Jack Cusumano

With Movie On the Way, I Give Airbender A Chance


M. Night Shyamalan’s live-action version of the Nicktoon Avatar: The Last Airbender will be hitting theatres before you know it. This secretive project is slowly beginning to reveal the first bits of official imagery, and the first teaser trailer is attached to the upcoming Transformers: Reveng of the Fallen. Perhaps to maintain excitement for the movie, Nicktoons Network has been showing regular marathons of the animated series all summer, allowing me a chance to familiarize myself with a series that I had previously ignored.

Believe it or not, the animation addict that I am, I had never watched the series during its initial run. Why? Honestly, I was prejudiced. I had already watched a good deal of Japanese animation, and I had also played a good deal of Japanese RPGs: Chrono Trigger, the Final Fantasy series, etc. Boil down the basic plot-lines of any fantasy anime or RPG and you get the same basic elements. For one: a young, coming of age hero, often an orphan or with any otherwise mysterious past who discovers they wield a great power. Don’t forget to include elemental magic (fire, earth, water, wind) and the balance between these elements. Finally, add some sort of big bad evil that the hero must confront after mastering all of the elements. What does that spell? The plot of Avatar: The Last Airbender. “I’ve heard this story a million times,” I said, “how could Nickelodeon possibly tell it any better?”

Now that I’ve seen most of the series by watching these somewhat out-of-order marathons, I will admit that the story never veers far from the stereotypical formula mentioned before. I predicted the main gist of it more-or-less perfectly from beginning to end before I saw a single episode. So how do they succeed in making such well-worn territory interesting again, especially over the course of 3 whole seasons?

Visuals: Honestly, I have never seen an American animated series as well animated as this. In fact, I find the animation in the second and third seasons to be superior to many of the Japanese classics that it borrows from. The frame-rate never seems choppy – motions are perfectly fluid – and the movements of characters always feel natural and anatomically sound (except when exaggerated for comedic effect, obviously). Perspective and volume always feel consistent and natural, allowing you to lose yourself within the world and never pull snap out due to inconsistencies or awkward character poses.

Action: Speaking of visuals, the fight scenes and action in this series are simply beautiful. Mind you, this is coming from someone who finds action sequences to be, more often than not, superfluous and boring. I’m much more interested in character and story and humor, and often walk away or zone out during action in shows and movies, waiting for the story to pick up again. In Avatar, you never want to pull your eyes away from the screen. The fluid dances of the characters as they manipulate the elements to attack each other and throw off their opponent’s advances are beautifully choreographed and perfectly rendered. They never come off as ridiculous as anything from Dragon Ball Z, to put it another way. Speaking of DBZ, the characters here don’t waste time standing around powering up for episodes on end, needlessly dragging out the story. Action comes swiftly, captivates, and doesn’t overstay its welcome.

Characters: Okay, back to that predictable formula I mentioned before, let’s see if it can predict the cast of the series. Hm, I mentioned the lead already: let’s say he starts out with a sort of naive, “why me?” mentality, then slowly learns to accept his fate as the savior of humanity. He’s also got some sort of tremendous and unique power within him that he must learn to understand and control. But he can’t do it alone. He needs a party of, at minimum, two followers. How about a sort of brash, simple-minded warrior type, kind and well meaning, but quick to jump into dangerous situations and not really one for subtlety. Oh, and he probably thinks with his stomach. And to counter that, how about a more emotional character with magical, not physical power – they’re probably a healer of some sort, in addition to being able to hold their own in a fight. That’s Sokka and Kotara, to a tee. But let’s not stop there: how about some sort of cute, speechless animal companion with big ears who acts real goofy for laughs and adds little else to the overall story? That’s Momo. I could go on, but, you get the idea. What makes this universe worth visiting, however, is the depth with which these potentially one-dimensional and stereotypical characters are handled. They all have rich backstories and layered motivations, as well as their fair share of flaws. I suspect having three seasons to lay all of their stories out helped in this department – had this been a one-off feature-length movie from the get go, the characters may have been flat and soulless. Then again, I can’t really stick up for the inclusion of Momo, who never seems to prove his worth in the series – probably seemed like a cute idea in the first season, but feels like dead-weight by the end.

Story: Again, you see this one coming a mile away. But it’s told with such skill and passion and sincerity that it winds up elevating itself from a well-meaning homage to a classic in its own right. This is partially because the world is so deeply and richly established – we learn so much of its history and geography and cultures and customs within the course of the series, and though a lot of this is, again, predictable, it’s remarkably detailed.

Thanks to these Nicktoons marathons, I’ve been able to give the series the chance it deserved, and it has quickly earned a place in my mind as one of the best animated series in recent years. All this considered, M. Night Shyamalan has a great deal to live up to. As a director, he has recently struggled with universally awful reviews of films like Lady In The Water and The Happening. In his defense, I think working with someone else’s material might be the best way for M. to find his footing again. I don’t think he’s without talent and potential: The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable were, in my mind, legitimately good and intriguing films. I even greatly enjoyed Signs, despite the huge logical flaws in the plot, and The Village, despite its silly premise. I think he’s just gone as far as he can on his own stories. That said, two flops deep, he is an undeniably risky choice for a film that’s intended to be the start of a mega-franchise.

Fingers crossed that the movie captures half the magic of the series. Can’t wait for that teaser trailer!



3 Comments so far
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You left out the voice actors: Jack De Sena, Mae Whitman, Jessie Flower, Zack Tyler, Mako, Dante Basco, Grey Delisle, Olivia Hack, Creighton Leigh, Dee Bradley Baker and Jessie Kwan…

– the voice acting was second to none.

You owe it to yourself to watch the series in sequence. You’ll find even more depth than you originally thought.

It’s not the typical (in starwars terms) Luke=Aang, Han=Sokka, Leia=Katara, Darth=Zhuko, Jarjar=Momo formula.

The story was as much about Zhuko as it was about Aang’s growth, Roku’s redemption, and non-violence (Ozai did not die), and Katara’s disdain for blood-bending (anti-torture), and – to a deeper extent, a warning about using technological superiority (Fire Nation was most technologically advanced) to impose order on the world.

Comment by bugsbane

Haha, yeah Momo definitely = Jarjar. I know what you mean about watching it in order, but I think I’ve actually been getting a lot out of it by watching it all mixed up. I can tell which episode falls where, and when I see things in the earlier episodes, I understand why things happened in the later ones. It’s kind of cool. I heard the biggest inspirations for the style here are Miyazaki’s films, Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo and FLCL. I wouldn’t have guessed FLCL, but the others are quite obvious (in a good way). Now that I think of FLCL, though, i think the way they animate the characters’ mouths is very similar (they actually have lips)… the close ups on hands are similar, too.

Comment by jackiecous

You forgot the humor.
I think the absurd comedy in the show is probably one of my favorite parts. There’s one scene where some fire benders spot Appa and attempt to report it to General Zao, but they begin arguing about weather it was a flying buffalo or bison. Kills me every time.
Along those same lines, is Momo. I love that little guy. Makes me wish I had a flying lemur pet. So back off! I mean, Jarjar was a racial sterotype and annoying to boot. Even if you don’t like Momo, he’s not that bad.
also, great post. Glad you and Alisha finally started watching after all those years of everyone making fun of me for liking it.

Comment by christianbeforechruch

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