The original cartoon, however, is a different story.
A brief summary of the show:
Avatar: The Last Airbender takes place in a fantasy world comprised of four groups: the Fire Nation, the Air Nomads, the Earth Kingdom, and the Water Tribes.
Certain people born into these groups have the ability to manipulate, or "bend," the element into which they were born. So someone from the Water Tribes might be born a waterbender, able to control water.
There is one person born who has the ability to control all four elements. He or she is the Avatar, and has the responsibility of keeping peace and balance. Every time one Avatar dies, he or she is reborn into the next nation in a continuous cycle.
The story takes place during a war that's lasted a hundred years. The Fire Nation has basically taken over the world. The Air Nomads were wiped out, the Avatar hasn't been seen in a century--and that's where the show begins.
Now, a little personal background on how this came into my life:
In December 2007, my husband and kids and I moved to Ohio. I had been living in Tennessee (we just moved back to TN) since I was eleven, so it was a whole new adventure. Summer 2008, Hubby and I bought our second house. About a month after we moved in, we came home from church to find our house had been broken into. It was...not a fun experience. I'm grateful that no one was home when it happened, but it left us all pretty shaken. I needed something to just take my mind off it all, and I spent that week watching Avatar: The Last Airbender. It had been recommended to me by two of my friends. I knew absolutely nothing about it except that it was a cartoon on Nickelodeon, and the show had just finished. It's complete at three seasons (called Books) in 61 episodes, each about 20 minutes long.
I have to say, I didn't have very high expectations. I had watched some decent anime shows, but this was an American cartoon, and every cartoon I had watched--while fun--wasn't incredibly deep.
I started watching and was struck by how gorgeous the animation was. (Seriously, seriously gorgeous.)
I still didn't expect much. I was like, 'oh, it's just going to be a silly cartoon about these kids.' Then, as the first season (Book 1) went along, I became more and more impressed with the storytelling. Yes, there were fun, silly things that had me laughing, but the deeper I got into the show, the deeper the characters became. By the time I finished Book 1, I loved the show.
After Book 1, I had much, much higher expectations, but it wasn't until I was halfway through the second season (Book 2) that I had complete faith that the writers knew what they were doing. There was this episode that had me shaking my head and going, "They are totally going THERE, aren't they? And they're going to completely disregard the emotional upheaval Character X went through twelve episodes ago."
But they didn't. They brought this emotional upheaval back up and they made it real and painful and I was just in awe of the consistency and storytelling, and from that point on, I trusted that the writers had it under control. By the time I finished Book 2, I was convinced there was no way Book 3 could possibly be better.
I was wrong. Book 3 about knocked my socks off. The characters who had started off as these silly, playful, immature children really grew. They fought a war and the toll it took on all of them was evident. It wasn't just one thing that was beautiful about this show. It was everything. The characterizations were consistent and realistic, and still managed to take me by surprise. It was the kind of story where you look back and realize it couldn't have happened any other way. (Someone on my blog list was talking about this the other day. Faith, I think? An ending that's surprising, but inevitable. *goes to track the post down* Yes, right here: Surpising, yet inevitable.)
The animation, as I said, is gorgeous. The story and plot are well-developed. The attention to detail is incredible. I've lost track of how many times I've watched this show, but I've picked up a lot of really subtle things happening in the background that just amaze me. It's like reading a fantastic book where you see little things happening with other characters, or things that are important later but you might not realize it at the time. The layers! So many layers! There is friendship, romance, redemption, betrayal, families, humor, action. There are strong female and male characters. There are characters of all ages. There is inner and outer turmoil.
At the end of the whole show, the characters had come so far. It's always funny going back and watching the beginning of the show again, when they were so little and had so much growing up to do.
Plus, the voice actors/actresses are magnificent. And Mark Hamill plays the show's main villain, and who wouldn't want to hear Luke Skywalker as the bad guy?
This cartoon has raised the standard for me in how I perceive storytelling, and the standards of stories I watch/read. Not only is it fun, funny, sweet, bittersweet, heartbreaking, and beautiful--it's something that I can learn from as a writer, from the way it was crafted and told. If you want to watch something that's fun, deep, grows with the characters, and that can show you a LOT about story structure, plot, and character development, I highly recommend this.
*Is there a particular show/movie that has impacted you and taught you a lot?