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.
A classic of Western animation holds up well years later.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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,