Show: Avatar: The Last Airbender, Season 1 (2005)
Rating: 9.9 out of 10 stars
This show is basically my childhood. I have watched it at least five times by now. Since it was added to Netflix, that just gives me another excuse to re-re-re-re-re-watch it.
Recently, I introduced it to my roommate, and we are moving through it at around four or five episodes per week.
Every time a new character would show up on the show, I would say something like, “That’s one of my favorite characters, by the way.”
I ended up saying that for pretty much all of the characters.
Like with my other show reviews, I will start by giving some background and then listing the pros and cons. As this is a spoiler-free review, I will limit how much I reveal of the plot.
Avatar: The Last Airbender was created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. The head writer was Aaron Ehasz. The genres it straddles include Fantasy, Action, Adventure, and Comedy.
The show won five Annie Awards, a Primetime Emmy Award, a Genesis Award, a Peabody Award and a Kid’s Choice Award.
It is a unique blend of anime style with the style of American cartoons. It draws from Inuit, Japanese, Chinese, and Tibetan culture.
The world of Avatar: The Last Airbender is made up of four nations which each are focused around a different element: water, earth, fire, and air. Each of these nations is made up of those who can “bend” (control) one of the elements.
The current Avatar, Aang, must master all four elements in order to stop a war that has been going on for a hundred years. The war was launched by the Fire Nation, which is bent on world domination.
With the help of his friends Katara and Sokka, in Season 1 Aang seeks to master waterbending by traveling to the North Pole to find a waterbending teacher. Along the way, Katara is able to teach him basic waterbending and the team goes on various adventures.
- Powerful character depth and development
- Creative system of elements
- Developed fictional cultures based on authentic cultures
- Animals are creative mixes of various creatures
- Balance of humor and tension, comedy and tragedy
- Smart musical choices to create humor and tension
- Range of expressions of characters
- Entertaining for child and adult audience
- Explores themes rarely touched upon by children’s shows
- Intro orients the viewer to the story and is accessible to new viewers
- Pacing is a bit slow
The characters are the best part of the whole show. I have so many favorites it is ridiculous. Usually for a show I have an obvious favorite. This one, not so much.
The main characters Aang, Katara, Sokka, and Zuko are well-developed. So is Iroh, even though I would not call him a main character.
Aang is the last of the airbenders. He is a childish monk who nonetheless has his moments of insight and an adult-like sense of responsibility. Being raised by monks, there is an expectation that he will be simple, good, and somewhat detached from his emotions (since this is based off of Tibetan monks).
Sometimes he is. But there are definitely times he defies being categorized in this way. His typical humility is occasionally overtaken by pride. His ability to maintain calm is defeated by conflicting emotions such as love, anger, sorrow, and guilt. He is a character who loves to have fun but knows how to be serious.
Katara is a waterbender from the South Pole. She is less childish than Aang. After the loss of her mother to the Fire Nation and after her father left to fight in the war, she was forced to assume more responsibility. This leads her to adopt an almost motherly role toward the other members of their small band.
She is generally calm, but bristles at all things sexist. She is determined, brave, and sincere.
Sokka is Katara’s older brother. After losing his mother to the Fire Nation and after his father went off to war, he was left as the only “man” in the village. He had to assume at least as much responsibility as Katara.
Other than that, he’s basically the boomerang, meat, and sarcasm guy…he said so himself.
Well, that isn’t completely true. He’s a lot more complex than that. He is hard and cynical compared to the others, but he certainly has a soft side.
He’s intelligent, and is constantly thinking of ideas to help the team one-up their adversaries. He has the qualities of a leader.
Sokka is not a bender, but that never made me think he was any less valuable to the team than the others. His ingenuity and smart-alecky comments make him irreplacable.
Zuko may be the most complex character.
He values his honor, which he lost when he was banished from the Fire Nation by his father, Firelord Ozai. The only way to restore himself to his rightful place as prince of the Fire Nation is to capture the Avatar.
He has a massive temper that flares up (literally) every time they hit an obstacle. Nevertheless, he is a clever and dastardly villain. Despite his status as the major antagonist of Season 1 and as a teenager in exile, he shows that he is honorable through his actions.
He is a sympathetic bad guy with a whole lot of backstory. This is no one-dimensional villain. There are scenes that will have you rooting for him as much as you would for the good guys.
Iroh is the uncle of Zuko, and he is filled with wisdom and love for his nephew. He is a major source of humor for Season 1.
Iroh is somewhat disgraced himself due to a military loss at Ba Sing Se. However, he is not in exile like Zuko – he travels with him by choice and not necessity.
He offers Zuko both practical advice and proverbial wisdom, and is pretty much a father figure.
The elements of water, earth, fire, and air are controlled by movements mimicking Chinese martial arts. Because they are modeled off of different forms of martial arts, the bending looks authentic.
If the martial arts did not look natural and go along well with the bending itself, it would have been laughable – for example, as in the horribly made film for Avatar: The Last Airbender, where a group of earth benders did an elaborate series of movements to lift a single small boulder.
But here, it is done well. The martial arts and the element the characters are bending become one and the movements look natural. Waterbending is graceful, earthbending is formidable, firebending is fierce, and airbending is elusive.
The variety of techniques that can be used within a single element mean that battles are never boring. Benders like Aang and Katara continually find new and creative ways to use their bending.
Because the bending system is limited to four elements it makes it easy for an audience to know what to expect and yet to be continually surprised. Nothing feels overly convenient. There are no major plot-saving changes to the system to make it feel fake or incomplete.
Cultures of Avatar: The Last Airbender
The first glimpse we get of a community in the show is the Southern Water Tribe, which is a vestige of what it was before the war. It is basically a close-knit little village of women, children, and Sokka.
Their culture is based on Inuit culture and they live in buildings made of cloth or snow. The clothing that they wear is unique to the Water Tribes, and Katara wears a carved betrothal necklace passed down from her mother.
Since they only have one waterbender remaining in the village, the culture is no longer based around waterbending.
The Southern Air Temple is not what it used to be. The Fire Nation has invaded and no airbenders remain. That is no spoiler. It’s literally in the title of the show: Aang is the last airbender.
It’s clear from flashbacks in Season 1 that the Southern Air Temple once was a vibrant place filled with Air Nomads who lived their lives in peace. They lived among six-legged flying bisons and flying lemurs.
They also had their own games, evidenced by the court set up where Aang and Sokka play an airbending game.
To avoid spoiling anything, I won’t tell you about the Northern Air Temple. It is enough to say that it is nothing like Aang expected, and that it provides more glimpses into the culture of the Air Nomads.
The one instance that we get a real sense for Fire Nation culture is in a colony in the Earth Kingdom, where the Fire Days Festival is taking place. We get an idea for the forms of entertainment that are a part of their special celebrations, such as an entertainer who plays like a stage magician/performer using firebending.
Furthermore, food such as flaming fire cakes are part of the festivities, as well as fireworks.
We also see a puppet show of the Firelord against his enemies, telling the children the story of their nation. This is subtle indoctrination – but every nation has its heroes and the stories a nation tells usually cast it in a positive light.
More and more, we see that the Fire Nation citizens are fiercely patriotic.
The biggest Earth Kingdom city we see in Season 1 is Omashu. It has a culture built around earthbending. To get inside the walls, one is interrogated by Earth Kingdom soldiers, who must then physically open the walls with earthbending.
Aang says that a hundred years ago, the people of Omashu were the friendliest in the world, but now the kids see that the war has changed the people to be more suspicious of outsiders.
The most distinctive feature of Omashu is the elaborate postal system run by earthbending. It is only surpassed in entertainment value by the eccentric Earth King who lives there.
I won’t say too much about the Northern Water Tribe to avoid spoilers. It is different from the Southern Water Tribe in terms of sheer size, form of government, its focus around waterbending, and the roles of men and women.
Avatar: The Last Airbender has cultures based on various real-life cultures. Unlike in some shows, it mimics these cultures while honoring them and without making caricatures of them.
Katara and Sokka have light brown skin, so there is some diversity in skin color as well.
Appa is a six-legged flying bison. Yeah, you don’t get more creative than that.
Momo is a flying lemur that the kids adopt. Not as creative, but kind of cute.
Otter Penguins are cute, and apparently you can use them as sleds!
Stay tuned for more interesting animals when I review Seasons 2 and 3!
Humor and tragedy are well-balanced in this show. Sokka and Iroh are major sources of humor. Zuko’s story, the loss of Katara and Sokka’s mother, and the genocide of the Air Nomads balance out the humor with a more serious tone.
Music adds to the humor at some times, and adds to the tension at others. It isn’t like the show has phenomenal musical scores – it doesn’t, not even in the intro. But it uses music that supports the story and does it well.
The range of expressions on the characters’ faces also adds to the comedy. Sometimes they are realistic, but occasionally they are way over the top.
The balance of humor with mature themes (war, genocide, imperialism, colonialism) makes this show appropriate for children yet entertaining for adults – the perfect balance.
The intro neatly explains the system of elements, explains about the war, and introduces the Avatar all in about thirty seconds. It is followed by a “Previously on Avatar” montage that concisely gives more background.
This is good for two reasons. Viewers who watch episodes with large spaces of time between get a reminder of what is going on and the stakes. And new viewers who may have missed the first few episodes get a sense for where the show has been and where it is going.
It’s a smart choice on the part of the directors.
My only con for the show is that some viewers may be put off by the pacing. The characters go on a ton of side adventures before they reach their destination. While that’s fun to watch, I am sure it will make some viewers impatient. Hang in there…it’s worth it.
This is only a minor con because these excursions provide further opportunity for character development.
Anyway…this review was mostly me saying everything that is awesome about this show and why you should watch it. Because you should.
If you’re a writer, you should watch it because it is an example of good storytelling and great character development.
If you love comedy, watch it because it is funny.
If you are into anime, watch it because it is either the best example of American anime or an amazing anime-inspired cartoon, depending on your point of view. (Whether it is an anime or not is controversial.)
If you just love a good story, watch it.