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!