme of the show, despite how much of a minefield that can be.
Part of what makes me love Avatar was that as the show went on, it stopped trying to give definitive, easy answers to issues. For example, a character seeks revenge on the person who killed their mother, but finds out that the murderer is just a pathetic coward. They decide not to kill the murderer, because he’s not worth it, but also refuse to ever forgive him. And that’s just where it stays. Sometimes you can’t force yourself to forgive someone. You can stop letting that pain dictate your actions, but that doesn’t mean that you have to pretend that things can ever be right. That’s not a typical message for a show like this and the show is filled with them. There are messages about overzealous dedication to a cause, dealing with abuse, nationalism, and a major one about propaganda. Also one about coping with your girlfriend becoming the moon, but that’s not super common.
Rather than ever start to devolve into simpler, Flanderized versions of their characters, Avatar constantly kept building more and more complexity into them. They actually keep growing to the point that in the third season, towards the end of the show, there is an episode that lampoons how much more basic they were at the beginning. To that end, I do have to warn you that some of the earlier Avatar episodes are a little weak. Honestly, I don’t think the show gets going until episode 12, “The Storm,” and that is a long time to wait. I can’t even tell you to skip them (aside from “The Great Divide,” which everyone should skip) because they all set up for stuff that pays off later. However, it is absolutely worth a little bit of boredom to eventually find out what this show grows into.
It’s on Netflix right now, at least for a little while, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time, Collection of TV Episodes, Collection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.
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