Sunday, July 24, 2011

Avatar: The Last Airbender (Or: A Cartoon That Has Taught Me Much)

As promised, a post about my favorite cartoon and what I've learned from it. I've been wanting to talk about this for months. It's Avatar: The Last Airbender. Some of you may have seen it and some of you might not know anything about it. Some of you may know of M. Night Shyamalan's The Last Atrocity Airbender. I try really, really hard to be nice and optimistic and not to put down someone's artistic work, but I'm sorry--that movie slaughtered everything I loved about the show. It was supposed to be a live action retelling of the first season of the cartoon. Welllll...the skeleton of the story was there, and that was it. The characterizations, humor, friendships, the very heart of the show--they were all non-existent. I found the movie to be a giant ball of narrative with a few action sequences.

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?


  1. I've heard from several people about how much better the cartoon was compared to the movie. I didn't realize what a good job they did overall. I'll have to check this out.

  2. I've never watched the cartoon, but I did slog my way through the movie. It was awful!

  3. my spirited son went thru an airbender phase and i watched many with him. it was definitely a better cartoon than expected and i enjoyed it. the movie couldnt compare, how could it? impossible to cram so much into such a short time, and their goal was to make money and focus on the action (which i dont think worked out for them)

    i also think "avatar" coming out around the same time hurt them... oh well

    great post =)

  4. Yes! I love Avatar. But you know that. Hahaha. Actually, I think it was you and some of my other friends that got me into the series. And you’re right: it’s so worth it!

    Oh how I hope the new series is just as good, but I have faith in Mike and Bryan.

    You really have touched on all of the wonderful aspects of the show. Makes me want to dig my DVDs out again…

    It has taught me SO much as a writer! How you need to incorporate comedy even in the most serious situations, how to accurately build a world and entirely different creatures, how to foreshadow… *coughOrderoftheWhiteLotuscough*

    But mostly… Avatar has taught me about tea! Just kidding. Oh Uncle Iroh and Zuko. Another well-done aspect to the show. I loved those two’s relationship by the end of it!

    You know, for characterization, I think the Ember Island episode was my favorite. It was kind of a fun episode. It might not have been necessarily needed, but I thought it was a great look into Fire Nation life. And it was great to see what made our favorite Fire Nation people the way they are.

    And, of course, I loved the pairings in this show! And even the not-so-canon ones were great, and made you ponder.

    Appa and Momo were also amazing animal sidekicks. That didn’t talk! Sorry, I just get tired of the cliché talking animals in animes. Hahaha. Aang’s dream about Appa and Momo…

    And the Ember Island Players! One of my favorite episodes! You definitely can’t say Mike and Bryan don’t know how to make fun of themselves. I loved that a lot of the voice actors got to voice the other characters in that episode.

    Fire Season was totally the best.

    With Aang the pacifist, Katara the glue that held everyone together, Sokka the comedy, Toph the toughie, and Zuko the conflicted… you have an amazing bunch of characters! As well as an amazing show. I could go on and on, but I won’t.

    I do hope you make more Avatar posts though. I imagine after the Legend of Korra comes out, you’ll be making a ton of posts. LOL.

    Long live the effects of Cactus Juice!


    P.S. “Not my cabbages!” ROFL.

  5. My favorite episode is when they find Toph. The Blind Bandit rocks! (Haha.)

    Of course, I also love the triumphant battle at the end with the OotWL.

    And the fortuneteller episode.

    And the one in the Fire Nation when they go to that Avatar play.

    And... well SOO many others.

    I love that show!!

  6. I really liked the conflict between Aang and the firelord whatshisname. Not just the battle which was several shades of awesome but the inner battle he faced when the only advice anyone could give him was that to stop the firelord he would have to kill the firelord.

    The desperation really shines through when he's searching for some other way to end it that doesn't go against everything he believes in.

  7. I've heard lots of great things about this show, but never watched it. I did NOT know about Mark Hamill, which alone is incentive enough for me to want to see it now. I'll have to see if I can find it soon; I foresee some happy winter watching!

  8. Oh and this might interest you.
    The story of the next avatar has just been announced. (Forgot to put it in the first comment)

  9. Great post! So, this is going to sound really sick, but the show 24 (when it was on) impacted me. The reason was that they had no problem drawing you in, getting you really attached to a character and them killing them off. I love this quality - probably why I also love George RR Martin LOL. I love not being able to see the twists and turns in the plot ahead of time and struggle to implement this into my own writing.

  10. Donna-I hope, if you ever watch it, that you enjoy it. ^_^

    Alex-The movie definitely requires slogging. O_O I went with my family and a couple of my friends--we all LOVED the cartoon--and the fist thing one of my friends said when we came out of the theater was, "I need a drink." If you ever get the chance, you should try to cartoon.

    Tara-Yeah, it was very confusing with James Cameron's Avatar coming out at the same time.

    Shanna-Exactly!! And have you seen the Korra trailer??

    Robin-Toph is AWESOME. And I know! It's hard to pick just one thing to love. ;) There are a couple of episodes I watch for extra fun--Cave of Two Lovers, The Headband, Ember Island Players. My friends and I will randomly into "SECRET TUNNEL!" song. ;)

    Gyran-I love that, too--the choice that Aang ended up making is one of those "surprising, but inevitable" ones. And I've been following the news about the new show coming out since a year ago. I'm SO excited for it. And they just released a trailer!

    Elouise-Oh, I hope you get a chance to try it out. Tremendous fun. And yes, the voice actors! They actually got quite a lot of well-known actors to guest star on the show. Jason Isaacs, George Takei, Daniel Dae Kim, and others that I can't think of right now. ;)

    Lindsay-You're braver than me! I don't know if I'd be able to deal with a story that consistently made me love the characters and then killed them. I watched LOST, and they did that ALL the time, and it was just like AHHH WHYYYY NOOOO.

  11. Well for me ive watched avatar a billon on times ive seen the show and the movie and they all amazed me in many of parts so i highly recomend for people to watch it


Thanks for sharing your thoughts!