26 June 2011

Avatar: The Last Airbender - Book Three: Fire

Avatar: The Last Airbender - Book Three: Fire

Plot: It's crunch time for Aang who really needs to master the elements pronto before his fight with Fire Lord Ozai, which is coming up rather super fast, and he still has quite the way to go before being a master of anything.

Endings are hard. So much work and build up has been put into the seasons past, and with a (presumably) large and dedicated fan base having your back, the pressure is on. The ending needs to satisfy creatively, as well as to the audience whilst serving the story. Here we have AVATAR, finishing its final act in a three-act epic tale, where lines and drawn, allegiances change, and the ultimate showdown is fast approaching with a worrisome under-skilled savior.

Season one was the light-hearted introduction, with emphasis on character mischief and crazy adventures. Season two held the task of further developing these characters, providing more beats of the Avatar mythology, and overall indulging in a darker tone to reflect the gravity of the situation. Hope is fading, the Avatar is in hiding, and Fire King Ozai will soon harness unbeatable power. As per the prerequisite of a final act, the stakes have never been hire, and the hero has never fallen lower –

-- only to rise higher than ever before.

This is a kids show, mind you. And just like the last two seasons, I am flabbergasted by the adult nature of this series. Here we have a 12-year old Savior who is overcome with fear – fear of what winning will mean, fear of failure, fear of having to take a life, fear of having to even fight. Lives are on the line, and extremely young characters are forced into very adult situations and make very adult decisions. Take away the fantasy aspect of THE LAST AIRBENDER, and you have one hell of a fantastic guide for Building Character. That aside, BOOK THREE: FIRE is akin to REVENGE OF THE SITH in tone, but with a happier ending. The world is very dark, no doubt about that, but amazingly, the writers still have the opportunity to throw in plenty of comedy into the mix without feeling forced or out-of-place.

Every season feels meticulously thought out, and this is no truer than in BOOK THREE, where the creators and writers are presented with penning the finishing touches. FIRE is competently plotted and written, nicely balancing the humor, the darkness, the action, and the arc without one overbearing the other.

BOOK THREE: FIRE begins with a bit of catch-up of what’s been going on since Aang was so viciously defeated three months ago. Now in the Fire Nation, Aang, Katara, and Sokka are hiding in plain sight in the Fire Nation. While Prince Zuko and Fire Lord Ozai prepare for Sozin’s Comet and the power it will bring, the season spends the first few episodes allowing the characters to grow. Sokka and Toph become more adult, but still maintain their signature character traits; Aang is trying to control fire, face his fear of Sozin’s Comet, and overall regain his strength from being royally pwaned. The character that makes a rather frightful detour is Katara, who in “The Puppetmaster” learns the sadistic art of Bloodbending: consumed with rage while pursuing an investigation into her mother’s death, Katara learns a ‘skill’ that is intriguing, impressive, and horrifying. New realms of darkness seep through.

But not to let too much darkness overcome a kids show, FIRE also boasts two of my favorite AVATAR episodes: “Nightmares and Daydreams” is absolutely hilarious (and, at times, serious) as Aang is plagued by fear in his dreamscape, and “The Ember Island Players” (the last fun episode before the four-part series finale where things get deadly serious), a meta-esque episode that pokes fun at the series and also functions as a nice “looking back…” before the ending.

As Aang moves ever closer to his destiny, so does Zuko, faced with a morality that doesn’t adhere to his father’s plans and wavering in his allegiance. After his brilliant arc in BOOK TWO: EARTH, Zuko is given one amazing finale. This series, as I think I’ve said before, is just as much Zuko’s as it is Aang’s, and with both of their destinies reaching their culmination in the four-part series finale, this point has never been more clearly shown. Without giving too much away, Zuko is given a very satisfying arc this series, and just as multi-layered the show is, gives the character time to scratch his darkness, indulge in his more light-hearted side, and face a new dynamic that creates new story beats that better serve the show.

So, basically, AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER is firing on all cylinders.

If one has already followed the series this far, obviously, don’t stop now. Finish the blasted thing. If you’re reading this without prior knowledge of the series, I can’t recommend enough to check it out. The series is a testament of marvelous storytelling, and genius plotting and creativity. Satisfying both the kid and adult demograph, whether or not to watch the series should be a no brainer.

In the end, BOOK THREE: FIRE is extremely well crafted – just like its predecessors – but oddly, I still find myself fancying BOOK TWO: EARTH over WATER and FIRE. Perhaps I’m just a fan of the second act structure, or perhaps the pacing, I feel, was better or the stories more awesomer, but EARTH is pure magnificence, and FIRE is a close second. The resolution to the big Aang vs. Fire Lord Ozai arc is okay. Visually, very much awesomely stunning, and the battle royale is definitely one to be remembered. Unfortunately, there does seem to be a Deus ex Machina vibe to the whole affair. That said, it was still entertaining and extremely breathtaking. All I can say is: Wow. Wow. WOW.

AVATAR, you were three seasons of sheer awesomeness. One of the true great animated shows ever made. Thank you.

Rating: 8.5/10 = Brilliant. Satisfying conclusion to a brilliant series.

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