Periscope Depth

do you think your wu-tang sword can defeat me?

Hopefully nobody’s reading my weblog on their day off, so I can yammer about why I love Avatar: The Last Airbender so much.

I recently acquired all three seasons and have been watching them in dribs and drabs over dinner for the past few weeks. I’m two episodes away from finishing Season 1 (no spoilers in the comments, please). And I just can’t get enough of it – of this cartoon that originally aired on Nickelodeon. What gives?

Here’s what gives:

  1. The characterization works. You almost never see a character do something stupid simply for the sake of stringing the plot along. This sounds trivial, but think for a moment about how many of the best shows in the world hinge on that kind of sloppy writing. The male hero sees his female crush cheat on a test – should he confront her about it? should he tell the authorities? O, the heartbreak – and voila, that’s 44 minutes filled right there.

    In Avatar, though, everyone owns up to what they want. They have their own agendas; they’re not just vessels through which the show’s plot is poured.

  2. The action is incredible. There’s only one episode in S1 I can think of that breaks the above rule – “Bato of the Water Tribe” – in which Aang (the titular Avatar) keeps something secret from his friends Sokka and Kitara in the hopes that they’ll stay with him. It’s pretty lame.

    Fortunately, the writers dispense with that by the second act break and, as if to make up for it, stage one of the most kickass kung-fu fights I’ve ever seen. And I’ve got a decent collection of Yuen Woo-Ping on the shelf.

    Most animators depict fights as wavy blurs of lines and feet, or a few stock motions looped endlessly together. The animators of Avatar consulted with kung fu instructors before putting pen to paper. Every character fights in a recognizably different way. Plus, the canvas of animation means the directors can get away with stunts that would look stiff or artificial in real life – like Aang running up a cliff face on a ball of whirling air while someone lobs fireballs at him from below.

  3. The stories are simple but sophisticated. Most cartoons and sitcoms write kids as “dumber adults.” The three heroes of Avatar are all kids, floating in a vague range of pre-adolescence. These kids, however, are just as smart as the adults around them – they just care about simpler things.

    Add to that the fact that the show has few real villains. Aang and his friends are chased by two remarkably sympathetic antagonists – Prince Zuko, a hot-tempered teenager, and his sardonic Uncle Iroh (voiced by the late Mako). Zuko’s a boy trying to live up to his father’s unspoken expectations, and Iroh’s a put-upon man with a job he doesn’t much like. The few times they get inconvenienced or captured – or, late in the season, when they get taken off the hunt for the Avatar – you find yourself rooting for them.

  4. The writers have an excellent sense of comic timing. Consider the episode “The Fortuneteller,” where Aang – the Avatar – and his friends get their future foretold by a village mystic:

    Aunt Wu: You will be involved in a great battle, an awesome conflict between the forces of good and evil! A battle whose outcome will determine the fate of the whole world!
    [dramatic pause]
    Aang: Yeah yeah, I knew that already. But does it say anything about a girl?

    Sokka, normally the comic relief character, isn’t as enthralled by this fortuneteller as everyone else.

    Sokka: Hey, you. I bet Aunt Wu told you to wear those red shoes, didn’t she?
    Red Shoed Man: Yes. She said I’d be wearing red shoes when I met my true love.
    Sokka: Uh-huh. And how many times have you worn those shoes since you got that fortune?
    Red Shoed Man: Every day.
    Sokka: Then of course it’s going to come true!
    Red Shoed Man: Really? You think so? I’m so excited!

    [...]

    Sokka (pointing to the exploding volcano) Look! Can your fortunetelling explain that?
    Man in Crowd: Can your “science” explain why it rains?
    Sokka: Yes! Yes, it can!

  5. The plots themselves are remarkably sharp. Here I can’t talk any further, at the risk of spoiling things. But for those who’ve already seen it, I’ll say that the “Winter Solstice” two-parter, “Jet,” and “The Blue Spirit” – among others – impressed me as much as any other TV that I watch regularly.

Just as Batman: The Animated Series was perhaps the best cartoon of the 90s – adult in tone, theme and visual style but still palatable for children – I think Avatar: The Last Airbender is probably the best cartoon of the 00s. Parents: get your kids hooked on it today. Better for them than that Pokemon crap.

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