With Avatar: the Legend of Korra premiering this month, it seems a perfectly opportune moment to take a look back at the series that preceded it: Avatar: the Last Airbender. When I saw the series during its original run I was definitely beyond the target audience but still enjoyed it immensely. Avatar may well be one of the best examples of visual story telling in recent memory because of its comfort with moral ambiguity and willingness to address issues normally considered beyond its target audience, including honor, war, and destiny.
The series takes place in a world with four countries: the Water Tribe, Earth Kingdom, Fire Nation, and Air Nomads. The population of each country includes Benders, magic users that control their nation’s element through one of four different schools of Kung Fu. The Avatar is the one exception, incarnated into each nation in turn, he is able to bend all four elements and is charged with maintaining balance in the world. Essentially a one man Jedi Order if you will. A hundred years ago, the Fire Nation started a world war, wiping out the Air Nomads in the process, and, it was thought, killing the avatar, who was currently incarnated among the Nomads.
Aang, the eponymous avatar, is 12 years old, goes from a fun-loving innocent goof at the beginning (when he wakes up the very first thing he does is to ask Katara if she wants to go Penguin sledding with him) to a boy mature beyond his years, willing, if not entirely able, to take on the task of leading a shattered world back to a state of balance. It is just this process of maturation that helps us as viewers connect with him, watching as he confronts a world of people who both welcome his return, and hold a grudge for being abandoned, his slow acceptance of the past, and eventual victory over the Fire Lord without compromising the values he was taught by the monks who raised him.
For a story about the end of a bloody conflict, things aren’t actually that dark until the last couple episodes, and this is largely due to the excellent use of humor. The comedy ranges from being a bit heavily weighted towards slap-stick near the beginning to more subtle in-jokes and other humor you’d expect to develop between any group of friends as our heroes become more developed and grow closer over the course of the story. It even dips into self-deprecating humor in the penultimate episode with an in-show review of the events of the series that doesn’t shy away from making fun of everyone and everything involved.
Avatar: the Last Airbender is definitely worth watching if you enjoy fantasy cartoons. It manages to put a couple interesting twists on the traditional good-guy-defeats-ultimate-bad quest plot, and does so with a degree of grace and intelligence rarely seen in kids entertainment. With the Legend of Korra premiering this past weekend, I highly recommend taking a look at its predecessor: Avatar: the Last Airbender. You won’t regret it.