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I don’t tend to watch Amerime (American anime) because for the most part, it doesn’t catch my interest. I’m much more interested in and am more likely to watch anime from Japan. But with the increasing hype for the movie The Last Airbender (they had to drop the ‘Avatar’ from the title because of James Cameron) and after perusing through the art of Elena Barbarich (she also does a webcomic called “Sister Claire”, which is where I was exposed to the art), I wanted in on the jokes. This is also how I wound up watching Full Metal Panic! because Fred Gallagher of “Megatokyo” did an FMP! spoof between chapters of his webcomic. In the case of Avatar (hence referred to as ATLA), I was pleasantly surprised at just how good it was. Yes, it is a cartoon not aimed at the 18-24 demographic, but there were elements in the story and the character development that intrigued me enough to keep watching it.
Aang, a 12-year-old Airbender, learns he is the new Avatar, the only person capable of mastering all four of the elements and maintaining peace. Afraid of the responsibility of the position of Avatar and separating from his mentor, Aang flees on his air bison, Appa, and find themselves in a fierce storm. Aang uses his protective Avatar state to freeze himself and Appa in an iceberg. Shortly after Aang disappears, the Fire Lord begins a campaign for world domination, starting with the genocide of the Air Nomads. A century later, Katara and her brother Sokka release Aang and Appa from the iceberg and begin a journey to many lands so that Aang can master the elements and defeat the current Fire Lord in order to end the war. Over the course of his journey, he is pursued by the outcast son of the Fire Lord, Prince Zuko, who has been charged with finding and capturing the Avatar in order to restore his honor.
Grade: A-. I had to fight the urge to make Captain Planet jokes during the first few episodes, but after I got over this (mostly), I enjoyed the ride. The characters are likable, don’t necessarily remain static throughout the series, and have each gone through a personal transformation by the time we reach the end of the third season. There were a few places where I didn’t think the writers would be able to write their way out of a corner, but the plot offered a reasonable ‘out’ in each instance that was neither over-the-top nor was there plot devices introduced that were not explained…mostly.
ATLA’s art is rather sweeping in scope, much akin to John Howe’s illustrations of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which added a wonderful fantasy element to the story and gave life to the magical feats of the different Benders. I also enjoyed the fact that the animators gave each nation their own distinctive design in terms of buildings, clothing, color, and armor. Even each of the bending styles is based on a different combat method (i.e., Tai Chi)
Grade: B+. While the art does wonders to add to the story, I didn’t necessarily feel a particular attachment to it. It is definitely worth appreciating, especially in reference to much of the fan art that has spawned from the series. There is also an “Art Of” book that also warrants a browse.
Jeremy Zuckerman and Benjamin Wynn of The Track Team have created a unique sound for the series using a number of ethnic instruments, which helped to set the tone of the series and added to the plot. My only criticism is that I would have like to see a little more variety in the instrumentation, because after a while, all of the drumming and chanting seemed to blend together and lacked the ability to keep me excited about it.
Grade: C. The Track Team gets points for creativity, but drum circles are drum circles.
What I can say about ATLA is that what it lacks in originality, it makes up for in creativity. The different character quirks, animals, and worlds are well plotted and surprising, though not all viewers are going to be on the edge of their seats wondering what happens next. The creators, writers, and animators have found a way to revolutionize an almost worn-out genre by embracing its audience, even those not within the target demographic. There are elements of predictability that are evident in most any other series one will watch, but I still found myself pleasantly surprised by the different angles the story takes, the complexity of the characters, the way the series deals with the consequences of war, and the combination of romance interwoven with the action comedy that characterizes the series. You probably don’t have to watch the series before you see the movie, but the fact that it was fun, fresh, and definitely worth the week that I spent watching it.