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March 07, 2006

Avatar: The Last Airbender

An American series—about a budding master of earth, water, air and fire—channels everything good about anime
Avatar: The Last Airbender
Book 1: Water, Vol. 1 (eps. #1-4)
Nick DVD
95 mins.
MSRP: $16.99 hybrid DVD
By Tasha Robinson
Nickelodeon's animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender begins by introducing a couple of familiar enough kid-show stereotypes: Smart, capable Katara is almost a generic anime heroine, while her brash, foolishly arrogant brother Sokka serves as standard strident comedy relief. But very early on, Avatar starts to distinguish itself from other shows with its depth of story and the complexity of its characters.

It begins when Katara, in a moment of annoyance at Sokka, accidentally uses her nascent elemental power over water to destroy an iceberg floating in the freezing waters near their South Pole home. Inside the iceberg are a 12-year-old boy and a giant wooly "flying bison," both frozen in a sort of suspended animation.
Narrative depths and visual homages alike are just gravy on the meat of the matter: The fact that Avatar is simply addictive.
 
The boy, Aang, is a casual, cheerful sort who takes his awakening in stride, even when Sokka stirs up local sentiment against him, and even when soldiers from the aggressive Fire Nation—whose people have elemental power over fire, just as some of Katara's Water Tribe kin control water—come to capture him. It seems Aang is the Avatar, a legendary figure reincarnated into every generation with the power to control all four elements: earth, water, air and fire. The Avatar's job is to maintain balance among the four tribes of the earth, but the previous Avatar disappeared a century ago, and in his absence the Fire Nation has come close to dominating the earth under the Fire Lord Ozai. Ozai's son Zuko and brother Iroh are in charge of the party who find Aang, and their attempt to seize him and take him back to Ozai reveals his true power for the first time since his awakening.

Aang was raised as a monk of the Air Nomads, and his air-control powers are already considerable in spite of his youth—which is just as well, since the Fire Nation may have already wiped out all the other Nomads. But to fully come into his power as Avatar, he must learn to master each element in turn. So he, Katara, and Sokka set off together to evade the Fire Nation and learn what they need to know to stop the war.

A show with more layers than an anime torte
Even in these initial episodes—the first four of 20 in Avatar's first season—some impressive aspects of the show emerge. The characters are three-dimensional and nuanced: Sokka is a comically thoughtless twerp, but he's also brave and quick to learn, while Zuko escapes generic-bad-guy status thanks to a novelistic backstory and his own brand of honor. Aang, meanwhile, is as reckless and excitable as a kid his age should be, but he also shows the marks of a monastic life of training and responsibility. The same level of detail extends to the series' richly developed world. In particular, the four elemental-control disciplines—known as "bending," as in "firebending," "airbending," etc.—are consciously based on different Asian martial arts, so each has a unique visual design and philosophy. The DVD's one special feature shows how these four arts were incorporated into the show's visual design.

That design is just as elaborate as Avatar's writing and plotting: The colors are lush and gorgeous, the style is three-quarters anime and one-quarter Disney TV, and the animation (produced in South Korea) is smooth and accomplished throughout. It's always tempting to go back and watch the "bending" scenes in slow motion, since so much attention has been paid to them. A similar amount of attention went into designing Avatar's world, particularly its peculiar wildlife. For instance, its "penguins" are black-and-white, upright-waddling South Pole dwellers, but they have four "wings" and fuzzy catlike faces. And Aang's six-legged "bison" Appa seems to have been imported wholesale from Hayao Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro, where the Catbus would certainly recognize it as a close relative.

But narrative depths and visual homages alike are just gravy on the meat of the matter: The fact that Avatar is simply addictive. It's lively and engaging, dense enough for older viewers and exciting enough for younger ones. With its long story arc, Asian-influenced designs and themes, terrific animation and zippy leaps between comedy and drama, Avatar blurs the line between anime and domestic cartoons until it becomes irrelevant. A great show is great no matter its country of origin.

The second 20-episode season of Avatar (the "Earth" book, where the first season was the "Water" book) is set to launch on Nickelodeon on March 17. Here's hoping it's as popular as the first season, and that the entire series—reportedly planned for a 60-episode story arc—gets completed as a result. —Tasha