13 October 2007

Ink Blots - Avatar: The Last Airbender, Season 1

This Blots is a bit unusual. I normally do movie or short reviews, but Season one of Avatar plays like a continuous story and deserves to be spotlighted. I was reluctant to watch the show at first. I couldn't see how it could live up to what everyone was saying. It heard outrageous claims that this was up there with Lost as one of the best shows on television. How could a Nickelodeon show, of all things, with a little bald kid with an arrow on his head really be that good? Well, believe the hype. This is a great show with well choreographed action and a compelling story arc with tight continuity.

Season 1 serves as the first of 3 chapters in a larger story. The first couple episodes introduce a world, rich with mythology and exotic hybrid creatures, in which four nations had long lived in harmony. Each nation more or less worships one if the 4 elements, and some members of that nation can "bend" or manipulate that element. There is also one person, the Avatar, that can bend all of the elements. He is reincarnated in a rotating cycle as a member of each nation, this time as an Airbender. His job is to keep peace and harmony. But 100 years ago, he went missing, and the Fire nation attacked the other nations. Cut to the present day. Two young members of the Water nation (Katara and Sokka) find the young Avatar Aang frozen in ice. They revive him and with him decide to return balance to the world. Unfortunately this Avatar has not yet mastered the elements aside from air. He must train and face off against the Fire lord before the war, which is going badly, is lost.

Season 1 not only follows our heroes as Aang and Katara study Water bending in search of a master, it also follows the exiled Fire Prince Zuko and his mentor Iroh whose only chance to regain honor is to capture the Avatar. One of the amazing aspects of the show is its depth of characters and growth demonstrated by Zuko who acts villainously, but is not a true villain in spite of his relentless hunting. Even Aang acts unheroiclly now and then... though he learns from his missteps.

During the season, the trio of Aang, Katara (Waterbender), and Sokka (Water warrior) accompanied by the flying bison Appa and lemur Mo-Mo, encounter a number of characters in their world, and though you do not realize it during the first season, they will weave complex stories through their interactions with the main characters when they return in season 2. Among these characters are a freedom fighter named Jet whose methods are a little extreme, Suki a tough female warrior that teaches Sokka a thing or two, the Blue Spirit a mysterious masked vigilante, and the spirit form of the previous Avatar, Roku, who serves as an Obi-Wan style guide.

It is fun to watch Katara and Aang's water bending skills increase throughout the season. At first they could just make waves but by the end, they control water whips, turn water into ice to freeze enemies, use water to heal wounds, and keep coming up with creative ways to bend water -- like the water octopus.

This show is kid friendly as it teaches morals (discrimination, gender equality, courage, honesty, compassion), though never too heavy-handedly, and features kids as main characters, but the growth of characters is unusual for a kids show. There are also comic elements, usually with Mo-Mo and Sokka, but not of the scatological kind. The humor is usually funny, not stupid. There is also plenty of action. Each tribe fights with its own style based on real martial arts and many battle sequences are quite elegantly put together.

The show also features noticeable influence of Miyazaki, the great Japanese animator. This influence is most noticeable when Aang links to the spirit world with its grotesque panda monster and nofaceish (Spirited Away) face stealer. Also, in the seasons epic showdown between Fire and Water nations, the spirit of the ocean gets pretty angry ala the forest spirit in Princess Mononoke.

I watched this first 20 episode season on DVD and couldn't stop watching just one more episode. A season 2 review is forthcoming, but let me assure you, it doesn't drop the ball. Anyways, Avatar truly is a magnificent show and those dismissing it for any reason are really missing out. It ranks as a modern classic, it is one of my favorite TV shows, and earns an easy A.

BUY IT NOW: Avatar on DVD


Anonymous Mysterious Person said...

well, looks like we've got the same taste. Avatar became a favourite since I watched the first episode of the first season on Nick.

Thou shalt not underestimate the goodness of Nickeodeon.

"those dismissing it for any reason are really missing out"
that's true. =)

Anonymous said...

I agree that the show is awesome. I love the action sequences and the character depth. I also love LOST, so I guess I am just stereotypical.