27 November 2010

Avatar: The Last Airbender - Book One: Water

Avatar: The Last Airbender- Book One: Water

Starring the voices of Zack Tyler Eisen, Mae Whitman, Jack DeSena, Dee Bradley Baker, Dante Basco, Mako. Created by Michael Dante DiMartino & Bryan Konietzko. First transmission date: 21 February 2005. Nickelodeon, 20 episodes, 24 mins.

Plot: Ummm.....The Fire Nation has been waging war on all the other Nations, Prince Zuko (kid of the Fire Nation baddie Ozai) has been banished from home and seeks the Avatar, and the Avatar is a 112 year old boy named Aang (actually 12, but got enclosed in ice for 100 years) who meets up with a Waterbender gal named Katara and her brother Sokka from the Water Tribe, and it's up to Aang to master the three elements he's unfamiliar with (water, earth, fire) to conquer the Fire Lord in about a year. Pheww...that's a very basic summary.

Throughout the year, I've made it a goal to sit down and watch television shows I never had a chance due to all sorts of conflicting events. This resulted in a new found passion and quite possible obsession with LOST, and a kinship to the greatness and brilliance of FRINGE, and has now led to a affection and love for AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER, a show I never in a thousand years thought I would get into (yes, I will live a thousand years). For one, after the hype overload of James Cameron's AVATAR last year, I have since grown a aversion to the very word, so the idea of me enjoying a show with that title and the main character being exactly that was not very promising. And M. Night's summer adaptation of the series didn't exactly excite me beyond reason [in retrospect: M. Night's movie is nothing like the series; sure, it has many of the same scenes, story, and elements, but the characters and the fun are nearly dimensions apparent, my friends]. With that said, the bottom line is AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER is a show I can't recommend enough.

Let's be upfront: cartoons since the early 2000s have lost a great amount of gusto and fun, save a few brilliant exceptions (e.g., SAMURAI JACK), so the fact that this show is a cartoon is most likely a automatic turnoff for some. Frankly, I thought that would be my problem as well, but once you're four episodes in, you're so immersed in this deep, richly emotional story that any distaste for its cartoon origin is forgotten, and it in facts adds to the already greatness of the program. Indeed, AVATAR is a prime example of the benefits of traditional 2D animation (sorry Pixar and DreamWorks), as it displays some amazing visuals throughout the series. More on this in the upcoming season reviews.

Front and center is Aang, the 112 year old Avatar, destined master of the four elements (earth, water, air, fire), who is one hell of a jovial and humorous character, but also burdened and guilt with the knowledge that his fellow airbenders have been eradicated from existence and he could have stopped it if he didn't run away from his true calling. Coming to terms with this guilt will be a major character arc for most of the season. All the characters have great comedic bits, but it's Aang and Sokka that provide the majority of the comedic relief. Of course, Aang needs to be serious a good amount of time, and mature into his role as Avatar in order to help people in need, but being 12 (technically technically), he has his funny moments.

As his opponent, there's Prince Zuko. Disgraced and exiled from the Fire Nation by his father Fire Lord Ozai (who doesn't physically appear until Book Three), Zuko sets out to find the Avatar and regain his honor. Accompanied by Uncle Iroh (voiced by the brilliant Mako), acting as his Obi-Wan Kenobi and evermore enjoying a nice coup of tea, Zuko's tale in this first season is a rather straightforward one. He will do whatever he needs to do in order to capture the Avatar, it becomes his sole reason for existence. As much time is placed on Aang, the equal amount if given to Zuko. Even though Katara and Sokka are just as important characters, this show really is about Aang and Zuko and their arcs and how they mesh together. Hot headed and full of determination, Zuko is a great foil and interesting character who will only grow more complex as the story grows.

Katara is the strong female character of the series (until Book Two, when she gets sidelined by the awesome Blind Bandit), sporting a strong moral resolve and gaining discipline and mastery over her Waterbending. She assists Aang in his ability to Waterbend, and the two of them partner up in battles quite a lot. There's a great Katara-centric episode in "The Waterbending Master" when she's denied tutelage by Master Pakku and in a fit of rage engages in a fight with him. Some brilliant stuff, and furthermore compliments the stunning animation style. Katara also gets her share of flirtations, specifically in "Jet" which comes back to haunt her in Book Two. In addition, she suffers some childhood trauma after the death of her mother (everyone seems to have parental problems) which influences how her character is more motherly over Aang and Sokka than sisterly. This subplot gets more action in Book Three, and it's a doozy.

As for her brother Sokka, he's pretty much the comic relief, given most of the gags and humorous expressions in the series. But as the final batch of episodes come about, Sokka gains more depth and is even given a rather tragic subplot. In the Northern Water Tribe, he meets a girl, a Princess, and becomes romantically involved only for it to end in a sad, emotionally heart-wrenching kind of way. This experience stays with him throughout the series, and no doubt matures the character as a person and his desire to be something more than a sidekick with a boomerang.

Equally as important as the human characters are Aang's best animal friends Momo and Appa. Loyal and cute, I'm half tempted to purchase a Appa action figure.

I don't have the specific language necessary when it comes to commenting on the animation style, so I'll keep this brief: the movements of the characters is beautiful and marvelous to behold. There's no stilted hand gestures, no odd walking style...these are basically the finest rendered drawings of people I have seen, and this is taking into account the fluidity of Warner Bros. critically acclaimed BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES from the mid '90s. In addition, the way characters bend their specific elements or engage in battle, there is a beauty to the way it looks that's indescribable. More on this in the upcoming seasons, but Book One is just but a small preview of the sheer majestic craftsmanship at work here. Also worth noting is the influences of Japanese style of animation in this series. "Influences" is the correct word to use, as AVATAR doesn't base itself entirely in the realm of Anime, it just takes elements (i.e., speeding towards opponents, facial expressions, and, at times, shot movements) while dabbling in both mediums.

I also don't posses the correct language insofar as reviewing music, so I will keep this brief, as well: although the entire show is a success, the music enhances and compliments the source material much like Bear McCreary's work on the revitalized BATTLESTAR GALACTICA. And for anyone who has experienced McCreary's compositions, you recognize this as a grand compliment. Composed by Jeremy Zuckerman, the music of AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER is beautiful to listen to, indulging in tracks similar to Howard Shore's LORD OF THE RINGS and, for lack of a more immediate example, Ang Lee's RED CLIFF. Similar to the animation, it too dabbles in Asian and American music. Also worth mentioning is not only the visual style for the spaghetti western but also how the music reflects themes as so (more on this in Book Two). In a nutshell, Zuckerman proves himself a force to be reckoned with, and here's a more telling statement: in no time, the AVATAR soundtracks will be in my collection and will be listened to repeatedly.

Book One: Water
A very good season that fleshes out the characters, the situations, and gives us hints of the greatness, the philosophical and spiritual issues the characters will face, as well as the hardships and romances on the horizon. Particular season highlights include "The Storm", a flashback episode explaining what happened to Aang 100 years ago (something I didn't quite get from the movie) and how Zuko got his scar; "The Blue Spirit" where Zuko rescues Aang from the clutches of the Fire Nation; "The Deserter", which could be considered filler but is the first time Aang dabbles with fire and begins a subplot that carries on all the way to the end of Book Three; "The Waterbending Master", which has a outstanding and stunning battle between Katara and Master Pakku; and of course, the last two episodes of the season, "The Siege of the North." Golly G, does Book One end nothing like the movie. Suffice to say, my love for Godzilla resulted in me wishing I could get a action figure of the Ocean Spirit. O-M-G awesomeness! These episodes are perfect examples of when AVATAR is at its best in all areas: animation, music, cinematography, script, story, and funness/awesomeness.

By seasons end, "Water" does feel like one, great self-contained storyline, but the shows freshman season does take a few more detours in the central story than is appreciated. Granted, some of these one-shot 'filler' episodes do expand on characters (Katara and Aang mostly, with Sokka mostly sidelined until the final three eps), and on occasion, a event that happens in one episode lends itself to something happening later (some elements stretching into Book Three "Fire", like 'crazy king' Bumi), but while watching them, they're not entirely engaging. Specifically, I'm thinking of "Jet", "Imprisoned", "The Waterbending Scroll", "The Great Divide", and "The Fortunteteller" as the mostly fillers. Out of all of 'em, though, "Jet" relates to the story further down the line, and the other installments are more for character benefits. Aang gains some confidence as the Avatar in "The Great Divide", and "Scroll" and "Jet" being more Katara-related stories. Overall, not especially entertaining but not entirely horrible episodes.

All these episodes come together to form one hell of a great freshman year. When "The Siege of the North" concludes, you'll be wanting to throw in Book Two pretty much instantly. Make some popcorn, get some drinks, be comfortable, and prepare for the awesomeness of Book Two: Earth.

AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER is for the kids, yes, but it's also a surprisingly deep, intellectual, adult show that delves into spirituality and concepts like Yin and Yang. It's a epic adventure about the last airbender bringing peace to a world in ruin, and there's not a episode that goes by where I wasn't in love with the show. I implore each and every one of you to seek out the seasons, rent or blind buy, and watch 'em. If M. Night's "masterpiece" left a sour taste in your mouth, one episode of this show will quench it and nearly make up for the 1hr 47mins. of bad adaptationyness. Watch. Love. Buy a Appa figure.

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