Produced by Nickelodeon Animation Studios from about 2001-2008, Avatar: The Last Airbender has become one of the most popular and critically praised animated shows ever done. It’s creator’s Michael Dante Dimartino and Bryan Konietzko have since successfully released a comic book series and sequel TV show The Legend of Korra. It is strange trying to explain why Avatar works so well for audiences. It is like pinpointing why the Sistine Chapel is universally acknowledged worldwide as a work of art. Am I saying that Avatar is also a work of art? From a certain perspective, yes I am.
For those who do not know, Avatar takes place in an Asiatic world where many choice people bend the elements water, earth, fire and air through psychokinetic manipulation. With strong roots in varying martial arts, four nations separate depending on their dominant bending element. The story takes place 100 years after the Fire Nation declared war on the other three nations with two Southern water tribe siblings Katara and Sokka.
They discover Aang, the last airbender and the current Avatar, who had stayed dormant in ice for the entire war. The Avatar is the only person who can master all four elements. Unfortunately, Aang has only mastered air bending. Together, they journey towards the Northern water tribe so he can start learning the other elements, fleeing Prince Zuko, the banished crown prince of the fire nation.
Though initially simple and straightforward, the show slowly takes on new dimensions the farther along the story flows. But in order to make the show many know and love, the creators Bryan and Mike had to go through the enormous process of discovery and implementation.
Originally, the story came from Bryan, who envisioned (after seeing Cowboy Bebop of all things) a bald boy with an arrow on his head traveling through space. After working as Art Director for Invader Zimm, Bryan showed Bryan pictures of the bald boy and they began working on making it into a story. Influenced by Hayao Miyazaki’s films, the anime series FLCL (2000-2001), and the Chinese TV episode Shaolin: Wheel of Life (2001) they slowly pieced together a unique story beginning in the South Pole.
Instead of a scifi space adventure, Bryan and Mike decided to root the story in Asian “cultures, philosophies, traditional martial arts, yoga, anime, and Hong Kong cinema”, (pg. 12, Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Art of the Animated Series) as a differing mythology than the British based Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, which were very popular at the time. By January 2002, TV producer for Nickelodeon Eric Coleman officially okayed Avatar‘s further development.
Many developments crept their way in, including the concept of bending. Based on the Greek “four-element theory”, otherwise known as the worldwide Classical Element concept, Mike and Bryan decided to further the fantastic feel of Avatar by creating bending. The bending of the four basic elements (water, earth, fire and air) was not a completely magical concept. They “wanted the bending moves to be grounded in reality” (pg. 26 The Art of the Animated Series).
To do this, they eventually hired Sifu Kisu who suggested that each of the elements be assigned a different Chinese martial arts discipline, depending on the element’s essential nature. Firebending was based on Northern Shaolin, Waterbending on T’ai Chi, Earthbending on Hung Gar and Airbending on Ba Gua. (I will elaborate further on each of these fighting styles in a special post.) Bryan explained that “this evolution of the concept really helped to define the different cultures in our world” (pg. 26, The Art of the Animated Series).
The four cultures they focused mainly on were the Japanese (Fire Nation), Chinese (Earth Nation), Indian (Air Nomads) and the Inuit (Water Nation). Further episodes carried a varying range of multicultural philosophies, arts and styles. These include, but are not limited to, Chinese watercolors and history, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Yoga and traditional Chinese calligraphy (done by famed Calligraphist S. L. Lee). Much of my love for Eastern culture is probably rooted in this show.
Once the creator’s had a fixed picture of the characters, story and setting they successfully pitched it to a young audience and began the complicated animation process. Though the voices, sounds and storyboards were done in the United States, the animation was turned to three Korean animation studios: DR Movie, JM Animation and Moi Animation. Each episode took an average of nine months to complete and prominently featured hand painted backgrounds and 2D hand-drawn animation.
Now to the good stuff. How does Avatar stand out compared to other cartoons? First, it has fascinating characters. As I explained in my review for Over the Garden Wall (2014), most American cartoons do not have characters who change. This is because, since film is also an industry, cartoon studios like Nick and Cartoon Network try to make as much money as they can before the public tires of their product. Creating a TV show with characters who actually grow is usually not an option.
Making characters with depth and emotionality is no small feat. It requires work and incredible dedication. This work is attributed to two things: the voice actors and the talented animators. There are some great performances done throughout the show like Zach Tyler Eisen as Aang, Mae Whitman as Katara, Jack DeSena as Sokka and Grey DeLisle as Azula. There was also Dee Bradley Baker who provided the sound effects for the animals in the show like Appa and Momo.
The animation was done by scattered animators in Korea, who Bryan and Mike gave freedom to animate how they liked. Though the animators did not have to be so dedicated to details and quality, the creators remarked (Audio Commentary, Sozin’s Comet) how these artists put in everything they had to make each episode great. Key animators included Ryu Ki Hyun, Jeong In, Jung Hye Young, Myeong Ga Young and many others.
When I was younger, I did not consciously notice the animation’s quality. It is now as an adult I marvel and appreciate the animators’ work. Some of my all time favorite animated sequences come from this show. That is a huge compliment coming from me.
Let’s talk about some of the characters. First, there is Sokka who provides much of the show’s comedy. He is a planner and the natural leader of the group. Most of the show he is over the top and silly. But, there are times when he shows great pain, dedication or affection.
One of my favorite episodes for him was “Jet”, when he showed very intuitive thinking and tactful judgment in regards to Jet and his ideals. Though he is not a bender, his skills do improve tremendously episode to episode.
Second is Katara who provides the series’ heart. The creators knew the show needed a female influence, but not your run of the mill girly girl who is merely there to take up space. She is feisty and a skilled fighter, but is also paternal and clearheaded.
My favorite episode for her was “The Desert” because despite her and the other’s overwhelming situation she alone stepped up and led them through their dire circumstances.
Then there is Zuko, who undergoes the most noticeable changes. He really needed to grow into himself. It took me a long time to warm up to him. . . (Yes, pun intended.) At first he was hotheaded and blind to anything but his own needs. Remarkably, he was molded into a better, wiser person by the show’s end because of all the pain and trials he went through.
Ironically, he did regain his honor and throne but only when he switched sides and fought for the right reasons. Dante Basco really did a great job bringing out Zuko’s emotionally complex personality.
There are many other evocative characters scattered throughout the series. Ther is the cruel and manipulative Azula who serves as the sole antagonist throughout. Also, there is Toph who is strong willed and incredible to watch bend. Mai is one of my favorites as well because of her dead pan reactions and powerful decision to help Zuko, even if it meant betraying Azula. Of course Uncle Iroh is another strong character, for his forthright wisdom and incredible patience. (He needed such patience to handle Zuko the hotheaded most of the episodes.)
Finally, there is Aang, my favorite character in the show. I did not realize until my recent viewing of the series how much I liked him. At first he is a goofy kid, with little to no concerns. Yet, life changes him as he experiences incredible grief and finds people he truly cares for. I feel the show emphasizes his journey in learning to control the Avatar energy and (in so doing) himself.
When I see a show or become involved in a story, I naturally gravitate towards characters who are gentle and morally perceptive. What impressed me most about Aang was his spirituality and how he used his natural talents. He earned his arrows at a very young age, becoming one of the youngest Airbending Masters in history but did not use his skills recklessly. With a natural reluctance to fighting and hurting others, he respected life and was even a vegetarian.
One important thing I wanted to touch on was what an Avatar actually is. In Hindu scripture, it is referred to as one who descends, and usually describes the God Vishnu taking on another mortal body. I think, for the show, it means something different. Each Avatar is a different person either male or female, with a unique personality. I am not just saying this out of nowhere. Co-creator Bryan also stated how Aang was an individual spirit separate from other Avatars but connected to them by the Avatar energy.
One of the important aspects of his character came near the show’s end. I remarked in my top 20 episodes post how impressed I was with how the creators handled Aang’s defeat of Ozai. They could have had him kill him dramatically, but, as Bryan said, “Is it what the world needed?” (Audio commentary for Sozin’s Comet). Everyone, even past Avatars, pushed him to kill Ozai. But (I reemphasize) that is not what the world needed. Aang’s gentleness and intuitive understanding of the world provided the brilliant end I had been waiting for.
I did not want him to kill Ozai. It just did not feel right. I loved how right before Aang delivers the final blow, caught in the Avatar state, he stops and consciously withdraws his hand. Never before did he have the concentrated willpower to control the Avatar energy. It was there he overcame his fear for the “wrathful hand of the Avatar” and defeated Ozai on his own terms. (Bryan, Audio Commentary, Sozin’s Comet) Thus, through much patience and humbling trials he learned to control that energy rather than letting it control him.
As I promised, I wanted to also talk about the various relationships developed throughout the show. I liked how they handled each the love stories. Sokka finally started dating Suki, though he had lost another girl Princess Yue in the finale of Season 1. Despite his fear of losing someone else he cared sbout, he opened his heart and became a genuine and caring boyfriend. I think this required great courage and added a needed layer to his character. Though, I am not quite sure what she sees in him. . . then again he is very funny.
There is also Mai and Zuko who are happily unhappy together starting Season 3. I believe Mai understood Zuko best besides Iroh and had to wait a long time before they could be together. Before that could happen, he needed to change and mature. One of my favorite scenes is at the end of “The Boiling Rock: Part 2” when she sacrificed everything to help Zuko escape. Her last words to Azula “You miscalculated. I love Zuko more than I fear you.” made me realize what an incredible person she really was. Seeing their final scene together in the last episode always makes me smile.
Then there is Aang and Katara. I was one of the lucky followers who had no idea about the… interesting rivalry between the “Zutara” and “Kataang” fans. I believe the creator’s joked how this battle between fans could divide a country or even start World War III. From the get go, I just assumed Aang and Katara would be together. I have legitimate reasons for this. I noticed throughout the series how often they turned to each other and had serious conversations. Their closeness was evident in so many scenes. One specific scene that comes to mind is in the episode “The Desert” when Aang loses control. Her heartbreak at seeing him in such pain and how she reached out to him left a lasting impression on me.
I think they both just needed to mature before they could be together. Another thing, the creators plainly stated in the Audio Commentary (It was fun to listen to.) for the final two episodes how the story had always been centered on them being together. I agree with them. The first face Aang sees when he wakes up is Katara’s and they had specific episodes dedicated to their developing relationship. I look at it this way. I noted in another post, “From my perspective, both of them provided an indispensable strength to the show. Aang provided the story’s purpose and Katara its heart. Does it not seem fit that they would be together in the end?”
That aside, I wanted to note the other powerful aspects of the show. First, the music done by Jeremy Zuckerman and Benjamin Wynn, or the Track Team, was incredible. The wide variety of instruments and Eastern styles really set the tone for each episode. Out of any cartoon series I have seen, Avatar‘s soundtrack is the most diverse and ambitious I have heard. Over the Garden Wall‘s soundtrack was also impressive, but it did not reach as high a range of styles.
Second, the background art is breathtaking. Such care was put into designing locations and bringing a truly evocative atmosphere to each episode. Ever since I became particularly attentive to the little details in animation, background art has become a major factor in how I rate specific movies and shows. They are what the average viewer intuitively notices but does not outright remember. Much of Avatar‘s popularity and mythology centers on how well rendered these locations are. The best wrought settings create worlds beyond imagination. (I will also do a special post on this topic.)
Lastly, how the creator’s rendered this story just amazes me. From the beginning, they knew it would have a designated beginning and end. As such, they paid attention to so many details they would have otherwise dismissed. I do not think most people realize how much work goes into making a series such as this. The characters feel real and relatible, the world reflects remarkably through Chinese calligraphy and watercolors and the Asiatic locations are based on places the creators went to and studied. It is hard to bring realism to a cartoon on a schedule, but they did it through emotional acting, research, well-choreographed action scenes and strong moral lessons and wisdom.
Many speculate this show is an anime. Though the sentiment is interesting I do not think it is entirely accurate. (I mean, none of it was ever made in Japan.) It resembles some of the storytelling styles and attention to details seen through many anime, but that could be said about Pixar’s many films. In my mind, it is something wholly unique and unlike any other show I have ever seen.
It is steeped in Eastern history, philosophy and art. Its fighting sequences are magical because they have a strong foundation in reality and are connected to the story. It emphasizes choices and how we all shape our destiny. Female characters are a centrifugal part of the story. (In fact, there are equal amounts of strong females and strong males, something rare in American Cinema.) Scenes and ideas that begin innocent shape into deep, emotional and unforgettable moments.
Though I HATE his live action film, M. Night Shyamalan said something interesting in the foreword for Avatar’s artbook.
There is a kind of magic that art can have. It is rare. It is utterly contagious. It is in the genetics, put there by its creators. It is not an agenda. It cannot be willed. It is pure. Avatar: The Last Airbender has this magic, and I am completely under its spell.
Mike and Bryan have created something of true inspiration. The convergence of their love of anime, martial arts, Buddhism, naturalism, photography, and philosophy has formed this cinematic tale. As animators and storytellers they have a way of capturing humanity’s frailties and transformations.
They have held themselves to the highest standard of artistic integrity and the world is forming a cult around it.
-M. Night Shyamalan, November 16, 2009
This show is truly amazing. It is not just the work of Bryan and Mike but the collaboration of hundreds of dedicated artists and experts who understand the art of true storytelling. It takes complicated philosophies and ideas and simplifies them through an imaginative world. Its magic is not in the unrealistic control of the elements but how they are grounded in real life practices and teachings. It has incredibly funny lines and scenes and then turns and catches intense emotional moments that do not need dialogue to be stirringly powerful.
This is my favorite show. I do not watch much TV because most children shows are idiotic, with remedial animation and stories and most adult shows are aversely violent, sensual and forgettable. Though initially made and marketed to children, I believe it is adults who can truly understand and appreciate it. It is one of the most thrilling cinematic adventures I have taken and has opened so many doors for me, including my fascination with Indian culture and philosophies.
I cannot recommend this show enough. Watching it is a truly enjoyable and unforgettable experience one cannot get anywhere else. To me, it is an animated masterpiece and will continue to stand the tests of time.
1.Azula: I never expected this from you. The thing I don’t understand is why? Why would you do it? You know the consequences.
Mai: I guess you just don’t know people as well as you think you do. You miscalculated. I love Zuko more than I fear you.
2.Katara: Don’t try to stop us.
Aang: I wasn’t planning to. This is a journey you need to take. You need to face this man.
(Katara nods and gets on Appa)
Aang: But when you do, please don’t choose revenge. Let your anger out, and then let it go. Forgive him.
3.Aang (trying to sound cool): So…papaya.
Katara: Uh-huh. Would you like some?
Aang: You know me. (He picks up a fruit.) I don’t really care what I eat.
Katara: Ok then. See you later.
(She turns and walks out of view while Aang takes a bite of the fruit. He chokes and spits it back up, clearly hating the taste.)
Aang: Maybe aloof isn’t my style.
4.Zuko: Uncle, I know you must have mixed feelings about seeing me. But I want you to know… I am so, so sorry uncle. (starts crying) I am so sorry and ashamed of what I did! I don’t know how I can ever make it up to you, but I…(Iroh grabs Zuko by his shirt and embraces him)
Zuko: How can you forgive me so easily?! I thought you would be furious with me!
Iroh: I was never angry with you. I was sad, because I was afraid you’d lost your way.
5.Toph: Wait a minute…has anyone noticed that Momo’s missing too?
Sokka: (horrified) Oh no….I knew it was only a matter of time! (runs to Appa)Appa ate Momo!(opens Appa’s mouth) Momo, I’m coming for ya, buddy!
Katara: Sokka, Appa didn’t eat Momo. He’s probably with Aang.
Sokka: That’s just what Appa wants you to think!(climbs into Appa’s mouth)
Zuko: Get out of the bison’s mouth, Sokka.