Review: Gravity Falls

An ambitious mystery show that broke from the Disney mold is sure to be remembered as a classic.

The Lowdown:

Show: Gravity Falls

Network and years aired: Disney Channel/XD, 2012-2016

AniB’s thoughts: I suspect the people who wind up reading this review will have one of a few reactions: a) This show was incredible- I only wished it reached a larger audience; b) “Yeah, I heard about it at some point, but haven’t really watched it,” or c) What the heck is Gravity Falls? Well, I’ll do my best to accommodate all these points of view, because while Gravity Falls reached notoriety among its viewers and fans, by virtue of being a Disney .XD show in its 2nd and final season, it most likely did not reach the entire audience it could have. That isn’t to say that it’s an obscure show- because it’s not- but more so because it was a show that deserved more exposure than it got, especially considering its brilliant, final 6 months airing the remainder of its new episodes, which wrapped up with the conclusion of the Weirdmageddon arc nearly a year ago on February 15th, 2016. This show, without a doubt, is probably the best Western animated show of the decade, and it came from a director- Alex Hirsch- who was writing it in his debut as a show-runner. Blending dynamic, interesting and funny characters, a very fresh take on the “summer vacation trope,” quite a bit of inspiration from The X-Files and The Simpsons, and a unique blend of episodic and overarching storytelling styles, all wrapped in a neat 40 episode packages, you get Gravity Falls. And honestly, that description doesn’t really do it justice.

“But AniB,” you might ask, “best Western show of the decade? Are you sure?” Absolutely. Of course there’s stiff competition for that particular title in my head, and while I’ll mention the following shows, this isn’t their review: Adventure Time is probably the best representative show of the decade, debuting in 2010 and still going strong, but not the best overall; some will claim Steven Universe, but that series is not completed yet and lacks certain facets the very best shows have (but its emotional storytelling? Brilliant.) What of Rick and Morty, the Adult Swim phenomenon? Overrated by a vocal crowd. You can love your shows and your memes, but don’t confuse them with overall quality. And while I do enjoy The Legend of Korra (of which I already wrote a review about), Gravity Falls is a tier above it- but to be fair, they are hard to compare shows simply because in terms of style and substance they are very different. What makes Gravity Falls unique is that it’s not only all the aspects I’ve already described, but at the heart of the show lies one of the best sibling relationships ever seen on a TV screen- that of Dipper and Mabel Pines. It’s not a forced sort of relationship, where one sibling is pushy and the other is meek, or the trap where writers create tension between the two for the sake of having it, but it’s wonderfully organic; two different kids who are undeniably close at the end of the day- and mostly, “human” is the best word. As it turns out, the twins were inspired by Hirsch and his sister; a personal connection to a show, combined with a vision to end it on one’s own terms as a creator usually yields great results.

Gravity Falls is for me a personal favorite that I happened to come upon halfway through its run, but even divorced from that affection as a critic, it’s a show that was clearly designed to entertain anyone– as it targets both an older and younger audience adeptly. The logic that “the secret to writing a show that’s entertaining for kids is to write for adults” holds true here; the twins’ “Grunkle” Stan is a con-man with a complicated past; there are references to everything from Mad Max to the boy band craze of the early 2000’s; crazy creatures straight out of mythology appear in unorthodox ways, and the satire and symbolism in the show is not only obvious, but hilariously well done. And the show has its darker elements too- led by the major antagonist of the show, the fast-talking mind demon with truly outsized ambitions- the chaotic Bill Cipher. Whatever the case, Gravity Falls has something for everyone as a show, and as the show’s finale notes, “see you next summer…” because you almost certainly will be back. Take a trip in the woods if you haven’t, and you might just find a gem.

Animation Quality: Traditional 2-D animation, painstakingly done with care. Simplistic style of characters is very worn and familiar in feeling, reminiscent of The Simpsons (one of the show’s inspirations) and earlier cartoons. Background sets are varied, highly detailed and well thought out, hiding Easter eggs in the episodes. (The show runners actually hid keys in every episode to solve ciphers embedded in the credits of the show; this was a truly impressive detail and tied in the mystery element of the show on a whole new level for fans.) For this style of show,  the attention to detail, the animation style, and the way it builds the universe- it’s all very highly appealing. 5/5 points.

Characterization: Featuring a rich, diverse and dynamic cast, Gravity Falls lays claim to some of the most funny, likable and heartfelt characters from any show. With excellent development, the main cast is very endearing in distinct ways.

Dipper Pines, the main (c0-)protagonist and one of two twins, is an intelligent 12 year old boy who becomes engrossed in the mysteries of the titular town and grows to learn a lot about his abilities and shortcomings as a person. Dipper, as you might expect, has strengths and weaknesses that contrast with his sister; while he has a nose for mystery, discovery, reading and the like, he is physically weak (though improves through the course of the show), quite introverted in certain social situations, and often seems all too eager to grow up, forgetting sometimes to enjoy his childhood (and each day, for that matter.) He also cares extremely deeply for his family; he has innate courage that comes out when most needed.

Mabel, his sister, is a ham, preferring to keep a bright outlook on life while quietly fearing the prospect of growing up (in contrast to her brother). She is all things “fun and random,” preferring social activities with her friends in Gravity Falls (Grenda and Candy), such as listening to pop music and having slumber parties. Most distinctive about her is her one-of a kind sweater collection, which she constantly knits off screen. (She wears upwards of 100 distinct sweaters over the course of the series- can you count them all?) As I highlighted in my thoughts,  the two twins share a sincere, sweet bond that is one of the best portrayals of siblings in any show.

Their great-uncle, or “Grunkle” Stan, is one of the most well-rounded older characters developed in animation. Billed initially as a shyster of a tourist trap (The Mystery Shack), Stan’s motivations and character turn out to be far deeper than simply turning a profit. (MAJOR SPOILERS, turn away if you must): Stan’s real motives are to fix a 30-year old rift gate (that rends time and space) in order to rescue his long lost brother, who in turn he must also mend his relationship with. Despite his questionable habits and disposition that most would see as “grouchy” and “cheap” from afar, he’s got a heart of gold for family (and brass knuckles for anyone who messes with them!).

As for Stan’s employees, Soos, the Mystery Shack’s handyman, is fleshed out as a sweet, naive man-child, with plenty of warmth and a helpful hand, despite serving as comic relief most times, and Wendy, the Shack’s other employee is the most believably cool teenager in a long time on an animated show. The only daughter in a family full of sons that are lumberjacks, she’s a classic sort of “cool” without really forcing it.

A quick mention here to Bill Cipher, the “dream demon” and triangular-shaped  main antagonist, who in turn is a brilliant portrayal of a chaotically evil villain, containing a blend of dark humor and truly threatening qualities. I’ll also mention Gideon, the strange Southern-accented faux psychic who serves as the 1st season’s main threat. The rest of the cast is also intriguing and generally very funny, including the mysterious author of the journals. 5/5 points.

Story quality: The show has an impressive story arc, but also is episodic, with most episodes able to stand on their own. The finale lived up to massive hype, completing everything in most satisfying fashion. Even the supposedly “filler” episodes advance the plot, whether through subtle clues or through focused character development, so there’s no real filler in the traditional description. There’s impressive detail to hidden codes, genuinely funny moments abound, and very clever satire exists throughout the series. More serious scenes are treated with painstaking detail and add balance to the lighter parts of Gravity Falls. 5/5 points.

Themes: Definitely focuses on mystery and the wonders of unexplained phenomena. However, the show also focuses on friendship, growing up, familial bonds and brother/sisterhood. Uses certain symbolism related to secret societies and the like to set the tone in a very savvy form of satire- the more you mess with this stuff, the worse things become! (It’s also a subtle criticism of  messing with such groups and supernatural forces). Indeed, all these ideas come to a head in the satisfying final arc. 4.5/5 points.

Don’t insult the viewer: Gravity Falls is an incredibly smart show, balancing the kid audience on one hand and the older audience on the other with great characters, storytelling, and very smooth animation. The level of painstaking detail and the great score add to the show’s charm as well. And how can I not mention the incredibly catchy theme song? (And it even has a special variation…) 5/5 points.

Total Score: 24.5/25 (98%). The first show run by creator Alex Hirsch turned into arguably the greatest animated show of the 2010’s and one of the better animated shows of all time. With a blend of memorable characters, superb writing and animation that brought out the best of the medium and a widely universal appeal, Gravity Falls showed the power of Western animation at its finest.

Like what you see? Wish to express an opinion? Feel free to comment!

Review: Dragon Ball Z

The most famous series of Goku and friends is an essential in the anime canon.

The Lowdown:

Show: Dragonball Z

Network (Studio) and years intially aired: Toei Animation, (Japan 1989-1996), USA- Cartoon Network 1998-2003)

AniB’s thoughts: Ah, the show that really brought anime into its own in the West; that gave Toei Animation a much bigger name, and that anybody who ever claimed to love the genre has laid eyes upon: Dragon Ball Z. I’d have to imagine that for many a reader, you lived through plenty of late nights on Cartoon Network’s Toonami block (before it was Adult Swim) at the turn of the millennium absorbing in the adventures of the one anime character even the most casual of TV watchers might know- Goku- in all their action-packed, blood and sweat filled, 4 hours of yelling filled glory. If you haven’t seen the series, it’s the 25- year old predecessor to the currently airing Dragonball Super, but was not the original iteration of the Dragon Ball franchise- that honor belongs to the same-named show that aired originally in Japan from 1986-1989, which among other things, shows Goku in his formative years and the introduction of franchise standbys such as Bulma, Master Roshi, Krillin, and Piccolo. But, as this review focuses on Z, I’ll save the details of the original series for another day.

Dragonball Z was an archetype show for anime that came after it for many reasons. However, it too was likely inspired by another of Toei’s works from the 1980’s- Hokuto no Ken, or in English, Fist of the North Star, which set templates for fantastical post-apocalyptic worlds and much more importantly, the idea of the superpowered shonen badass who has the capacity to be the strongest, faced by ever increasing challenges, higher stakes and powerful foes. Dragon Ball Z took that concept and ran; every danger was a planet-busting monster with little in the way of redemptive qualities (sans Vegeta, whose character development turns out to be the best of anyone in the show), which ultimately concludes with the pink blob destroyer of worlds, Majin Buu. But aside from the fight sequences, there were other reasons Dragon Ball became beloved: The FUNimation dub is fantastic to this day (and even better with updated Kai animation and lack of filler); we came to love the characters of the DBZ universe, which beyond Goku included people growing up with his eldest son Gohan; Piccolo’s transformation into one of the good guys, Future Trunks appearing in his debut to slay the rebuilt Mecha-Frieza and his father to bits, and of course, Vegeta, whose undying thirst to be the greatest warrior in the universe had an unexpected transformation in his character, giving us the greatest of rivalries. Even Frieza and Cell had their fans (though Buu’s only confirmed one was Mr. Satan, the self-proclaimed “hero of the world.”) And who could forget the dub opening of “Rock the Dragon?” (Mind you, the original Japanese opening has its own charm as well.)

Whatever the reasons, DBZ transformed into a cultural phenomenon the way few shows and fewer anime do. There are plenty of fine shows out there, but few ever make it quite as big as DBZ did. It’s not the greatest anime ever created, but it very well may be one of the most influential, and cultural affluence aside, is a pretty good show, aside from copious filler in parts and fights that literally stretch on for hours (though it’s part of the show’s experience.) So, without further ado, here’s the breakdown of Dragon Ball Z!

Animation Quality: Classic hand drawn Japanese anime from the 80’s. It was excellent for its time, and was brought up to date in Kai, but the original still has a nostalgic charm (which admittedly looks dated, but that’s an aside). The animation is especially brought out in action sequences; example include the famous struggle on Planet Namek between Goku and Frieza; the climatic fight at the Cell Games, and of course, the iconic beam struggles popularized by this show. (There’s a bonus point here, as Kai’s essentially a better remake with superior animation, so take that into account): 4.5/5 points.

Characterization: Dragon Ball Z boasts a surprisingly large cast of characters, many new, but also many holdovers from predecessor Dragon Ball. Despite the size, it focuses on a few main characters, namely Goku, and as the series progresses, Vegeta.

Goku (better known as Son Goku in Japan) is the main protagonist of the entire Dragon Ball franchise. Known for his insatiable appetite for both training and food, Goku transforms from a simple minded nice guy into one of the fiercest, toughest warriors in the universe- (spoilers- not really!) a Super Saiyan when drawn into battle, where he is veritably a combat genius. Gaining various powerups and powerful new abilities at each step along his journey, Goku’s will and drive to become the strongest for his own sake (and to protect those he cares about) helps him to overcome all the obstacles in his path, however insurmountable they may seem.

Vegeta is the self-proclaimed “Prince of All Saiyans”- the last of the former royal bloodline of the destroyed Saiyan homeworld. Originally coming to Earth with fellow companion Nappa in an attempt to find the Dragon Balls (for those who really have never seen this show, the titular items summon a wish-granting dragon, Shenron), Vegeta has a change of heart after an epic battle with Goku, starting on an intertwined destiny with his new rival while serving as a personality foil and anti-hero. Boastful, tougher than nails, and arrogant to boot, Vegeta’s pride knows no bounds, and while it makes him very strong, it is also his fatal weakness.

Aside from these two, Goku’s son Gohan plays a major role as well. Introduced as a young child at the start of the series, he is a quiet, shy boy with genius intellect and initially no fighting prowess. However, a confrontation with the first villain of the series reveals Gohan’s incredible hidden power and potential, something that first Piccolo and then Goku train tirelessly with Gohan to draw out. Their efforts do eventually pay off…and Gohan’s character arc is very good.

Trunks (both Future and regular) are Vegeta’s son. Initially appearing as anonymous Saiyan through time travel with a sword and the ability to go Super Saiyan, it is revealed through the course of the following arcs that he is in fact, Bulma and Vegeta’s baby. (During the Majin Buu saga, the present timeline Trunks, a young boy, appears as a major part of  the cast, along with Goku’s second son, Goten.)

Piccolo also deserves a mention in this column. Initially still Goku’s great enemy from the 23rd World Tournament in Dragon Ball, Piccolo quickly becomes an anti-hero out of necessity, and upon taking up the mantle of surrogate parent and trainer of Gohan, purges the evil out of his heart. He too receives several powerups through the series (though not to the same level as the Saiyans), along with a great deal of wisdom and a distinction as the Earth’s strongest non-Saiyan fighter.

Finally, there’s Krillin. Goku’s first training partner with Master Roshi, Krillin’s devotion to his friends and great spirit help keep him in titanic struggles despite being utterly outclassed by all the major DBZ villains as a human. Quick with a joke, he invented the Destructo Disk technique and later, gets another certain character to somehow fall for him. (The others might be much better fighters, but it can’t be denied Krillin’s a ladies man!)

A quick final mention goes to the major villains of the series, topped by Frieza, the insufferably pompous, polite and sadistic galactic overlord; Cell, a genetic abomination created by the evil Dr. Gero in an attempt to create the perfect fighting android, and Majin Buu, a destructive force with not much in the way of words, but plenty in terms of livability and combat prowess. Inevitably, the major problem with a cast the size of DBZ, not everybody gets enough screentime. 4/5 points.
Story quality: Dragon Ball Z is a canonical show with a progressive story, the typical format of most anime. The story focuses on four (five if you count Androids/Cell separately) main arcs, though they tend to be very long in the original due to the presence of filler. Overall, the narrative is gripping and strong, if simplistic; the writing is generally on point, and the action sequences are satisfying in that 1980’s/1990’s way. It is an action show with some actual weight in universe, and because the characters create such a strong attachment, the story itself becomes more compelling.  4/5 points.
Themes: Family, saving the universe/world, fighting for justice, pushing your limits, a never can die attitude, self sacrifice… and a whole lot of fighting, hence violence. It goes without saying DBZ’s pretty intense. It’s good to actually have some strong elements of thematic relevance in a show of this style, and the things it does focus on tend to be done pretty well. 3.75/5 points
Don’t insult the viewer: The Frieza battle comes to mind as being an endurance test. Otherwise, the show doesn’t assume its viewers are too young, even though you probably were when you first watched this. Epic 90’s rock score in the American version really sets the tone in intense ways as well. 4.75/5 points.
Total Score: 21/25 (84%). While Dragon Ball Z has its flaws, its cultural impact is undeniable (although discounted in the grading analysis). It was a great show then, as it is now, and set precedents for many popular anime that followed it. The characters are also iconic, well known beyond Japan, especially Goku, Vegeta, and Frieza (who was THE villain when he appeared back in the day). It is a classic in many hearts, and these ratings mostly reflect that.

Like what you see? Have something to say? Please leave a comment!

Review: The Legend of Korra

The successor series to Avatar: The Last Airbender is a unique show in its own right.

The Lowdown:

Show: The Legend of Korra

Network and years aired: Nickelodeon, 2012-2014

AniB’s thoughts: I did not know initially what to expect from the sequel series of Avatar: The Last Airbender, aside from the fact that it had a very high bar to reach, perhaps unfairly so. It is my opinion that while Korra did not quite reach the same heights as its predecessor, it was a unique show in its own right, and executed some very interesting, cool ideas all on its own (The mini-arc from Season 2 with Wan, anybody?). That’s well and good, but I also need to acknowledge the elephant in the room for any fans in the room (and that there’s MAJOR SPOILERS for newcomers, so skip ahead to the grading section if need be), that being the romance and shipping in this show, because it’s obvious if I’m writing a Legend of Korra review, you’ll want to hear my thoughts on the show’s endgame. My opinion has been the same from the first time I watched the finale: It sucked.

Let me clarify my statement further: My issue with the endgame between Korra and Asami Sato has everything to do with the writing of the show. As a critic, I cared very little about the warring factions of Korra fans over shipping, and much more about the same elements I’m always analyzing in a show- and the issue here lay in both character and story development. Simply put, “Korrasami” is a crappy bit of writing that left Mako without a truly definitive conclusion (which I believe was the original endgame, but changed at some point) and did not have nearly enough of a buildup or real foreshadowing, which led me to  think either of the following three conclusions: that a) The writers (Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino) decided to give a big middle finger to Nickelodeon, considering the network had treated what had easily been its best rated, most popular show during its run quite badly, to the point that a late season 4 episode had its budget slashed, and was forced to be a clip-show; b) The chorus of shippers who wanted this specific conclusion was so loud and vocal the writers unfortunately caved in to please/placate such fans, or c) a combination of both. For anyone arguing that “Korrasami” was a long awaited thing, let me illustrate a couple points: First, The Legend of Korra was meant to initially be a 1-season show. At some point, this endgame was devised, and I believe it was quite late (again, my speculation), but it was not the original intentions of the writers, if Season 1’s finale was anything to go by. Next, a pen pal relationship and a wink and a blush between two women hardly constitutes that they’re about to be romantically involved. It can just as easily denote a strong friendship- a unique bond between women that is both empathetic and understanding. From my perspective, this would have been a far more logical conclusion to make from a character development standpoint, except for the nagging belief that the vocal segment of the fandom who wanted the endgame we got would get their wishes, development be damned! Finally, the last issue lies with the character of Asami Sato herself. While a major character in the first and second seasons, her role (mostly) dwindled in the final two seasons, aside from bankrolling a fancy blimp, giving the occasional baddie a shock from her electric glove, and being a real estate developer. Asami, therefore, did not have enough weight as a character to really justify the specific ending we received! That in turn also leads back to my conclusion that everything involving “Korrasami” was a late decision based on the factors I laid out, but as they say, the rest is history. The franchise is now saddled with that decision come hell or high water, and frankly, it’s probably best they run with it now that it’s been made. I still think it was a bad choice from a writing perspective, and I’ll leave it at that. Now…some people probably want to hear about everything outside the final 2 minutes of a 4 season series, so we’ll get into that now!

Animation Quality: Highly detailed 2-D animation with heavy influences in anime. Korra took cues from its predecessor (Avatar: The Last Airbender) and polished them even further, resulting in stunning action sequences and a compelling re-entry into a transitional version of the Avatar world. There are many gorgeous moments worth mentioning, but a special shoutout goes to the season 3 finale, which the animation was perfectly choreographed with the music and storytelling.  5/5 points.

Characterization: The characters are well developed for the most part; the Avatar’s (Korra) journey through the four seasons provides an overarching plot that is generally cohesive and intended as a foil to the original Avatar, Aang in terms of progression. (What I mean by that is that Korra’s journey is often an inner one; Aang conversely had to master the 4 elements and physically become the Avatar he was meant to be; he had a strong spiritual connection to start.)

Korra herself is a headstrong, tough young woman who is initially all too eager to show off the world her prowess as the young Avatar. Coming from the Southern Water Tribe, and living in the giant shadow of her predecessor Aang, she quickly finds that carving out her own legacy is not nearly as easy or straightforward as punching an Equalist goon in the face, and each season progressively delves deeper into Korra’s spiritual connection as the Avatar and her inner demons. (It’s a very Eastern aesthetic, but works well here). With her friends and family though, she continues to move forward.

Mako and Bolin are brothers living in Republic City, the new megaopolis that Avatar Aang founded. (Slight spoilers) Born to a Fire Nation mother and Earth Kingdom father, Mako is a talented firebender and Bolin is an earthbender. The brothers enjoy playing the sport of pro-bending profesisonally(you’ll see if you haven’t watched the show) and become the first friends and then valuable allies through the series to Korra. Bolin also has a fire ferret named Pabu that accompanies him and serves as the inspiration for the team name in pro-bending they have; Mako has an interesting arc that involves romance, police work, and plenty of resourcefulness.

Asami Sato, aside from the diatribe above, is a talented inventor who takes over her father’s buisness for certain reasons (which are very clear in the show). She is the financial muscle of Team Avatar, and often has good advice for her friends. Her signature weapon is an electric glove made intially for the Equalists (the first antagonist group of the series), which combined with her decent prowess in hand to hand combat, is formidable.

While there’s a great deal of other characters worth mentioning (such as deus ex Jinora), the last one I’ll flesh out here is Tenzin. Master airbender and youngest son of Aang, he is a bit of an uptight traditionalist, but cares deeply for his family and friends, and is as brave and resourceful as you’d expect the son of Aang to be.

The supporting cast is also well developed in general; my nitpick was always with Asami Sato, who often felt like a spare tire through the latter half of the series. The romances were a little sloppy; the best in the show from this writer’s opinion was (spoiler!) was Varrick and Zhu Li.  4/5 points.
Story quality: The story was an overarching canon about Korra mixed with smaller sub arcs in the different season. These generally flowed together well, and were perfect for character development. Notably, Korra went with seasonal antagonists rather than an overarching one like ATLA and the Fire Nation; these were generally good although Unalaq was rather stereotypical for a villain character. As I talked about at length, Korra’s romantic life was rather clunky. 4.25/5 points.

Themes: Korra dealt with a large theme of change and growth (the Avatar world was constantly growing and is at a pivotal point in its history when Korra takes place.) It also dealt with relationships and ideologies. The final 2 minutes of the show is thoroughly controversial (writing aside), and to say otherwise is to beat down the potential fans who may not agree with how it was handled. (Personally, this is simply an acknowledgement of different moral codes, not anything else.) 3.5/5 points

Don’t insult the viewer: The show was darker and somewhat edgier in tone than ATLA, and for the most part it worked, except for the romantic bits. Frankly, that’s not enough to dock more than a half point.  Specially mention also goes to the terrific score through the show again, which really helped set the tone and atmosphere for so many key moments. 4.5/5 points.

Total Score: 21.25/25 (85%). The successor to Avatar: The Last Airbender was visually stunning and for the most part hit the right notes, but had a few major, mostly minor flaws that kept it from perfection. It’s still an excellent show, and as some places have mentioned, has a lot of strong female characters, which is nice. Overall, Korra rates out favorably in the end.

Like what you see? Have something to say? Feel free to comment- nothing is better than healthy, constructive discussion!

On characters…

Just a quick post, but I’m going to being doing some more in-depth character analysis writings when I see fit, or if a character is interesting enough. The formal reviews give a broad view of the land, per se, but some characters deserve more than a paragraph of notoriety. (The same is true about some truly awful characters for a ranting session, but that’s a different issue.) As I wrote in my pinned post about grading, characters are the main attraction of any show. If you don’t have compelling, interesting, and likeable characters, your show probably is not going to get very far. I’ll admit, I have my personal favorites like everybody else, but what you’re not going to see from this blog is fantasizing about ridiculous scenarios that are out of character or context for a given individual. But I definitely want to highlight some especially well-written ones in a way that is both interesting to me, and hopefully, to you as well.

Review: Avatar: The Last Airbender

A classic of Western animation holds up well years later.

The Lowdown:

Show: Avatar: The Last Airbender

Network and years aired: Nickelodeon, 2005-2008

AniB’s thoughts: Avatar: The Last Airbender is definitely still one of my favorite shows to this day, encompassing the best of Western animation with a heavy influence from Japanese anime as well, in both design and storytelling. The story of the young Avatar, Aang- who emerges from a 100-year hibernation in an iceberg to save the world- is richly detailed, full of humor, but also focused and serious in a way that few shows intended for younger audiences ever are. ATLA set a new bar for Western animation- no longer would just a bare-bones, cheaply animated Flash show do to satisfy regular cartoon watchers (they had become all too ubiquitous in the early 2000’s), but as had been true from the beginnings of the medium, quality won out. It would be amiss not to further note the excellent cast of characters around the titular Avatar, led by VA Dante Basco’s deeply flawed, but very compelling prince-in exile, Zuko, Mae Whitman’s compassionate Katara; her smart wiscracking brother Sokka, and of course, the “Blind Bandit”- the tough talking earthbending prodigy Toph Beifong. I remember seeing the 4-part finale of this show back in 2008 (Sozin’s Comet) and being utterly spellbound by the place ATLA had built its story up too. Whether you’re looking to revisit an amazing show that has doubtless been talked about over and over again by others, or to discover a new experience you have never taken, this review is for wherever you might fall on that path. (Oh, and forget about the awful M.Night Shyamalan film from 2010. Everyone considers it the black sheep of the franchise and a horrific non-canon representation, so purge it from your mind if that’s your only experience of Avatar.)

Animation Quality: 2-D animation with heavy influence from Japanese anime. Also uses occasional 3-D (i.e. season 2, episode 10-The Drill). The animation is gorgeous and pops off the screen in a style that brings the Avatar world and its characters to life. Even more impressive are the action sequences, with a particular mention to the Sozin’s Comet arc. The animation started off good (Boy in the Iceberg) and got progressively better to the SC arc. But most importantly, it was critical in telling the story itself. When you see the end of the season 2 finale as an example, it’s evident how powerful an expose it can be.  5/5 points.
Characterization: There’s a core 5 that I mentioned in my thoughts (Aang, Zuko, Katara, Sokka, and Toph), with Toph joining mid- 2nd season. Aang is young, impressionable and eager to learn, but carries the (literal) weight of the world on his shoulders- the role of Avatar means that one can “bend,” or manipulate all 4 elements (water, fire, earth and air), but also must serve as the protector, or balancer of Earth. (“The Last Airbender” itself has a dark, dark connotation, which becomes readily evident as soon as the first 5 minutes of the show.)

Zuko is one of the greatest deuteragonists  in all of animation. A prince in exile from his country, the all-powerful (and fiercely antagonistic Fire Nation), he serves as the foil to Aang- searching for his own light and path, unaware of the intertwined destinies the two share aside from an initial goal to capture said Avatar and “restore his honor.” A skilled firebender, Zuko also wields broadswords capably and is quite a tough fighter despite his inner turmoil.

Katara and Sokka are brother and sister. The former is the last waterbender of the formerly great Southern Water Tribe, (which, as you’ll see very quickly in the show has been reduced to a few huts during the 100 years of war by the Fire Nation.) Equally emapthetic and fierce, Katara sees herself as a protective force, particularly to Aang, and has a maternal-esque instinct about her. Her waterbending skills rapidly improve as the show goes on. Sokka is her brother- a technological and tactical genius, but lacking bending skills, or much fighting ability at first, but containing the heart of a warrior and a very good aim with his trusty boomerang. While often in each other’s hair, figuratively speaking, the siblings do get along most of the time, and their strength complement each other well as they accompany Aang on his journey.

Finally, there’s Toph. A master earthbender and tough as nails, Toph masquerades initially as the helpless blind daughter of the Beifong family- Earth Kingdom royalty. While very reluctant at first (an understatement to be honest), Toph consents to be Aang’s earthbending teacher and travels with Team Avatar. Quite popular among fans, Toph’s character is superbly unique, with a likable charm that’s all her own.

All of the characters are varied and different, have different goals and weaknesses, and are believable for their age. Zuko’s Uncle Iroh provides a well-developed older voice to balance the younger cast (I’m not going to say more- truly a fantastic figure as well). Character voicing is well cast, development through the show is superb, and special mention goes to the development and performance of Azula, the psychotic Fire Nation princess (another character I will discuss further in time, but a bit of a MAJOR spoiler here) 5/5 points.

Story quality: As a show focused on an overarching canon, Avatar was superb. It did not have many fillers, and the ones it did have were interesting. Most episodes advanced the plot and character development, and the dramatic sequences were well-constructed and not contrived in the least. Season finales progressively got better and did not disappoint on massive expectations. The “flow,” or pacing of the show also never felt rushed, but also not lagging either. Episodes also hit a consistent quality of “good to great” with some real standout moments.  5/5 points.

Themes: Coming of age, finding one’s path, forging friendships, facing adversity. There’s more than this, but Avatar at its core is a good show with a good moral compass and deals with ideas that both kids and adults can appreciate. The love sequences (yes, there is a romance element) are perhaps a tad awkward, bringing this down a half point. 4.5/5 points.

Don’t insult the viewer: Avatar: The Last Airbender does the exact opposite: It is a masterwork in weaving together a cohesive story and world where a viewer can get invested and immersed. It is not insulting or unintelligent in any particular way, and the comic sequences are well played with a sense of humor (and Sokka). Extra credit goes as well to a particularly diverse and catchy score: the finale in particular has some incredible music.  5/5 points.

Total Score: 24.5/25 (98%): Avatar: The Last Airbender set a blazing trail in Western animation, namely by taking key notes from its Japanese counterparts and not being afraid to tell a real story anyone could relate to. It was not a kid’s show, or an adult show: It was a show anybody could appreciate, both for its fascinating world and relatable characters. At the end of the day, it is a timeless classic that will endure.

Like this review? Hate it? Let me know in the comments. The best feedback is the thoughts I actually get to hear and read- feel free to also chime in on what other sorts of content you’d like to see, or shows to be reviewed!

“Creating the Magic”- How I do reviews

Everyone can be (and is) a fan or an enthusiast of something, and in some cases, it goes further than that, stemming into actual professional fields and careers. You could say as I’m starting this journey that I’m a hobbyist-turned-professional as of now. Extensive time and planning goes into the work people are bound to see and read here- and while reviews will vary greatly in genre, show content, and the types of individuals they may attract, they will have a binding element to all them (one system to rule them all!): A specialized grading system.

For each and every show, I had to devise a universal grading system that would work without fail. There was a few key reasons this task was monumentally important: First, to be a “universal animation critic” who talked adequately about both Western and Eastern shows (namely Japanese anime), the system need to be plausibly fair and work equally as well for something like The Fairly Odd Parents (a Western show) as it did for Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (an Eastern show). Next, it was designed to preserve the imaginative and classic aspects of criticism while adding a quantifiable analytical element to shows. People like quantifiable numbers. Most reviewers, whether it be animation, live action shows, movies, etc., tend to use a four star scale or A-F grading. The focus was to create a superior system that would try as best as possible to add an objective angle in a field that is notoriously opinion-based. I cannot make the claim that everything can be 100% unbiased (as it’s impossible), but I will say it’s more impartial than any other system I’ve found out there. (I can only hope dear readers, that you’ll find the same thing to be true.) Finally, it’s meant to give a clear picture to both long-time viewers of a given show as well as people who’ve never even heard of the same flick. To accomplish all these angles was a tall challenge, but hardly insurmountable, and the system you’re about to see has been perfected on close to 100 animated shows from all genres, which you’ll see gradually rolled out. So, without further ado, here is the grading scale that you’ll see in every formal review posted here (and adapted sooner rather than later to video form as well!)

There were 5 key aspects to form a grade. Three are inherently important to any storytelling medium: Characterization, Story Quality, and Themes. One aspect is exclusively tailored and necessary for the medium: The animation itself! It’s not live-action, so that aspect which gives the art form its very name was very important to get a good grasp on. Finally, there’s a grab bag called “don’t insult the viewer” that was originally envisioned as judging whether a show’s writer wrote down to, or pandered to their audience (to the detriment of the show), or wrote something very smart that could be appreciated by everyone, advice on levels of violence depending on genre and target audience, and other such miscellaneous aspects, which also grew to include music (which was way too subjective for a separate category. Some shows have amazing scores, and other shows don’t have much at all, but can still be good shows.) Each aspect is then weighted on a 5 point scale, and add up to a 25 point score. This score then has a x4 multiplier to get a 100 point grade. And voila! There you have it. Below is more detail on what these categories entail specifically.

Animation Quality

This is the first, but not only aspect of animation. However, the medium inherently demands a certain quality. What kind of medium is it? Traditional 2-D? Cel-shaded? Stop-motion? CGI? All these methods have a certain threshold. The stories themselves are imaginary, so the world and characters should draw us in. The first way to do that is good animation. There are various shows I can name that were great starting with animation eye-candy. I can also think of a few clunkers that were impaired by poor animation or animation that simply didn’t work from the beginning. Problem Solverz was one of those shows- besides generally uninspired writing, the biggest complaint about this dud was the animation, which made it visually unappealing (and I can attest to this). Poorer animation can sometimes be saved by great writing, but that show had neither.


Characters are the gateway into any show and frankly, if we don’t care about them, it’s likely we don’t care about their world, and thus, the show. In animation, this is even more important- since the worlds are inherently make believe, the characters must be convincing and relatable if we are to become interested. They should be dynamic too, at least the main characters- inherently flawed, but possessing some ordinary or outstanding characteristics that make them interesting, and a personality we can get behind. Some exaggeration is good too, particularly in animation where it is a bread and butter tactic of slapstick. And they should look good ideally too. There’s no such thing as a perfect character, but I like to think of animated characters by the “action figure criteria.” If it would look good in real life plastic, and continue to be aesthetically pleasing, it probably is a good design. One last note- designs are best either as simplistic (think tradition 2-D characters) or very detailed (such as most anime and for a Western example, Avatar: The Last Airbender). It’s surprisingly important how characters are almost always better suited for a specific style, and if the creators chose the wrong look for them, it can be very detrimental. Likewise, the opposite is true: good character design in the right style can synergize beautifully.

Story Quality

What kind of story is it- overarching or episodic? Is it a mix? If it’s episodic, does it make itself compelling, funny, or interesting in a roughly 20-30 minute block? For bigger arcs, is there continuity and are plot lines tied up in an interesting or cohesive way? How many filler episodes exist? The multitude of questions presented here are basic criteria that help to frame and decide if a show is fulfilling its story potential. While show runners tend to either storyboard or do written scripts, the way in which the show was written is inconsequential; rather, it is the end product on screen that gets all the attention.

Themes of a Show

Is there any overarching lesson we can take from the narrative? Animation doesn’t always focus as much on this, but it can be an important factor for quality. How smart a show plays cultural and social tropes is an indication of this as well. Used properly, it can have comedic effect. While I thinks some people would disagree, cartoons inherently should NOT be about pushing social agendas or propaganda, although I acknowledge this has been done. It’s quite different than a smart social criticism satirically. Themes will also be probed for the depth in which a show explores whatever elements are key to it, their integration into the story, and relative synergy back into the other key elements of the show (story, characters, etc.)

Don’t Insult the Viewer

You’d be surprised how relevant this is. Shows and movies with a family demographic run the risk of pandering to kids and ignoring the older audience; Shows aimed for slightly more mature audiences do take some risks, and when it goes from smart to insulting (such as Family Guy episodes in general to implied controversial themes in family programming) it can ruin the show and leave a bad taste in one’s mouth. This category, despite its name, also can award merit to great musical scores, unorthodox decisions by the director that work out but don’t fit the other categories, and general advisement on suggested vs potential audiences.


Ratings Scale (A general guide):

25: The perfect animated show. This doesn’t exist, so we’ll say this is the theoretical threshold of perfection.

23-24.5- Instant Classics. These do exist, but they’re of a rare, extraordinary breed of show that just hits all the right notes. It’s not easy to pen a show of this caliber, but this rating system should accurately pinpoint such shows.

22-22.5: Likely Classics. Barely a cut beneath the shows above. Some minor flaw, perhaps. But still a gem of a show.

20-21.5: Excellent Show. Potential to become classics, were very good, had a few negligible flaws, but still great.

18.5-19.5: Very Good Show: Not next level, but solid productions that were enjoyable to watch and follow, typically speaking.

16-18: Above -average show- goes above the typical output, is usually enjoyable, but contains an inherently fatal flaw that keeps it from climbing higher, or it may not have enough development yet if it is an ongoing series.

12.5-15.5: Average show. Nothing particularly special, watchable, inherently flawed, and usually predictable.

10-12: Mediocre: More bad than good, likely not worth one’s time, are flawed in multiple aspects, though they may have the occasional bright moment.

Below 10: A bomb. Fatally flawed, a possible insult to animation, poor characters, poor story, poor animation, etc… and a definite waste of time.

Below 5: Probably “worst of all time” territory. It’s difficult to get a 5 or below on this scale.

So again, the 25 point score is multiplied out by 4 to get a grade out of 100%. The format allows for fair and balanced criticism and discussion, while adding that unique analytical angle. Here’s an example to finish this post off:


Name of Show (Network name, start year-end year)

Animation Quality: This will contain some thoughts about the animation of the show.   ?/5 points.

Characterization:  All about the characters. ?/5 points.

Story quality: Episodic or arcs? All will be explored here. ?/5 points.

Themes:  Family, friends, life itself…you never know unless you watched it. ?/5 points.

Don’t insult the viewer: Fanservice usually not welcome. ?/5 points.

Total Score: ?/ 25. Multiply that score, and you get your % out of 100%.

I know this is a lengthy explanation and a lot to take in, but the system is remarkably easy to understand once you see it in action. I’ll be posting formal reviews at least once a week to start; these can be anything from ongoing shows to real blasts from the past. Oh, and one last note: The only set in stone criteria for a show to be graded is: a) It has to be at least 90% animated, and b) It has to have accrued at least 1 full season to receive a preliminary review. Current shows will be updated seasonally. Movies also work in this format, and at some point, I may review these more formally as well. Finally, thanks to the Walt Disney Company- I don’t know if “create the magic” is trademarked by you guys, but it does make for a catchy title inspiration!


Welcome to AniB Productions!

An innovative new way of looking at animation is here.

Hello new readers,

Welcome to AniB Productions! Here on this blog will be an absolutely amazing compendium (mostly) about  animated shows, from both the West and the East, but also some potential talk about animated movies, or just the occasional random musing. I will have plenty of updates about reviews, thoughts on shows; candid, honest and thoughtful discussion is encouraged- a hallmark of a healthy society! I will also be planning to launch videos sooner rather than later on YouTube, but the written components of criticism and analysis here will still be very important. So whether you’re a huge anime fan, a longtime viewer of Western shows, or just casually interested in the medium of animation (and animated shows, by extension), I sincerely hope that everyone will find something here to interest and potentially inspire them! Please enjoy,