The producers of Avatar: The Last Airbender (A: TLA) set for themselves an ambitious mission. Make a children’s animated series that had an arc so big that it would take three seasons to resolve. This causes multiple challenges.
One is getting viewers to stay with the arc without full satisfaction for an extended period of time. Another is people who come in later need to be entertained without full knowledge of what has come before. Avatar addressed both of these issues adequately. There was a good amount of intelligent satisfying action in most episodes. Also each episode started with a specific “Previously on Avatar” recap.
Can we do one of our patented one sentence synopses for A: TLA? This one may be tough… “In a fantasy world of four nations where some people have abilities to control elements, a band of teenaged freedom fighters will join forces around a superpowered boy destined to topple the most oppressive war-like nation and restore hope to the world.” Whew.
A: TLA has received props for its unique visual style, and we think it is warranted. It made substantial use of color palettes for the four nations. The technology was a strange mix, at times quite primitive and others mechanically fantastic. It pushed credulity but did not break it.
The locations were grand and interesting. They were also varied. One of A: TLA‘s strengths is the feeling of travel. You will go from ice caps to deserts. From swamps to mountaintops. You criss-cross their world in the 3 seasons.
We did have an issue with their romantic relationships. They got pretty serious by the final (3rd) season, but the main characters were quite young. It got a little weird for example seeing the 12-year-old boy kissing the 14-year-old girl. Hey, we are all for a little romance but at that age we suggest it be kept more subtle.
The elemental powers grew from simple to overly powerful. I think in some cases the producers painted themselves into corners in trying to then keep them in check. For example the girl who controls water later learns to control blood (gross). So she can forcibly control the movements of anybody. Does that not undercut all her future battles with even the most powerful opponents?
Sometimes the bad guys did not get their just comeuppance. We dislike having to endure horrible wrongs only to have the moment of justice hijacked by the PC favorite, “we are better than that”. Sure, let the wrongdoer go after his crimes, that is satisfying… not.
The avatar was a boy who could control all four elements while only few people could control one. On only a few well done occasions he went into this fearsome “avatar state”. His eyes would glow and he would become very much like The Incredible Hulk. A creature driven by primal forces imbued with tremendous power. These few occasions were some of the most entertaining of the series.
However they may have built up the fearsomeness of the avatar state too well. In the end when the avatar faces the big baddie, the controlled avatar state does not contain that same feeling of power, nor the specific dramatic music used for previous forays. Mind you that was tough to live up to. While the last battle was good we think it did not surpass some of the ones earlier in the series.
A: TLA overcame the vagaries of children’s show distribution and broadcast times to get awards and good ratings. It is one of the more intelligent animated offerings made outside of Japan and worth checking out. It gives us hope that this kind of quality and individuality can become more common and successful.