Avatar is one of those cartoons that was hugely successful in its time. It’s spawned a sequel, a bunch of merchandise and a Hollywood film that quite literally no one on the planet thought was good. It was also a cartoon I never really got into. I was aware of it. I knew people who liked it. I just never watched all that much of it.
The opening blur pretty much gives us the gist of it. The four traditional elements are in play. There’s a nation for each one. Everything changed when the fire nation attacked. Only the Avatar, who can use all four elements, could have stopped them but he vanished. A hundred years passed and the water tribe siblings, Sokka & Katara, discover the Avatar, Aang, in a block of ice like he’s Steve Rogers. That’s how their journey to defeat the fire lord and save the world begins.
I have two narrative issues with the series. The first has to deal with the ending. Everything wraps up far too neatly. To a degree, I get it. This is a series for kids and it’s on the light-hearted side aesthetically. It still comes across as more than a little absurd that they just have to beat two people and stop some airships to collapse a nation’s entire government and its military. There are no ambitious ministers or generals to contend with? No loyal soldiers who will fight to free their lord?
The romantic sub-plots are also a bit absurd at times. Our main characters range in age from 12 to 16. With Aang and Toph both being twelve, Zuko 16 and Sokka & Katara being between. We’re basically watching their barely pubescent romantic drama. The type that kids get heated over for a week and then get over after a day. Except we’re supposed to take it more seriously here.
To its credit, I appreciate the pacing as a whole. The series may take some detours but it is good at making steady progress without rushing or going far too slowly. I also do like the general writing aesthetic. I can appreciate a series that’s mostly more light-hearted but can have some slightly more serious moments and handle both competently. And Avatar does have some strong, funny moments.
The cast of this is a step above the archetypes. Aang is the reluctant protagonist. Katara is the nurturing big sister type. Sokka is the wisecracking one. They aren’t bad characters and it does help that they all have some aspect that elevates them beyond the archetype. But the point where the cartoon really starts to shine is when Toph joins the group. To an extent, she follows the cocky youngster archetype including making wisecracks. But she’s also capable of acting the role of a proper lady and there are points where it’s clear that she’s putting on a cheerful facade in spite of not feeling it. Plus, her wisecracks give us some of the best scenes in the series.
Zuko’s whole redemption arc is also quite good. It helps that they give us quite a few scenes of him with his uncle ahead of time and demonstrate various positive qualities in him. I also appreciate that his turn isn’t instantaneous. There are a good number of scenes that show him going through confusion on what he should do before the actual change. I also do like Iroh as a supporting character.
Avatar very clearly draws influence from the more action-oriented shounen anime in its art style. The most unique aspect of it is the bending. There’s a lot of effort into making the bending movements very fluid and matching them to the elemental attacks. Which does make for some very strong action sequences. There are also some nice details in the backgrounds and for the various fauna like Momo or Appa.
I will also credit them for doing some nice story telling through artwork. There’s a particular moment where they have Azula cornered and you can tell what Iroh is thinking just by the way he glances around.
The acting is pretty well done. With people like Mako, Jessie Flower, & Dante Basco. The worst I can say about it is that there is some awkward screaming, usually from Jack De Sena. The music is pretty nicely done. Jeremy Zuckerman & Benjamin Wynn did a good job.
Areas of Improvement:
- Give us a little montage that shows our heroes mopping up the fire nation army. That would give us a sense that it takes more effort than just taking out the big two.
- Either age up the characters or ditch the romance. The level of romantic sub-plots they have could work if their youngest characters were in the neighbourhood of 15, 16 instead of 12. It would still be a weaker element, but it would be a lot more passable.
- Give us some closure about Zuko’s mum. We find out she’s alive and, in the end, see Zuko ask his father about her. And that’s the end of that sub-plot. Do they get reunited? I don’t fucking know. It’s probably answered in some expanded universe shit.
So, that was Avatar. At first, I was thinking of giving it around a 5. But after Toph and Zuko’s well handled redemption arc, I’m up to a 7/10 on it. I’m not going to be one of the major fans who considers it to be among the best cartoons ever made, but I quite liked it.