Avatar: The Last Airbender is a kid’s show that, on the surface, seems a bit simple. The setup is based on the four elements. Fire, Water, Earth, and Air; each of these have their own nation, populated by “benders” who are able to manipulate their particular element. The benders can shoot rocks, tsunamis, hurricanes, and fireballs. They can change the course of rivers, create armor out of boulders, raise pillars of fire, and sail through the air as casually as we blow our noses. And, naturally, they fight each other. Through epic battles reminiscent of the craziest that the Star Wars Jedi Masters can offer, the various benders flip into combat with arcs of fire and lightning, whips made out of water, and more.
The setting is also basic on the surface level. All four of the elemental nations lived in peace for countless years, watched over by an “Avatar”, a guardian figure able to wield all the four of the elements at the same time. For reasons unknown, the Avatar eventually disappeared. In his absence, the newly aggressive Fire Nation attacked and have slowly been conquering and subjugating all of the other nations, even going so far as to completely wipe the Air Nation from the face of the earth. The story begins with two young waterbenders, Katara and Sokka, in the icy north, suddenly finding and coming face to face with Aang, the reincarnated new Avatar, who is destined to save the world from the Fire Nation and restore the balance as it once was.
The concept of the elements and a setting like that are pretty cool. When I was a kid, I would have definitely perked up at the idea of elemental warriors facing off in grandiose grudge matches. But these alone aren’t enough to distinguish Avatar: The Last Airbender as something beyond the norm. Which it definitely is.
What Makes it Special?
As I watched through the show, I found myself making comparisons to other movies and TV shows I had seen that had entertained me even as an adult. Paramount among these was The Emperor’s New Groove. For those who haven’t seen it (and, really, you should go see it RIGHT NOW), The Emperor’s New Groove is a movie about an emperor being forced to learn how to empathize with other people by living among them as a llama. What made it really special, though, was its remarkable capacity for tongue-in-cheek humor that makes the movie as hilariously entertaining for adults as it is for the kids. It takes one hell of a gifted writer to make something that can genuinely appeal to all ages, and The Emperor’s New Groove pulled it off in spades, making for one of the most adored and revisited Disney movies of all time.
Avatar: The Last Airbender reaches for those same heights and makes it happen. The characters are comical, self-effacing, hilarious, and witty. What’s more, they feel real. Aang is a ten year-old hyperactive chipmunk of a kid who only wants to have fun, and his character arc has him learning that he can both embrace that side of himself while still facing the threat of the Fire Nation with mature seriousness. Katara is caring nurturer of a girl who has to master her own inclination to mother and protect everyone while still living her own life as a young teenage waterbender. Sokka is a perpetually sarcastic jokester who discovers how to become less cynical and get over his feeling of inferiority for not being able to bend. The characters have depth, and you get to know them and empathize with their human desires. To the point where their day-to-day lives become more engrossing and fulfilling than their quest to save the world itself. You can tell the characters are well written when it gets to that point!
Bad Guys and Badasses
What’s more is that, with only one exception, this also applies to the antagonists themselves. It’s arguable that Zuko, the face of villainy for most of the show, goes through more character development than any other in the entire series. An exiled Fire prince determined to regain his honor by capturing the Avatar, Zuko and his uncle, Iroh, end up having one of the more unique adventures that has them exploring a far more morally gray area than you would expect. Zuko has to confront issues such as how to tame his anger and how to deal with complicated relationships with his sister and father. He’s a traumatized soul who has to learn how to fix himself. I point this out because, on top of the New Groove-esque humor, there are characters who go through the same genuinely difficult trials that we ourselves might have went through as children and go through even today. The result is to make Avatar: The Last Airbender feel both humorous, entertaining, as well as deep and thought-provoking. That’s a rare combo for a kid’s show!
The last thing that makes the show freaking awesome to watch is how creatively they approach the elemental “bending” that I mentioned earlier. It’s hard to put into words, but it isn’t rare to have a fight break out where Aang summons up a stone wall to deflect a fireball, flies over it with a gust of wind, slams the enemy off his feet with a surge of water, and then kick-twirls around rings of fire to keep the bad guy running frantically backwards. The creators take full advantage of all the craziest possible shenanigans these elements are capable of, and then mixes them into insane martial arts face-offs that have combatants soaring about on jets of fire, tossing about ice shards like candies, throwing mountains at each other, drop-kicking tornadoes at each other, and more. Thus it is that, along with the aforementioned reasons to love the show, you’ve got one incredible fight scene after another to keep your eyes glued to the action.
Overall, I loved this show, but I can’t help critiquing areas where I thought it could have been better. Consequently, this area will be *SPOILER HEAVY*. Read on at your own risk!
I think that there are two main reasons why this show didn’t quite reach the level of The Emperor’s New Groove in my eyes. My first complaint involves a lack of subtlety. I felt like, half the time if not more often, Avatar: The Last Airbender had an irritating habit of becoming anvilicious. For those too lazy to click the link, “anvilicious” is the TV Tropes word for a show that is a bit too blatant about pounding a message into your head. My key Avatar example is that one episode where you had the two tribes that are completely different; one was super nitpicky clean and the other was really dirty casual, and they fought all the time. The moment you saw these guys, you just knew that Aang would somehow find a way to make them get along (because why can’t we be friennnnnds?!) as that’s the way the stories go. To the show’s credit, Aang’s first effort fails (which gives the conflict resolution message a bit more nuance), but overall it still felt just way too obvious. It was in moments like these that I felt loudly reminded that I was watching a kid’s show. I think that more subtlety could have helped in moments like this, and many others besides, to maintain the more varied and deep feeling of the other parts of the show.
My second complaint involves the character of Fire Lord Ozai. This is the main villain, the head honcho, the ultimate baddie who Aang and his friends have been training to confront from day one. Given how the show deftly handled Fire Nation antagonists like Zuko, Azula, Mai, Ty Lee, Iroh, and more, we would expect a bit of backstory into why Ozai feels the need to conquer and subjugate the rest of the nations like he does. Instead, we quite literally know more about his dead grandfather, Fire Lord Sozin, than we do about Ozai himself. Ozai comes off as a laughing nefarious megalomaniac of a villain, determined at the end to commit earthbender genocide just because they’re getting a bit uppity.
It’s hard for me to explain just how much this development soured the show for me. Don’t get me wrong; I still loved watching all of Avatar: The Last Airbender. But I can’t stop thinking about how stupid the character of Ozai was and how many questions arose from seeing that, along with the weirdness of parts of the grand finale. For example, why on earth are the Fire Nation people happy with this leader who wants to destroy and dominate the world? In the episode where they have the satirical play that humorously retells the story of Aang’s group, the Fire Nation audience gets up and cheers when Ozai wins and melodramatically declares that, “The world is MINE!” Picture me going, “Wait, what?!” There was never any reason why the average Fire Nation citizen should have been excited at any point by what Ozai was doing, as they never seemed to get any special benefits or promises beyond the citizens of other nations. And don’t get me started on that finale, as I still don’t quite know what the hell was going on when Aang and Ozai started turning red and blue and, at the last second, we were informed that somehow “spiritbending” was something that existed. Ugh!
All in all, I loved Avatar: The Last Airbender and, despite its relatively minor flaws, it’s definitely a show that I would recommend. Parents, this series is one that you can enjoy while still keeping the little imps happy too. And I already went into how rare it is to find that!
Last but not least, Iroh is the coolest character of all time and, the moment I finished the show, I went out and got myself some tea. There’s nothing more awesome than that.