Netflix Op-Ed – Why Everyone Should Watch Avatar: The Last Airbender

Not to be confused with the terrible live action film. Or the other live action film with blue cat people.

SUMMARY (Spoiler-Free)

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).

Also, they have Appa, the flying bison, and Momo, the winged lemur. They fly and are cute.

END SUMMARY

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.

Just saying, variety is the spice of life.

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.

Also, everyone loves tea. It’s universal.

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.

There’s the obligatory environmental episode, of course.

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 TimeCollection of TV EpisodesCollection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

If you enjoy these, please, like, share, tell your friends, like the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/JokerOnTheSofa/), follow on Twitter @JokerOnTheSofa, and just generally give me a little bump. I’m not getting paid, but I like to get feedback.

Netflix Mini-review: The Dragon Prince: Book 3 – And We Have Lift-off

The series has finally pushed the pedal to the metal just in time for what appears to be the beginning of the second act. 

STORY SO FAR

Xadia is a magical land, but humans naturally screwed it up. For that, all the other races  (mostly elves) banished them to the far side of the continent with the only way back guarded by the Dragon King, the most powerful being in existence. That worked for a millennium and change, but then humans somehow killed the Dragon King, forcing the elves to attempt to assassinate the human leaders. One of the assassins, Rayla the Moonshadow elf (Paula Burrows), is sent to kill a human prince named Ezran (Sasha Rojen), but stops when Ezran’s step-brother Callum (Jack DeSena) discovers that the Dragon Prince was not killed with his father, but stolen as an egg. The three go to return the Prince to his mother in hopes of ending the looming conflict. In season 1, they managed to get out of the human kingdom and hatch the prince, now named Zym. In season 2, they managed to get to the Breach, the only passage to the land of the elves, but Ezran was forced to return in order to take over the throne from his late father. Meanwhile, Ezran’s Father’s Royal Advisor Viren (Jason Simpson) has been plotting with the banished elf Aaravos (Erik Todd Dellums) to start a war between all the human kingdoms and the magical lands.

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They’re all adorable. 

END RECAP

Rather than doing a summary and trying to avoid spoilers, I’m just going to say that this season finally started to pay off all of the clearly elaborate world-building that the creators put into this show. Every level of this world has been worked out and it pretty much all meshes perfectly together, something that allows a fantasy show like this (or like Avatar: The Last Airbender) to play out without having too much exposition. Yes, we get a lot of history lessons, but it’s mostly in the context of explaining how different cultures view similar events, so that doesn’t feel too forced. 

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Explanations on how magic works are reasonable, since humans can’t really use it.

The main thing this season confirms is that the last two seasons have been mostly a set-up so that the show can finally start accelerating and moving at a faster pace and on a grander scale. As a consequence, those episodes had often felt very slow and limited, but the investment is paying off now that all of the events and characters are starting to converge. In a way it does remind me of Avatar, in the sense that the show spent so much time focused just on our main group but still seeded all of the global-scale events that will eventually take place. 

I also like that they maintained Viren’s status as being the antagonist, but not a crazy and over-the-top evil one (at least until the end of the season). He is misguided and he is allowing power to corrupt him, but it’s also made clear that he does have reasons for why he believes the current state of the world cannot stand (even if they’re bad reasons that lack empathy). The fact that he so often comes off as reasonable is one of the show’s best strengths because it shows how what starts off as casual species-ism quickly devolves into violence when given actual power. 

Overall, this season made the show actually feel like it’s starting to live up to its promise and has set up the next season to be even bigger. The action sequences were better, the character interactions are more natural now, and the stakes are sufficiently high to justify more extreme decisions. Also, one of my ‘ships came in, so that was nice.

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All TimeCollection of TV EpisodesCollection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

If you enjoy these, please, like, share, tell your friends, like the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/JokerOnTheSofa/), follow on Twitter @JokerOnTheSofa, and just generally give me a little bump. I’m not getting paid, but I like to get feedback.

Netflix Review – The Dragon Prince (Book 2): A Little Slow, But Picking Up (Spoiler-Free)

Some of the team from Avatar: The Last Airbender continue to remind us that they are capable of amazing amounts of complexity and emotion from animated characters.

SUMMARY

Azymondias or “Zym” the young dragon prince has been born at the end of the last season… and he is freakin’ adorable. Seriously, look at this little guy.

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Between this and Toothless, animated dragons are getting adorable.

But, back to the plot.

Rayla, Callum, and Ezran (Paula Burrows, Jack DeSena, Sasha Rojen) are resting at the home of Lujanne, the illusionist elf of the moon (Ellie King). Callum, having sacrificed his primal stone to save Zym’s life, is depressed that he can no longer do magic, as humans cannot connect to any of the elements. While they rest, Claudia and Soren (Racquel Belmonte and Jesse Inocalla) catch up to them. Claudia shares some romantic moments with Callum and tries to convince him of the merits of her form of magic, Dark Magic, but he refuses to learn it. Ultimately, Claudia and Soren reveal that they’re still trying to take the three back under the orders of their father, Viren (Jason Simpson). The trio manage to elude the pair and continue on their quest towards the land of the Dragon Queen.

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Amaya continues to be amazing.

END SUMMARY

This season was pretty solid. With all of the basic introductions out of the way, you’d expect the show to pick up a little, but instead the first few episodes are about expanding all of our characters’ connections. While we’ve gotten some emotional moments between all three of our leads, we get to see how much they’ve grown over the last season and how that’s affecting how they feel about each other. This grows further when we see Claudia and Soren, who haven’t really interacted with the characters since the beginning, try to deal with the fact that their targets are also people they care about, which brings me to one of the best points in the show.

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Perhaps more than just care about.

So far, this show has managed to avoid falling into any cliches about good and evil. Claudia is a witch who literally sucks the life out of small things in order to do magic, but she doesn’t view it as being inherently evil, merely as a tool no different than a sword, which can be used for right or wrong. Soren is an extremely friendly soldier, who also is under orders from his father to kill his friends if he needs to. Viren, who is clearly the biggest villain in the series so far, is trying to do what he believes is right to save the kingdom, because in the past the only way for the humans to survive was to use forbidden magics. He just also is completely blind to how well he can actually administrate a kingdom or how succession works or how much people just don’t like him. Still, it’s impressive that all of the villains are portrayed less as blatantly evil, and more as people with different visions of how to do the right thing.

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Viren literally uses the heart of a rare, probably sentient monster… to save thousands.

I think that Callum’s journey over this season is a particularly well-crafted narrative. Over the last season he was trying to learn how to be a magic user, something that is rare within the world of the series, but now that he’s lost it he’s having to question what his role is now. It’s not that he misses the power as much as missing having a thing that he really felt was his chosen path. He’s spent his entire life failing at almost everything, only to find one thing where working on improving at it felt right. It’s such a relatable thing that I really love how they cover it.

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Also, there’s a blind pirate. I love him.

Overall, I thought that this was an interesting season, because it’s less of an advancement of the plot but more an exploration of the characters and the world. I think it was a step-up from the previous season and I look forward to seeing where the series goes from here.