Widely regarded as one of the greatest shows ever to grace the screen, and almost universally seen as one of, if not the greatest, animated shows of all time, Avatar: The Last Airbender is a Nickelodeon cartoon show that aired from 2005 – 2008. The show takes place in a fantasy world during a time of war. This world is populated by ordinary people as well as ‘benders’, those who have the power to manipulate one of the four core elements (air, fire, water, and earth) to their will. As fire-benders dominate a 100-year war for control of all the land, the world looks to it’s avatar, one with the capability to bend all four elements, to usher in balance by defeating the fire nation. The Emmy-winning show was created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, and is often seen as one of the finest examples of storytelling ever.
I have to admit; it was surprising to me that this one lived up to the hype. I’ve been hearing for years that my life has not been complete until I have witnessed the magnificence that is this show, so when I started watching it (the process involved a swap deal in which someone else would watch The West Wing. I’d watch anything if it gets people to watch The West Wing.) I was very aware of some sky high expectations I had for it. Incredibly, I was not to be disappointed.
Avatar: The Last Airbender is an incredibly written, masterfully constructed story, made the absolute most of by fabulous characters, development, dynamics and relationships, and measured tonal shifts. I should definitely start with the characters, insofar as to say that they are incredible. I was actually somewhat off-put in the first three or four episodes by the speed, using the word family in the third episode felt premature and the writing in general was quite rushed. I found myself, however, consumed entirely by the plot and the direction of it all, which quickly blended into some of the best character arcs I’ve ever seen. Aang, Katara, Sokka, and, about halfway through, Toph, are expertly drawn characters with the correct balance between likability and flaw. So incredibly easy to get behind. Their internal dynamic is beautiful and overwhelmingly believable, comparable only to the duo of Zuko and Iroh. Iroh was probably my favorite character on the show, just by what he is, not by his journey. However, the character that undergoes by far the best arc over the course of the show, and that’s saying something because development is something done unbelievably well, is Zuko’s character. I don’t want to get into specifics for fear of spoiling the show for anyone who might watch it, but suffice it to say that by a combination of fabulous voice acting and fantastic storyboarding across the whole show, we’re looking at one of the finest examples of series character developments I’ve ever seen on the silver screen (one of, I said, for those of you about to accuse me of calling it better than The West Wing. This is an incredible show, but lets not get ahead of ourselves). While the show boasts excellent antagonist development as well, the predominant form of it is through the character of Azula. Fire Lord Ozai, on the other hand, was the only emotionally underwhelming aspect of the show in my mind. His characterization was almost exclusively through what others say, which is fine, but leads to the final, fated battle carrying less baggage than, say, a concurrent fight which I shan’t detail for the purposes of spoiler prevention. This might’ve been the point, in which case it was just a narrative choice I didn’t agree with.
A special mentioning has to go to the storyboarding prowess of this show. The creators have done such an unparalleled job of measuring the development of these characters and this story, it’s a marvel to watch. The progression is so appropriate, so measured, the themes that are touched on so well conceived on screen. Tonally speaking that shift, even within an episode, is superb. It’s a hilarious show, a fabulous sense for comic timing and the right sense of which characters and when. A lot of the credit for the progression and the characters goes to some absolutely top notch voice acting (it occurred to be while watching it that Ozai sounded like someone from Regular Show, I check the credits and what do you know, Mark Hamill himself). It says something about the quality of the show when it’s not just the lead characters that are excellent, but even the supporting characters, one episode drops in the sea, hold scenes. I’m not an expert when it comes to animation style and whatnot, but some of the visuals, more so in the later seasons, are marvelous. The other thing is it’s an incredibly consumable show, just 60 or so episodes of 22 mins each across the whole show.
Then of course comes the mythological aspect of it. In the beginning, pretty much season 1, the mythology has the potential to be a little undercooked. There’s nothing wrong with magic if the rules are precise and outlined, which isn’t necessarily the case in the first season. I don’t think that changes in the following seasons much at all, but the fact that it’s all a little flexible becomes something of a theme, what with advanced forms of bending coming into the mix. A huge problem I faced during the first season was not being able to take the plot of the show out of the context of the film. The film, of course, is famously a very large turd. It’s widely seen as one of if not the worst and most unfortunate adaptations of anything ever, which, having now seen the show, is an absolutely fair claim to make. All in all, the consistency is pretty good in terms of the mythology around it, with deviations not being hindrances to the enjoyment of the show.
I get pretty frustrated writing reviews for TV shows, if for no other reason than I really want to get specific and explain the greater nuances. I want to talk about Aang and Katara’s relationship and how it develops (and the painful, painful hints of Zutara), I want to talk about the dynamic between Azula, Mai, and Ty Lee, and I want to talk about how they address ideas of family and spread Iroh’s wisdom and pull off self awareness like it’s easy and a hundred thousand other incredible things about the show. Unfortunately, I’d like this review to be read and for that to happen I need to keep this as short and snappy as I can, which keeps me from getting into the detail I’d like to get into. It can’t be helped, of course. So instead of getting into all the nitty gritty, I would implore you to watch the show yourself. Avatar: The Last Airbender lives up to itself in all the ways it needed to, in an irresistibly fun, masterfully constructed “kids show” that really ought to be recognized, as it is, for the quality of animated storytelling it manages to hold in three all-too-short seasons.
– Aman Datta
Aman’s Score – 91/100 Aryamaan’s Score –