STUDIO: Nickelodeon
MSRP: $50
RATED: Not Rated
RUNNING TIME: 489 minutes
Behind-the-Scenes with the Avatar Cast & Crew
Commentary: Avatar Pilot Episode with Audio Commentary
Featurette: The Making of Avatar – Inside the Sound Studio
Featurette: The Making of Avatar – Inside the Korean Animation Studios
Exclusive behind-the scenes documentary
Illustrated paperback book

The Pitch
The series that M. Night apparently never bothered to watch.

The Humans
Zach Tyler, Mae Whitman, Jack De Sena, Dee Bradley Baker, Dante Basco
Creators: Bryan Konietzko, Michael Dante DiMartino

The Nutshell
Nickelodeon’s Peabody award winning animated series is set in a world where certain people (known as “benders”) are born with special abilities allowing them to control one of the four basic elements – earth, water, air, fire. These abilities over time segmented the population into four nations, whose entire cultures are built around their respective element. To each generation there is born an Avatar who has the ability to master all four elements, and whose power and spiritual guidance assures peace in the world, preventing any single nation from overwhelming the others. 100 years ago, Aang, a 12-year-old air bender, became the new Avatar, but mysteriously disappeared. His absence allowed the Fire Nation to wage a devastating war against the other nations. Now, in the present where the Fire Nation rules, a sister and brother from the Water Nation, Katara (responsible) and Sokka (meat-headed), discover Aang buried within an iceberg. Once freed the three join forces, journeying across the world, trying to help Aang make up for lost time and master the three other elements, while evading capture from Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation – a Fire Nation eager to live once more in an Avatarless world.

If I were this guy, every time I did this move I’d say, “You’re fired.” Gold.

The Lowdown
There is a fairly vocal segment of the on-line community who get rather surly at the mere mention of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Such things are certainly not unusual. Any piece of art or entertainment can inspire both fanatics and haters. I once talked with a guy who hated The Godfather, hated it like it was Soul Plane. Conversely, I have also talked with a guy who loved Soul Plane, loved it like it was The Godfather. This is simply the way the world is. But the bulk of Last Airbender haters seem to be hating the show out of context, simply hating a detached spectral notion of the show, almost as if they believe the show needed to be slapped down a peg or two because other people talk it up too much. Well, I believe in judging art and entertainment for what it is and not what I want it to be, plus it has been a long day and I’m feeling a bit snarky at the moment, so I think it’ll be fun (for me) to let this negative criticism guide my positive criticism.

Let’s examine some of the frequently heard complaints about Airbender

1.) It’s awful.
We’re all entitled to our opinion… up to a point. I will argue that Airbender is technically and creatively proficient up to the point where calling it “awful” or “bad” or “not a good show” is just being argumentative or stupid. You certainly don’t have to like the show. You can think it is over-rated or that is it nothing special. But in what world this show is actively “bad,” I simply cannot conceive. What kind of scale are we putting the show on? What are we comparing it to where it comes out below average?

Airbender is of course a children’s show. It’s on Nickelodeon. Aang’s sidekick is giant six-legged flying buffalo named Appa. Most adults without children had never heard of the property until M. Night date raped it into the cinema this past summer. Even now plenty of adults still have no clue the TV show existed (my parents certainly don’t). I think Airbender’s biggest sin was that it was so far above and beyond the quality of a normal children’s show that adults got roped in. Then these adults recommended it to friends and these friends approached the material expecting something different. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with not wanting, or not being able to, appreciate storytelling designed for young audiences (to each their own), but just calling it “bad” would seem to indicate one wasn’t really looking at it. There is an immense amount of creativity getting idly looked over with such a dismissive attitude.

Purely from an artistic perspective Airbender is phenomenal; one of the most well animated programs (children’s or adult) American TV has ever had. While the show’s action is incredibly well rendered, what is most impressive is that each of the four nation’s benders use a different fighting style, which the animators based on four different real-world martial arts: water (Tai Chi) earth (Hung Gar kung fu), fire (Northern Shaolin kung fu), air (Ba Gua). Each of the styles was selected for very logical reasons regarding what the show’s creators (and their martial arts expert) thought would work for the purposes of bending each element, and how controlling said element would have evolved the culture based around it. And the way the show uses bending is wonderful in its most minor details. The bending isn’t just about big battles where one guys throws water at a guy who throws fire back. How the benders of various nations use their powers for mundane daily activities (such as a fire bender using his powers to turn his bath into a Jacuzzi) add to the depth and believability of the world.

The show’s design work is rich and immersive. Each nation has its own look, with the Fire Nation probably being the most interesting – all sharp, hook favoring architecture, pointed steal ships, and demonic looking storm troopers. Again, the show most impresses with the small things. Sokka’s club. Aang’s arrow tattoes. The look of the various temples. I love that the show’s attention to detail is generally just glanced over; it is background, world building details, and to some extent completely unnecessary. I say unnecessary because kids will fucking watch anything. When I was a kid I loved few things more than I loved He-Man, but that show was incredibly lazy, coasting by on its big surface level ideas. As an adult it inspires little scrutiny, nor can it withstand much. (This is ignoring my nostalgia soft-spot, of course.)

Airbender’s dense world-building reminds me a lot of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, where you know that someone spent an incredible amount of time thinking about how/why a random weapon or a chair looks the way it does, even though it is not overtly important. All these little details add up to something big though.

Looking back on the history of American animated programming in this genre (youth oriented action/dramatic), I think that Batman: The Animated Series is the only series that has produced numerous superior episodes to Airbender. Batman of course also had decades’ worth of source material created by dozens upon dozens of creative minds to draw from and re-interpret, and while Batman had more superior individual episodes, it also had more inferior ones too. If we are evaluating on a median quality, I’d have to give the edge to Airbender.

Wait a minute… Appa is just Falcor crossed with the caterpillar-puppy from House II! This show is such a rip-off. 

2.) It is too silly. 
This is a criticism that is justifiable. I know a lot of adults who gave the series a serious try, but ultimately were not able to stomach the show’s comedic approach. While Airbender can get shockingly heavy at times, it’s also relentlessly silly. Silly in a kids way. This is the kind of show where our heroes will need to sneak past some guards, so Aang will throw straw on his head as a wig, slap on an improbable mustache, and do a silly voice to pretend he’s an old man. And the guards will totally buy it. There is also plenty of mickey-mousing on the soundtrack, goofy noises when people tip-toe or fall down. Let’s just say that the music department on Airbender got a lot of use out of their slide-whistle.

For some people I think a bigger problem than the slide-whistle antics is the visual nature of the comedy. Airbender‘s comedy has a lot of Manga influence. A character’s face will change shape or suddenly shift into  a completely different art style, or squiggly lines will appear around their head while they scream. I can see how this might get to some people. Honestly, it almost got to me at times.

3.) It takes forever for anything to happen.
I’m not really sure what kind of pacing people were expecting here. Sure, there is an on-going storyline, but it is still a television show. Each episode features our trio journeying to a new village or island where they meet new characters in need of help. Aang solves the problem, learns a lesson, maybe they’ll need to fight and run away from the Fire Nation, the end. Rinse and repeat. As to the on-going storyline, it moves faster than, say, Lost. But if you’re looking for a show where the selling point is the on-going story, Airbender shouldn’t be where you look. This show – like Lost fans would say – is about the characters.

I saw that in The Abyss. Riiip ooffff.

4.) It is/isn’t Anime.
This one is funny, because I’ve heard it argued both ways. Some Anime haters say they don’t like Airbender because it is too Anime, while some Anime fans seem offended that anyone would call “garbage” like Airbender Anime, sighting how vastly superior Naruto or Full Metal Alchemist is. There’s not much to argue here. Airbender is an American show with heavy Anime influences. It is caught between the two worlds. For those who adhere strictly to one end of the spectrum or the other, I guess Airbender can’t win. Although, the people who compare the show negatively to Anime like Naruto are often also the ones who give complaint #3, which I find interesting because that is generally my complaint about most Anime series. Different strokes.

5.) It is just a rip-off of other things.
I feel like people who say this one will often reveal that they’ve never watched the show, or only watched part of an episode. People, I strongly suspect, like Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman. Now, I know complaining about the quality of the criticism in EW is kind of like complaining about the quality of food at Applebee’s, but I’m gonna pick on OG anyway. In a typically EW, one-page piece where OG was listing ten reasons why M. Night’s The Last Airbender didn’t work, in little one-sentence blurbs, one of the blurbs noted that it had weak source material: “A veritable trash compactor of familiar tropes and effects, borrowing from movies and graphic novels and anime and videogames.

For argument’s sake, let’s just say OG did in fact watch more than one episode (if that) of the series, and that he thought long and hard about the show and this is legitimately how he feels. Since when did borrowing from multiples sources from multiple mediums become bad? “…borrowing from movies and graphic novels and anime and videogames.” That’s how I’d describe The Matrix. Maybe I’m crazy, but I always thought it was cool the way Star Wars drank from so many different wells. Maybe not. I suppose that’s why Tarantino makes such shitty movies. 

What OG calls a “trash compactor” I would call a melting pot. I’m also ignoring the fact that I don’t agree with OG’s assessment whatsoever. Airbender is its own beast.

And I saw this one in Joe Dante’s The Explorers. Get an original idea, guys.

6.) It’s just a kids’ show.
Indeed. Our main characters will often shift attitudes randomly to facilitate a one-episode character arc where they learn a valuable lesson. You know, where Sokka will suddenly be extremely sexist at the beginning of an episode so that he can learn not to be by the end. That kinda thing. I’m not gonna try and tell you that the show rises to true adult levels of storytelling, but I also think it is more than just a kids’ show. Adults will have to sit through some lesson learning and some over-explaining of obvious details, it’s true, but when the show moves beyond the average kids’ lessons (Aang needs to learn patience!), it manages to hit some surprising sophistication.

At first glance Aang is a completely typical fun loving hero (a vegetarian too), but as we learn more about the character you realize that his fun loving stems from desperation. With so much responsibility heaved onto his shoulders, he has an almost bucket-list like attitude towards having fun. He’s only got limited time, he knows. After sledding in an early episode he says “I haven’t done that since I was a kid,” to which Katara responds, “You are a kid.” I also really like the misplaced guilt he feels over his accidental disappearance for 100 years, blaming himself for the troubled state of the world.

Katara (voiced by Arrested Development’s Mae Whitman; her?) herself has the biggest arc of the first season. When we first meet her she is struggling to learn water bending. The Fire Nation took or killed all the benders from her village, so she has no one to teach her. Her jealously over how quickly Aang learns water bending (becoming better than her in a matter of a single day), only adds to her struggle. There’s also an interesting sexism revealed in the water bending community, where women are only allowed to use the healing effects of water bending, while the men use it for fighting. This of course gets a bit grrrl-powery, but that is to be expected.

Dramatically speaking, the most interesting character on the show is Prince Zuko (Dante Basco; aka Hook’s Rufio). I don’t want to spoil anything for those who haven’t seen the show, but the slow reveal over the first season of why he is so desperate to capture the Avatar, and how he got the hideous scar on his face, is excellent. Bitter and morose, the relationship between Zuko and his lazy tea-and-food-loving uncle Iroh (the late-great Mako) is one of the series strongest points. Zuko is no Captain Planet villain, senselessly evil and shaking his fist when Aang gets away. Airbender sets itself apart fairly quickly by getting you to care about the villains. And the revelation that Iroh is not as useless and lazy as he seems is one of the season’s many highlights.

This is a good show. Not for everyone, but good nonetheless.

Those with wee ones should be aware that the show can get a little intense at times, especially during the more violent fire bending battles. It can also get a little spooky in a couple episodes, like one with a spirit world monster named Ko the Face Stealer, who will haunt your kid’s nightmares for a while I’m sure. But we’re only talking small children here. Kids eight or up should love this. Seriously. If your kids don’t love this show… shove them back in. They weren’t done cooking.

Are you kidding me? Now you’re ripping off Tarzan? This is the worst show on TV.

The Package
This is a repacking of the previous season one (Book 1) DVD set, but with an extra bonus disc and a book containing conceptual artwork.

The show is just barely old enough that it wasn’t animated in 16:9, so this is a full-screen presentation. There was a little frame blurring here and there, but I believe that is just my player (which often has issues with the compression on animated TV DVDs). Other than that the picture and sound are very good.

The special features held over from the previous set are numerous and short and presumably were originally created as time-fillers for Nickelodeon, but are excellent nonetheless, particularly: the segment demonstrating the different fighting styles used in the show; a fun montage showing how creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino will act out scenes for the animators to watch (these guys are adorable nerds); and a demonstration of sound FX creation featuring the world’s hottest foley artist. Also included is the original pilot episode, which annoying can only be viewed with commentary.

I always think including booklets with DVDs is kind of pointless, but the concept art in this one is nonetheless great. You can see early glimpses of Aang, when he was wielding a giant gun, and Momo the lemur (another Aang sidekick) as a robot.

The bonus disc is truly fantastic though. A length documentary detailing the show from inception to completion, it is only for those who have already watched the show to the end, as this thing becomes a little spoilerific. For fans, this doc is probably worth the price of purchase alone. I am not a huge Airbender supernerd, but I gained an even deeper appreciation for the creative team after watching this. The story of how DiMartino and Konietzko haphazardly (at first) slapped together the show is both comical and fascinating.

(the series)
(the DVD set)