Preliminary Review: Invader Zim

I am ZIM!!! Fear me…or rather, the diagnosis of a cult classic.

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The Lowdown:

Show: Invader Zim

Network/years aired: Nickelodeon, 2001-2006; movie pending

AniB’s thoughts: I was initially planning to sit on this show’s review until October, but with the recent surprise announcement of the series’ return via a movie, and the Fairly OddParents review that I recently wrote, here’s a week of Nicktoons, for better or worse.

Surprised is really the most apt descriptor I have for Invader Zim’s unlikely return. The first show I thought of that may have spurned the move by Nickelodeon to do so was Samurai Jack, which after 13 years of being “finished,” is now airing an absolutely brilliant 5th and final season on Adult Swim on Saturday nights at the time of this writing. Zim, while a completely different show in terms of substance, style and writing does share two things in common with Samurai Jack: a early to mid 2000’s original run, and an incomplete story. And while I’m fine seeing the adventures of Zim and GIR again in movie form, featuring  their ham-handed attempts to take over Earth and do battle with Dib, their archrival, it’d be nice to have a tightened narrative focus, a refresh on the visuals, and some cleaning up of certain “gross-out” elements that figured prominently into the otherwise dark fantasy and science fiction tones of the original series. I do think that a movie might not be enough to do whatever justice the series really wants for a conclusion…but then again, how many times do cult classics actually get new life?

Changing gears a little bit, the original series is rather overrated by its core adherents, but it is a very unique show in the Nickelodeon pantheon at least: its pervasive darkness and science fiction-heavy elements are mixed with a type of kid-friendly black humor that in turn, is also diluted with slapstick and the usual “idiot ball” trope of some really dumb adults (and kids, for that matter); in the case of Zim, it’s almost a prerequisite to make the entirely convoluted plot-lines work, and to that end, it’s really the characters of this show that give it an odd charm. The closest comparable show I can think of in terms of style, era, and substance (to an extent) is Courage the Cowardly Dog: If dark and weird is your cup of tea, or your store of choice at malls is a Spencer’s or Hot Topic, you probably loved both or either of these shows…

Zim may hold the distinction of “cult-classic,” but nobody will mistake it for a masterpiece, and in the case of this production, it’s probably best. Its originality, particularly when it came to characters, shone through- but in equal measure the animation style, with its dark palette favoring purples and greens, and the style of writing overall also had the potential to throw people off. It’s overall an original effort that does more right than wrong- enough so that I’d say it’s at least “above-average” but whether it’s “good” (or “great”) is terribly hard to pin down. At the very least, the movie will hopefully answer a good deal of questions…and give us all a few more laughs.


Animation Quality: Traditional 2-D cel animation. Using muted colors and lots of greens, purples, blues and blacks, Zim’s colors leaned towards its off-kilter version of Earth and the strange universe the show exists in. The character models are very cartoony, but they work well for the show, and there’s only a few models that are truly off-putting. 3.25/5 points.
Characterization: The heart of the show lies in its zany and memorable characters, which in turn catapulted the entire enterprise forward.

Zim serves as the overzealous titular anti-hero bent on proving his worth as an Irken Invader; despite his puny size, big mouth and impulsiveness, his will is stronger to succeed than anyone else in his race…except he’s a menace to them to through sheer bad luck.

GIR, Zim’s dim-witted robotic assistant with a flair for human food, TV and pigs, often makes nonsensical comments and interrupts Zim often, especially when he monologues. Despite being deemed a “defective model” by Irken standards, GIR is actually quite loyal (for the most part) to Zim and contains a powerful array of weapons and modes, though he rarely utilizes them.

Dib, a boy obsessed with the paranormal serves as Zim’s archenemy and is the only human who consistently views Zim as an alien and a threat; this is in contrast to his younger sister Gaz, a dark, gloomy little girl with seemingly terrifying powers and wrath who holds little concern for anything or anybody aside from pizza and video games.

The characters tend to follow a similar line of thinking in each episode they appear in; however, the series does change up the plot lines to keep them fresh, and there is some character development, though not complete. 3.5/5 points.

 
Story quality: Episodic, with loose continuity. Zim was beginning to build a mythos and backstory in its second season before it was cancelled, which means it was incomplete in the story the show wanted to tell. However, most of the show’s episodes could stand alone. Featuring a blend of trademark humor that blended black comedy, slapstick and some randomness, Zim’s storytelling tended to usually be entertaining and unique, but sometimes strayed into uncomfortable and unsettling. 3.5/5 points.

 
Themes: Surreal and futuristic, the show’s thematic elements tend to focus more on its trademark humor and Zim’s mission. Therefore, it excels at what it does… but lacks depth thematically otherwise. 2.5/5 points.

 
Don’t insult the viewer: Dark and creepy are two aspects that happen in Invader Zim. There’s a couple cringe-worthy moments, but it’s a decent watch at the end of the day. 4.25/5 points.

 
Total Score: 17/25 (68%). Truly the definition of a cult hit, Zim is a unique show with sci- fi and vaguely dystopian themes running through its run. It’s very different, but worth a look if you’re into the types of themes and humor the show peruses, it can be very entertaining. It’s a flawed show, but a good deal of that had to do with its cancellation and the inability to finish the narrative that was developing. Hopefully, these issues can and will be resolved in the movie.

Review: The Fairly OddParents

A longtime cartoon has both positive attributes and glaring weaknesses.

The Lowdown:

Show: The Fairly OddParents

Network/ Years aired: Nickelodeon/ 2001- now (though there were shorts as early as 1998)

AniB’s thoughts: After a lot of recent pieces on Japanese anime, my focus now swings back to the West with a well-known show to most- the long running Nicktoon that has been SpongeBob Squarepants’ running mate on the network for over a decade and a half.

Technically, this is a preliminary review, seeing as FOP is still going in a 10th season, but at this point, it’s a formality given that the general form and context of the show is well-worn and well known. Therefore, from my perspective at least, it’s a show that started with some really original comic creativity and humor while also doing parody of other major cultural touchstones quite well, and then age began to set in as far back as 2008, when the show was only 7 years old in its full-series format (11 if you go back to the first shorts on Oh Yeah! cartoons) I actually talked at length about the “seasonal rot and zombification” of The Fairly OddParents in another piece that was from St. Patrick’s Day, so rather than rehashing that entire conversation, I’ll do my best to just focus on the show actually starring in this article and less so the meta-commentary further out around it.

If Butch Hartman’s masterpiece was Danny Phantom, this show was and still is his baby. (Mind you, it’s an enormous cash-making baby whose soul might have gotten sucked out at least going back 5 years, but still something he clearly cares about, if nothing more than as a tool for what I’d presume is a very comfortable livelihood.) It’s got all the elements of later Hartman shows including the spontaneous humor, the sound effects in conjunction with action (and while this is a technique as old as time in animation, FOP has a distinct feel to this idea), and the fast-talking, slice of life episodic format with its trademark convoluted premises, all honed down to a “T.”

Overall, The Fairly OddParents is an enjoyable, if zany experience in its earlier seasons and a retread milquetoast disappointment as it continues to wind on into what very well could be eternity with the way Nickelodeon hangs onto old franchises. In favor of the franchise, its parodies still hold water even from early episodes, and are often quite well done (i.e. the character the Crimson Chin. Definitely a reference to comics and certain heroes.) On the other side, recent episodes have opted for dated references, retread plots, uninteresting characters thrown in simply to “keep things fresh” and some of the gross-out and downright strange humor endemic to many a Nicktoon over the past decade. Graded on its entire body of work, the show comes out as pretty average- a viewing experience you may or may not want to see, but if you do, the episodes from 2001 to around 2007 are pretty solid on the whole (and the TV movies are a lot of fun as well- Channel Chasers anyone?) but after that, you’re on your own. (And Sparky, the magical dog from season 9 can die in a fire. Thankfully the writers  canned him after severe backlash…only to introduce a literal Mary Sue in the form of Chloe season 10. Zombie show indeed.)


Animation Quality: 2-D animation, about as average as it comes. It was this way back in 2001, and still is this way in 2015, obvious improvements in computer shading non-withstanding. It’s generally bright and colorful; the color palette is pretty easy on the eyes, and is still eye-catching enough, and despite the simple style, it usually augments the frenetic comedic action of the show quite well. 3/5 points.

 
Characterization: Two words: genre stereotypes. Before I delve into this idea though, a quick rundown of the main trio:

Timmy Turner stars as the “fairy godchild,” the 10 year old who receives fairies in order to improve his lackluster life, as far as the basic premise goes. He’s got buck teeth, a “silly pink hat” and shirt, and is remarkably reckless about a variety of his actions, particularly when it comes to wishes, and so, while Timmy solves most of the show’s episodic problems, he’s often the cause of them too.

Cosmo and Wanda are his “Fairy Godparents,” the magical creatures sent from the whimsical Fairy World to serve at Timmy’s beck and call. Aside from their wands which can grant any wish that does not violate the in-universe “Da Rules” (supposedly), the pair can shape shift, disappear and teleport long distances, and fly (they have tiny wings.) Overall though, they are silly creatures. Wanda and Cosmo in particular are foils: a husband-wife team with opposite personalities- Cosmo is “an idiot” in Wanda’s words, but knows how to relax, while Wanda is the smart one of the pair, though very uptight…meaning their dualism is something that’s been done many times before in other places and shows….which in turn leads back to my initial point in this section.

 

Cosmo is the most unpredictable thing on the show; Timmy becomes more formulaic as the seasons roll on, especially after you watched more than 5 episodes at any point during the show’s run. The supporting cast is mainly static but certaintly still has some of its own charms, from the Timmy’s insane teacher Mr. Crocker, to the massive ruler of Fairy World, Jorgen von Strangle (who is a parody of Arnold Schwarzenegger); character development is not a major focal point in the show but a certain predictability is. Overall not anything special, but also not anything particularly displeasing. 2.75/5 points.

 
Story quality: There’s a story? The show is episodic, and there only seems to be a very loose canon, involving mainly Timmy, his fairies, and Da Rules. Everything else seems to contradict an earlier event at some point, so you learn to ignore too much continuity fast in this show. As for its format, the canon can be partially excused, but not wholly. Later seasons bring down the score of originality in plot choices on the show. 2.25/5 points.

 
Themes: Wishes, be careful what you wish for, magic should not be abused… fairly harmless stuff, but perhaps the greatest virtue this espouses is that one simply cannot wish their problems away in life. Other than that, it’s typical plot of the day fluff. 2/5 points.

 
Don’t insult the viewer: The Fairly OddParents is standard animated fare for the most part, but the general scattershot direction of the writing can be slightly irritating. Other than this, it’s not particularly demeaning in any way. 4/5 points.

Total Score: 14/25 (56%). A completely average show in most ways, The Fairly OddParents is still one of the longest running animated shows on TV. Perhaps it’s the comfortable familiarity with the source material at this point, because the show’s biggest shortcoming is the stench of seasonal rot. For its length alone it will likely get an annotation in the history of animated shows.


Like what you see? Love the Fairly OddParents? Leave a comment!

Review/Rant: Breadwinners

Duck soup: A terribly misguided knockoff of Regular Show.

The Lowdown:

Show: Breadwinners

Network/years aired:  Nickelodeon, 2014- 2016

AniB’s thoughts: Once again, some balance is being brought to the reviews with the perfectly awful Nicktoon Breadwinners. Like Fanboy and Chum Chum (which I blasted in a previous review), this show has very little going for it. In fact, the picture I chose for this article sums up how the entire endeavor felt: That our main characters, Sway-Sway and Buhduece (seriously, that’s their names) both smile through abject stupidity that they are often at the heart of while being oblivious to the disaster around them!

Nick seems to have a weird obsession with buddy-buddy shows in the past decade, with the common denominator that they’re terrible. Fanboy and Chum Chum was one; this show is another, and for good measure, I’ll throw Sanjay and Craig on that pile to give everyone a sense of the turgid overflow of awfulness coming from the general direction of whoever green-lit these endeavors. The story behind this one is almost just as bad as the Adventure Time pass that Fanboy beat out; Breadwinners was chosen to be developed into a full-time production from an online short animation that frankly was average at best (and that’s being generous), and highly obnoxious at worst:

(Even without watching it, that screen freeze right there sums it up better than anything I can say.) As an online short, it was not anywhere close to a sure bet to be developed into a full-time series , and frankly, there wasn’t enough substance there to do so. In my mind, the first mistake that led Breadwinners to be a poor series was the fact that it was chosen at all- something that should have never happened. Unfortunately, it did, and so every other valid criticism falls squarely on its misguided Nickelodeon run.

In a lot of ways, the same criticisms that applied to Fanboy apply here: Poor animation, underwhelming storytelling, non-existent themes, and in the case of this show, a very uncomfortable obsession with butts and flatulence. I get the whole dumb network trend of the past however many years that “young boys are our audience, they love this stuff, it’s so damn funny!…” but it’s really not. I don’t want anything related with the posterior to be vitally important in a plotline or a characterization, because it also tells me your show likely sucks ass (pun intended) and that the writers are pandering for cheap laughs from a narrow demographic who network executives might be surprised to learn, like shows that don’t play down to them. This sentiment makes all the more sense when you consider its direct competition over its run were shows like Gravity Falls and Phineas and Ferb from Disney XD, or Adventure Time and Steven Universe from Cartoon Network, using a few well-known examples. (And that’s just within the intended target demographic.) This show never had the potential to hook in a larger crowd with sophomoric humor, the usual sub-standard Flash animation, and writing that oftentimes left yours truly with his face in his hands. Fortunately, its misguided run came to a merciful end last year; both our TV sets and cartoon ducks everywhere are safe once again.


 

Animation Quality: 2-D Flash animation mixed with what can only be described as clip art. If the characters of the show didn’t outright tell you, you’d be hard-pressed to tell they were ducks; and frankly, the main cast looks (and feels) like a poor man’s version of Regular Show’s cast. Visually conflicting, and cheaply produced, it’s not eye-bleeding, but not close to good either. 1/5 points.

 
Characterization: For those who care, the show follows the titular “breadwinners,” a pair of ducks named Sway-Sway and Buhdeuce, who deliver bread to various citizens of their world, and are obvious knock-offs in many respects, of Mordecai and Rigby from the aforementioned Regular Show, lacking the same sort of charm, development and supporting cast, while attempting to fill the void with more toilet humor and butts than any one show ever needs…

Sway-Sway is the taller one. He’s technically the main protagonist, and while marginally more competent than his partner, he’s still relatively dim-witted and reckless at his job, passion non-withstanding. (It turns out that he actually inherited the family buisness- why anyone though this was a good idea is beyond me.)

Buhdeuce is the short one. Enthusiastic as all-get out, the kid has an obsession and reliance on using his “booty.” (There is no context to make that sound good.) Even more reckless and foolish than Sway-Sway, no one will ever mistake him for one of the great deutragonists of animation…

The supporting cast is unremarkable. Not the worst crew ever, but still fairly poor. 1/5 points.

 
Story quality: Episodic in nature, no continuity or canon to speak of. Where do I start? From unoriginal plot lines to crude solutions to some problems, the plots are uneven, and more serious characters are shoved aside quickly as cheap gags. The show’s attempts at humor tend to be pitiful; as mentioned, the toilet humor is off-the charts bad and distracting.  And the pop-culture references and slang are not going to keep aging well. The dialogue is cringe-worthy, even for this style of show. It still maintains a basic story structure though, so it saves the grade form utter annihilation. 0.5/5 points.

 
Themes: Power of friendship? Honestly, aside from weak offerings and a crash course in how much flatulence two ducks (?) can make, this show offers next to nothing, except constantly boring, low expectations. There’s no character growth, and nothing to write home about whatsoever. 0/5 points.

 
Don’t insult the viewer: Butts, farts, and burps. Not my idea of appointment television. The music is meant to capture some of the 8/16-bit video game era style, but in this show, it doesn’t always come off as charming. At least the colors are nice… which is code for “this is wasting my time.” 1.5/5 points.

 

 

Total Score: 4/25 (15%): Another awful Nicktoon from the decade following 2005, Breadwinners was chosen off of a very average web video, which frankly didn’t have the depth to be a full time series. Lacking coherence and originality in most facets, Breadwinners is a misnomer for “losing.” It you really wish to watch a plot-of the day show, there are far better choices.

Review/Rant: Fanboy and Chum Chum

Dumb and dumber: The tale of a bad Nicktoon.

The Lowdown:

Show: Fanboy and Chum Chum

Network/Years aired: Nickelodeon, 2009-2014

AniB’s thoughts: Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. Let me preface my thoughts by saying that Fanboy and Chum Chum brings some levity to the reviews here, which have been loaded initially with some of the best shows both East and West have to offer (including fellow Nicktoons Avatar: The Last Airbender and successor piece The Legend of Korra), and it was about time to show off an example of what not to do in a show. Enter the highly forgettable entry that is the subject of this review column, and prepare yourself, because it ain’t pretty.

I really do make an effort to be as unbiased and objective as possible with every show that’s reviewed. Unfortunately, even with that fair ideal in place and a grading system that can also be described as such, Fanboy and Chum Chum is a mess of a show in almost every possible aspect. Where do I even start? Bad CGI, bad script-writing, bad music, and horrible characterization makes for an explosion of awfulness that in some ways, can only be explained as a byproduct of the era in which this show was hatched. 2009 was admittedly smack dab in the middle of the worst mini-era of animation in at least the past 30 years, and while Nickelodeon was struggling as a network like everyone else, it did itself no favors with its pick of shows, and of that inglorious bunch (which included “gems” like The Mighty B! and T.U.F.F. Puppy), Fanboy and Chum Chum might unequivocally be the worst. What makes this assertion even more accurate is that Nick execs had a choice of  shows to greenlight from pilots; they picked this heaping pile of garbage up instead of another little show you might have heard of- Adventure Time– that went on to became a massive success on rival Cartoon Network en route to becoming the very representation of a new wave of Western animation in the 2010’s. But enough about a show I’d rather talk about- we’re here for the choice Nick made instead.

This show really does one thing well: showcasing to aspiring show-runners mistakes they should avoid making, and this unfortunate reality has a two-fold crisis in Fanboy and Chum Chum: The animation style, and the inability to write anything resembling cohesiveness. Shows have distinct animated styles, but different character designs also have natural proclivities to what they’d look best in. Gravity Falls, for instance works perfectly in 2-D; while Star Wars: The Clone Wars was very good in 3-D (and is an example of versatility in styles.) Fanboy and Chum Chum has the unfortunate distinction of having 2-D designs cast in a 3-D world. The end result is incredibly unnatural, jarring character models (which you can see clearly in the picture for this piece) which would have been at home in the 2-D style exaggerated character designs like these have been in forever, but for some reason, from the word go (which included the pilot), the creators decided 3-D was a good idea. (It wasn’t.) Add in janky colors that are almost too bright, and the low-budget CGI production that is also evident, and it’s a disaster of equal proportions. While this aspect alone sapped a great deal of any promise from the show, it still might have had a chance if the writing was there…except it wasn’t.

Character writing 101 was left on the doorstep of Fanboy and Chum Chum. As anyone worth their salt as a critic, an animation fan, or a purveyor of entertainment in general will tell you, characters are the hook into your narrative. They flow with the story you’re trying to tell, and as a baseline, the main cast should have some dynamism and your main protagonists need to be easily likeable.  This show failed miserably at this most basic of tasks- the titular characters are two of the most annoying tone-deaf, brain dead individuals ever conceived in an animated show, regardless of target audience, and it is so bad that anyone who actually continues to wade into the sludge of this show’s depths will only find themselves rooting for Kyle- the middle guy in the article picture- a wizard (don’t ask) who is incessantly pestered by our supposed “heroes” in such a way that I at least found myself rooting for his schemes to destroy the little bastards. The main goal of Fanboy and Chum Chum as individuals is- get this- to get a special kind of Slurpee they particularly love, to goof off and (un?)intentionally annoy people, begging the question what the actual gripping concept of having these two wack jobs dressed up as knock-off superheroes in the first place was, or even more generally, what was goal of the show? To be honest, I’d write a better script for this abomination in two seconds: A Codename: Kids Next Door hybrid meets Teen Titans, cast in tasteful 2-D, give our main men actual brains (which they remove in the show we actually got, to “comedic effect” at times), and overhaul the entire cast, colors, music and everything else- wait, scratch that. I just said to scrap this show essentially- which should have happened in the first place! Anyways, here’s the gory details in all their graded glory:

 


Animation Quality: 3-D CGI, and not very high budget at that. A quote I read somewhere online a while back summed it up best: “This is what Ren and Stimpy would look like if it was in 3-D.” It’s fairly stark for a show released in 2009 that ran into 2014, and the character designs don’t really do it any favors. On the plus side, the color palette is bright. That’s about it though. 1/5 points.
Characterization: The major problem with this show is its titular characters. For the viewer, they are incredibly annoying “protagonists” and they seem to revel in their awkward stupidity. As I highlighted in my thoughts, when your show has unlikable main characters by any stretch, you’ve got serious problems.

Fanboy and Chum Chum are the two leads. While separate characters, they essentially are two sides of the same coin, meaning “not very bright, impulsive as hell, and likely to get diabetes at some point.” Fanboy’s the skinny one in mostly green, and Chum Chum’s the fat, short guy in orange. (Apparently, wearing underwear on the outside of your clothes emulates heroes’ spandex, but it’s not very becoming here.) They engage in random acts of..randomness (think involving a giant wad of chewed gum FB and CC are hiding in their school desks (which is disgusting, not funny, especially when they talk to it like a young child), which then, upon bringing it back to their hideout/home in the town’s water tower, it turns into a sentient monster who’s equally as thick as his new friends.) What?

 

The supporting cast is very weak and stereotypical; Kyle’s probably the best of the bunch (largely because he’s aware of just how stupid FB and CC are.), but unfortunately, he’s the punching bag- a inferior Squidward clone. As mentioned, the character designs simply look ugly in 3-D. They would have worked much better in 2-D, as most atypical designs do. 0.25/5 points.
Story quality: Episodic. Terribly contrived plots- I don’t think I was very amused at any point watching, and frankly, the show didn’t do anything spectacular to really warrant praise. The lack of character development, the consistently annoying premises, and the unfortunate truth that I wound up rooting for the “antagonist” in just about every episode sums it up. There’s a lot more nasty things that could be said, but simply, the episodes are dull exercises in futility. 0/5 points.
Themes: The power of friendship? Seriously, the show doesn’t even try to wedge something of nutritive value in. Thematically, the show’s a waste of time when your main characters are more interested in obsessions over sentient pieces of gum (for one strange example), a conspicuous lack of attention or basic listening to other people, and the fact that they don’t even try to work the superhero angle in. (They would be the lamest superheroes ever, but it’d be a start…) 0/5 points.
Don’t insult the viewer: This show is catering to kids, and not in a good way. It’s a brain dead show with generally unfunny attempts at humor, an unlikable set of main characters, basic CGI, and a slew of other problems. It also has an awful music track, simply adding to the misery of what was an unpleasant experience. 1/5 points.

 

 

Total Score: 2.25/25 (9%). Fanboy and Chum Chum is a truly awful cartoon with little sense of pacing, character, story, or really anything of worth. Its most significant achievement was somehow surviving for 5 years on Nickelodeon (how it did is still a mystery to yours truly). It’s not vulgar, but it lacks any intelligent writing and nothing particularly stands out. It is, in a word, awful. Avoid this at all costs- there are far better pieces of animation to consume.


Like this review? Actually enjoy this show? Or here to parrot the same convictions? Leave a comment!

What’s In a Character: Zuko

The former crown prince of the Fire Nation is a very unique character.

Hello dear readers! Today’s piece about Zuko is the first in a series about certain characters I’ve thought were worth writing more at length about. Reviews are a fantastic format to write further at length about shows, but they do not do as much justice to complex, well developed characters; in many cases, shows feature extensive casts and unless you want to read reviews longer than the Great Wall of China, I can only really highlight the major members of a show.

Zuko in many ways is the most interesting character in one of the best Western shows in animated history, and almost certainly a top 5 deutragonist. As I noted in my Avatar: The Last Airbender review (read it if you haven’t!) he serves as a foil to Aang throughout his journey in the show; his path is inextricably intertwined with the Avatar’s, which manifests itself in unpredictable ways. As Zuko travels along his eventual path to becoming one of Aang’s most trusted allies and eventually taking up the mantle of Fire Lord himself, there is some extraordinary character development and intriguing decisions made in a journey that is truly all Zuko’s alone. Voiced by the excellent Dante Basco, the only right thing to do is ‘honor’ the head of the Fire Nation at length! (One final note: This review is about Zuko during Avatar: The Last Airbender. It’s not going to make reference to his much older self in The Legend of Korra, which essentially amounted to a cameo.)

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When Avatar: The Last Airbender began its run back in 2005, Zuko’s first appearance suggested he might be the typical villain you’d expect from a Nicktoon based on the network’s past performance and the unrealized brilliance that ATLA was yet to become. He was hunting the Avatar; Aang appeared conveniently from an iceberg, and perhaps the first thought one could have about Zuko was that he was a young Captain Ahab; doomed to sail the seas in pursuit of his white whale. Fortunately, that conclusion was both premature and rather short-lived. Once it quickly became clear in the first half dozen episodes of the show that it was a world-building, story driven narrative- a sharp departure from the Nickelodeon formula up to that time, and far more in line with anime counterparts from the East, Zuko’s character immediately became far more interesting. Traveling with his Uncle Iroh, the only person in the world (aside from his mother) who could truly claim that he loved him, the season 1 Zuko’s obsession with finding the Avatar formed a rivalry with the arrogant Admiral Zhao, a man who foolishly believed he could capture the moon spirit and destroy it, all in the name of personal hubris. The true purpose of Zhao’s role in the story though was to show what would happen to Zuko if he continued down that path of blindness; dragged into the Spirit World of that universe, Zhao was forever trapped, driven to insanity by his ambition (which is revealed fully in a cameo in the second season of The Legend of Korra.) It took Zuko taking off with Aang’s body into a frozen wilderness, nearly dying in the process, and personally seeing Zhao literally dragged into what can be construed as the depths of hell to start realizing that his task- his “mission,” which was to regain his “honor” by capturing the Avatar, was a convenient way for his father- the tyrannical Fire Lord Ozai- to dispose of him whilst simultaneously advancing his plans for world domination.

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The beginning of the second season saw these fear confirmed, as his sadistic sister and crown princess of the Fire Nation- Azula- appeared. Fleeing with Iroh upon being labeled “prisoners,” it would be Zuko’s journey through the Earth Kingdom that would start to truly teach him what “honor” meant. Living off the land did not suit the young man used to royalty and (relatively) comfortable living, and ultimately he would be confronted by his own past. Zuko Alone is one of the best standalone episodes in the series, specifically showcasing the struggles Zuko had between his identity as Fire Nation prince and fugitive young man trying to forge his way forward. Another element that resolves itself for him in this season is the ‘Blue Spirit’ alias originally introduced in the first season. Essentially serving as a vigilante double, it was another expression of the young prince not necessarily being honest with himself, or the totality of his person. (After setting the Avatar’s flying bison Appa free from a Dai Li prison, he symbolically sets this Robin-hood esque personality free as well by dumping the mask in Lake Laogai.) This was reflected also by his rage-fueled firebending, which seemed much weaker than that of his uncle, Iroh- the former great Fire Nation general; or Azula, whose prodigious skills were hallmarked by rare blue-colored flames and a mastery of lightning generation. As Iroh would explain to his young nephew about the balance of the elements, so too Zuko would have to find such balance within…but it would not be quite yet. After finding a quasi-peaceful existence in Ba Sing Se, the capital of the Earth Kingdom, the gut-wrenching Season 2 finale saw Zuko make a decision to team up with Azula out of indecision in his heart that fueled the almost extinguished- but not quite- thirst of capturing the Avatar that had been full bore in Boy In the Iceberg. Not to be understated here was the capture of his beloved Uncle Iroh, who he had reunited with and had helped run a tea buisness with in the city. This betrayal, along with that of Katara, whom he’d finally connected with, loomed heavily on the young prince’s mind.

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Going back to the initial introductory thoughts of this piece and my Avatar: The Last Airbender review, Zuko’s path had continued to mirror Aang’s up to this point. While the young Avatar had suffered a critical injury in the battle of Ba Sing Se’s catacombs, Zuko had achieved redemption…or had he? Starting with Azula’s lie that he, Zuko, had “killed the Avatar,” doubt crept in from the word “go” on what his decisions had led him to. Season 1’s finale had him nearly die trying to do what was lied about in the wake of Season 2’s finale; and it was precisely the empty feeling of his “honor” upon being received back into the fold at home that Zuko’s journey would finally start turning on a true path of internal discovery. After rediscovering his family roots to his maternal grandfather- Avatar Roku, and feeling deep shame and guilt for Iroh’s capture, Zuko finally started to move on his own. Making his decision on the Day of Black Sun, the midseason finale, Zuko defied his father- the tyrannical Fire Lord Ozai, voiced by the always amazing Mark Hamill, and very symbolically flew off in a Fire Nation balloon, ready to forge a new path for himself- and unwittingly enough,his nation. After being received with less than enthusiastic responses from Team Avatar about his conversion (particularly Katara), he then proceeds for the next number of episodes to bond with his newfound allies in this newly formed life he chose to follow. His previously weak firebending would be replaced by an experience shared with Aang himself; the Dancing Dragon style, which was passed on from “the original firebenders, the dragons.” Zuko’s renewed bending signaled a shift in his motivations and determination; and on the other side, Aang would now be his pupil in firebending, as the young Avatar’s fear of the element had dissipated.

Zuko would also take part in the daring rescue at the Boiling Rock prison facility, where he found a valuable friend in Sokka while rescuing his father Hakoda, and love interest, Suki- a fierce warrior in her own right. It would be at the Boiling Rock where the shift in personalities between brother and sister would become evident- as Zuko continued to be more at peace, forging the path of destiny, Princess Azula, who had been the picture of unnaturally composed in her 2nd season tour de force finally began to snap mentally, ordering the arrest of her two best friends and most trusted “henchpeople” up to that point- Mai and Ty Lee. As the heroes escaped, her descent into madness began; a story point that would resolve itself in the climatic final battle between the two. But first I must mention that our man of the hour makes up with Katara in The Southern Raiders,  a rather selfless act by the prince to help settle a personal vendetta of Katara’s own. That leads us to the part you’ve probably all been waiting for: The final Agni Kai.

Just watch the video above. No amount of exposition or description can really adequately describe the buildup to this moment. Understand this though: far from just being one of the best battles in the entire series, everything is set up to contrast Zuko’s journey against Azula’s destructive rampage. Warm orange flames meet cold blue ones. Zuko’s not alone like he was in season 2- this time, he sticks with Katara. Most importantly, his calm, confident demeanor stands out sharply against the obvious psychosis of the unhinged Azula here. Ultimately, Katara wins the fight and saves him after his selfless decision to protect her, but compare this version of the prince to the one from the start of the show. That’s character development. (Oh, and his foil? Aang mastered all the elements, beat the Fire Lord and saved the world. Not a bad redemption for a coward and an outcast.)


Like this analysis? Have an opinion? Chime in. Oh, and one more thing:

You knew it was coming. HONOR! HONOR! HONOR!


All rights to the Nostalgia Critic and Viacom for the contents of these videos.

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!

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!