Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Avatar: The Last Air Bender (2005 - 2008) (TV Show Review)

Every once in a while I discover a TV show that really didn’t seem all that interesting at first, but then I’m rewarded with quiet a pleasant surprise. The animated TV series titled “Avatar: The Last Air Bender” first premiered on Nickelodeon way back in 2005 and ran till 2008. At the time of the shows premier, I was just graduating from Middle School and transitioning into High school, so I really wasn’t that interested in watching a cartoon show on Nickelodeon. So fast forward several years to when I graduated from college, one ordinary day I decided to give this critically acclaimed show and look, and boy howdy, it didn’t take long for this series to become one of my new favorite TV programs of all time. Almost immediately I just fell in love with the characters, the art direction, the cultural references, the themes, the adventure and the thrilling action scenes. So, I’m going to kick off the New Year by paying tribute to one of my favorite TV shows. Now this review will be structured a little differently than my other TV reviews, I don’t want to spoil too much because individual viewers really just need to experience it for themselves, so I won’t go into too much detail. Also when looking over the individual seasons, I’ll keep it simple by just listing my five favorite episodes. 

The animation style is obviously based on Japanese Anime, however, this show is an entirely American production that just happens to be influenced by Japanese culture, myths and Philosophies. The intro is a nice little sum up of the synopsis, and it gets me thrilled every time. The plot itself may sound really confusing to anyone not familiar with the series, but I’ll do my best to explain it. The show is set in a magical Kingdome that’s divided into four nations, the Earth Nation, the Fire Nation, the Water Nation and the Air nation. A select number of people are born with the ability to control a single element from their respected nations, all with the excepting of the Avatar who can harness all four elements. Unfortunately, the fire nation had more element benders then the other three colonies, and soon they spread their armies on a savage campaign to concur the other nations. The Avatar had the power to stop them, but do to mysterious reasons, he vanished. After a 100 year long siege, the fire nation concurred the majority of the four nations and even wiped out the air colony entirely. Then one day, two siblings discovered that the Avatar has been reincarnated in the form of a young twelve year old boy named Aang, who’s the last surviving member of the air nation. The three young hero’s make a pledge to save their world from the grasp of the fire nation and set off on a journey to save the land of four kingdoms.

 Are you still with me? Well, the plot gets much deeper with lots of back story and personal struggles, but to sum things up, this is an adventure series. We follow these young hero’s on their journey, explore this imaginative Kingdome and it leads to one thrilling experience after another. It’s a show that pulled no punches, it was fun for children but also smartly constructed for adults, plus everything just came to life on an epic and grand scale. Honestly, I think it was so grand, epic and exciting that it put Hollywood blockbusters like “The Lord of the Rings” movies to absolute shame. I also love that this show knew how to have fun with itself, even when balancing dark themes, complex drama and legitimately adult morals. The characters were all brought to life so well and were so much fun to go adventuring with that they practically leaped off the screen. The voice actors were also spot on in the roles, and delivered some of the best vocal performances I’ve heard in years. Each character had their own strengths and charismatic charms, and while this show has a big cast, I’ll just address the 8 main characters.

                                               Avatar Aang and Katara

Having a young kid as a kingdoms chosen one is nothing new, but Aang stands apart from other characters like Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter. Do to his young age and joyful outlook on life, this hero is very reluctant to be a chosen one of any kind and really just wants to have fun, but he’ll never turn his back on those in need either. As a result, he has to grow up fast to be a selfless hero, but he never loses his child like innocents, and that makes him a real joy to watch. He’s cheerful and funny but also wise and heroic, but things only get better with the supporting cast. Katara is a young 14 year old who was born with the mystical powers of controlling the element of water, and she’s the surrogate mother of the group. Katara’s also Aangs teacher and closest friend, personally, she’s my favorite of all the hero characters. She has it all, a sad back story, yet she still has a very positive outlook on life. She has a gentle heart, but she also has the focus and strength to kick some series butt. She’s wise and passionate but she also has all the side effects of being young, like naive jealousy and an occasional ill temper. She even has a dark side that she tries to channel with her motherly wisdom, and it’s her optimism of a better future during hard times make her so enduring.

                                                  Sokka and Toph

Sakka is Katara’s older brother and the only member of the group who doesn’t have any elemental bending powers. He’s the surrogate leader of the team, the one with all the plans, and he’s the comedic relief of the group. In all honesty, he might just be one of the greatest comedic side characters I’ve ever seen in an animated program. Even though he’s incredibly funny, Sakka’s also very charismatic, supportive and even a little complex, which makes him more than just a walking punch line. One of Season two’s biggest accomplishments was the introduction of a new main stay character named Toph, a little blind girl who ran away from home to join Avatar Aang and his allies on their quest. She has the ability to control the element of Earth and is Aang’s personal mentor on the subject. While she’s a close friend, and brimming with a high spirited personality, she’s also a little stubborn and selfish, which keeps her from getting as close with the group. While she’s rough around the edges, she’s also incredibly likable, has some really funny remarks and despite being blind, she’s actually the strongest fighter of the group.     

                                              Prince Zuko and his Uncle Iroh

Now it’s time to look at my favorite character of the show, and maybe even one of my favorite animated characters of all time. Prince Zuko is the main antagonist of season one and is on a mission to capture the Avatar and restore his honor after a mistake that forced him to be exiled from his family. While I’ve seen tragic villains before, there’s so much more substance and intrigue that goes on with this character. He dose bad things but with honorable intentions instead of greed, and he isn’t just a one note bad guy either. In season two he becomes an anti hero who just needs to find his place in the world while also battling his personal demons that corrupt his soul. Then in season 3 he becomes a hero and gradually gains friendship among our hero’s. Watching this banished prince go from menacing villain, to anti hero, to champion has been an awesome experience, and it’s one of the shows biggest highlights. At his side is his uncle Iroh, his personal moral compass and father figure. While he’s the wise sage of the series, he’s also another really funny character and a real delight whenever he’s on screen. I should note that Iroh was originally voiced by the late Mako Iwamatsu, who’s a very respected actor, but he sadly passed during the second season of the show. In fact there was an episode in season two titled “Tales of Ba Sing Se” which paid respect to the late voice actor, and while the episode itself wasn’t one of my personal favorites, it dose feature one of the most touching moments of the whole series.     

                                          Fire Lord Ozai and Princess Azula

Fire Lord Ozai is the big bad guy of the show, he rules the invading army and he’s the guy our hero needs to defeat. He’s voiced by Mark Hamill, the same talent who played Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars trilogy and who supplied the voice of the Joker in the 90’s Batman series. As you’d expect, he’s awesome in the role, delivering a chilling vocal performance. Thankfully, the show never over uses him, in fact he’s kept off screen until season three. While he quietly weaves his web in the background, his daughter princess Azula is the one who dose all the action, kind of like Darth Vader and The Emperor. Azula is the villain who steals the show with every scene she’s in, she’s crafty, intelligent and soft spoken which of sets her sinister nature perfectly. She’s also a little complex, but she really excites as a master planer and a thrilling antagonist to challenge our hero’s.  

Season 1 – Water

Each season takes place in one elemental location, and as you’d expect by the title, this season takes place mostly in a water environment and has a running story of our young hero’s journeying from the South Pole to the North Pole. Here are my personal five favorite episodes from this season.

5. Winter Solstice (2 Parts) 

In this two part mid-season finally, our hero learns of a new ability to venture into the mystical spirit world. He latter uses the ability to contact the spirit of his past life, who informs him of his most important task that he has to accomplish. This two part mid season final dose a great job setting the stage for what’s to come, and it delivers an action paced climax with all the characters coming together for one big final.

4. Imprisoned 

When Katara befriends a member of the Earth Kingdome, her passion for helping others leads to the pore guy getting captured and imprisoned by the fire nation. Ashamed for what she’s done, Katara lets herself get captured, this way she can inspire all the prisoners to rebel against their captures. Unfortunately, even when delivering the most passionate speech she can muster, everyone is so beaten down that they don’t even respond to her plea. This is the episode that really got me to love Katara’s character, we learn more about her tragic past, but we also see how passionate she can get and how optimistic she is of a better future. Best of all, we really see Katara’s cheerful personality and delightful sense of hummer at its best. The situation is tense, and the episode perfectly highlights one of the shows best characters. 

3. The Waterbending Scroll 

Desperate to master her water powers, Katara reluctantly steals a scroll that will allow both her and Aang to master the technique of water bending. The catch is that she stole it from a band of pirates, who aren’t too thrilled with them taking their prize. What follows is a thrilling little adventure with our hero’s battling pirates and even Prince Zuko. The action is great and the episode features some of my favorite comedy laced throughout all the fighting. It’s just a really fun little episode, with great character interactions, and lots of hummer.

2. The Storm 

This episode is often regarded by fans as the best of season one, maybe even the whole series. While it’s not my absolute favorite, it’s definitely one of the absolute best and it’s the episode that turned me into a permanent fan of the series. A super storm forces our hero’s to take shelter in a cave, while our villains are forced to wait out the weather at sea. With nowhere to go, both groups sit down by the fire and share the back stories of our hero Aang and our villain Zuko. It may seem a little unorganized at first because it constantly switches between the two back stories, but there’s a flowing narrative here that makes it justified. We learn that both our hero and villain were shaped by the mistakes they made in the past, which turned them into who they are now, and while they both went down different paths, they’re both connected by the same thread. Both are ruled by the bad decisions they made, and both have their own hopes and outlets that filter out their terrible mistakes. The best element of a hero and villain relationship is the one thing that connects them, weather their aware of it or not. This episode was rich, deep, had a lot of thought and was executed brilliantly.   

1. The Siege of the North (2 Parts) 

You’ll notice that my favorite episodes of every season are the season finales, why, because every season just ends on the perfect high note. In the previous episode, our hero’s finally reached the North Pole to master the art of water bending, but their time of peace is short lived, because the fire nation decides to end the water tribes once and for all by sending a massive invasion force. Hopelessly outnumbered, Avatar Aang goes on another journey into the spirit world to seek guidance during this intense war. On the side lines, Prince Zuko hatches his own plans for capturing the Avatar, and he’ll stop at nothing to get what he wants. This is one of the darker episodes of the series as it doesn’t shy away from killing off main characters, in fact, this episode features the most tragic hero death of the series. The action scenes are thrilling, and the climax is one of the shows most epic moments. But the best thing about this finally by far is it’s build up in part one. Honestly, this show has some of the best buildup for a massive invasion I’ve ever seen. There’s just this eerie silence as our hero’s are dreading the inevitable, and as a really nice touch all the smoke from the war ships are mixing with the snowy weather creating black snow fall, and it just creates this ominous feeling of something dreadful on the horizon. It’s an all around epic season finally and one of the shows biggest highlights.

Season 2 – Earth

This season brings in several new heroes, villains and mostly takes place in the Earth Kingdome. The main story of this season revolves around our hero’s trying to reach the nation’s capital city, only to find a new threat looming when they arrive. Here are my personal five favorite episodes of the season.

5. The Chase 

As you’d expect by the title, this is an action episode, one long, beautifully shot and excellently paced action episode. But there are two key things that stand out and make it one of the best. First, this episode further emphasizes what a serious threat Princess Azula and her assassins are. Second, this is one of the first episodes to feature our hero’s interacting with some of their enemies in a positive light.  There’s an especially touching moment when Toph sits down and talks with Zuko’s uncle Iroh, not even knowing that their on opposite sides, yet their conversation is so deep and even convey solemn words of advice to one another. It’s the perfect way to balance out one of the shows most action packed episodes.

4. The Journey to Ba Sing Se (2 Parts) 

While the two parts of this episode are only loosely connected, it is still an epic mid season finally and a perfect segue into the second half of season two. Throughout the first half of the season, our hero’s were on a mission to the capital city of Ba Sing Se, and this mid season finale is all about the last obstacle they have to face before arriving in the city of wonders. Part 1 is titled “The Serpents Pass” and focuses on our hero’s leading a family (with a pregnant mother) across a dangerous ocean path guarded by a ferocious sea dragon. At the same time, Aang faces his emotions as a mistake from the previous episode are still hanging over his head. In part 2, they make it to the gates of the city, only to find out that it’s being attacked by the bad guys, which leads into a thrilling action episode titled “The Drill”. This is personally one of my favorite two part events of the series, it has some of the shows most memorable action scenes, and some terrific character moments.    

3. The Guru 

This is the episode that takes place just before the season finally, and holly cow does it ever get you hipped for what’s to come. In this episode, Aange leaves the team to go on a spiritual journey helmed by a mysterious Guru, who can help him master his powers. As this is going on, the evil Princess Azula secretly infiltrates the capital city and is slowly weaving her toxic web to take it over. It’s just a perfect balance of calm, meditative spirituality with brooding trouble on the horizon. The tension just builds and builds, to the point where it seems that our hero’s have lost everything. But it’s also very uplifting to see Aang go on his spiritual journey as he faces his fears, his doubts and his biggest regrets. It all leads to a really tense ending where Aang is forced to make a hard chose that will allow him to either save the world or lose the one person he loves most.     

2. Zuko Alone 

As I stated above, Zuko is my favorite character of the show, and this is his best episode by far. This is when he asks himself what path he should go down, dose he stay evil or turn a new leaf. In the spirit of classic westerns like “Shane”, our anti hero takes refuge from a family who live out in the middle of no-where, and are constantly attacked by local bullies. Being their only hope, Zuko steps in to defend them, only to be rejected when his identify is revealed. As this is going on, we get several flashbacks addressing what happened to Zuko, his family and the dark turn of his past that led him down the road of evil. It’s almost like a Greek tragedy, with Zuko trying his best to do good only to have the cruelty of life push him back on his dark path. It’s an episode that perfectly demonstrates what a complex and tragic character this is, and voice actor Dante Basco is just on fire, bringing Zuko to life in every way a talented actor can.    

1. The Crossroads of Destiny 

Once again it’s the season finally that stands as the highlight of the season. As Aang returns to the capital city after the events in “The Guru”, he discovers that everything has fallen apart around him. The team has been divided, many are being held prisoner, the evil Princess Azula has taken over the city from the inside out, and Prince Zuko is struggling between where his allegiance lies. Princess Azula is awesome in this episode, delivering some of her most sinister lines and proving once again to be the greatest threat our hero’s have ever faced. This episode dose everything a good season finally should do, it delivers one big plot twist after another, there’s heart racing action, the voice acting is sensational and it closes on one of the darkest endings of the whole series, as our hero’s lose everything they were supposed to protect. Even our lead hero Aang has a sudden brush with death, but he’s thankfully saved at last minute, which leads to an especially touching moment of him waking up in the arms of the one person who loves him the most. While our hero’s escape, it’s still a strong cliff hanger that leaves you anxiously awaiting to see what will happen in the following season.  

Season 3 – Fire

The third and final season of the series takes place behind enemy lines, as our hero’s make their final plans to end the war once and for all. Things are going to get even more challenging, but in the plus column, their enemy prince Zuko decides to turn a new leaf and aid our hero’s. Here are my personal five favorite episodes of this season. 

5. The Runaway 

This is the episode in which Toph finally excepts her new allies as more than just friends, their her new family, and we finally see how her choice of running away from home has affected her. This episode also highlights Toph’s relation with Katara, the girl who appointed herself as the sergeant mother of the group, which Toph wasn’t overly fond of. It’s the subtle and deep interactions between our hero’s that make this a personal favorite of mine. Katara’s brother Sokka has an especially touching moment informing Toph that he’s always appreciated Katara’s motherly wisdom ever sense his real mother perished. We also have Katara learning an impressive new water technique by controlling her sweat, and there’s a thrilling battle with the third eyed bounty hunter. It’s an episode with all the action and character moments that make this show so great.   

4. The Southern Raiders 

Speaking of Katara, she has an especially good episode this season too. On the surface Katara’s the sweet, moral compos of the group, but deep down she actually has a dark side that she keeps hidden from everyone including herself. She’s a girl with good intentions, but that occasionally leads her to a dark place, and the darkest she’s ever gone is right here. After a thrilling battle with Princess Azula, Katara learns of the man who killed her mother, so she and Zuko set out to find him and take vengeance. This is undeniably one of the darkest episodes of the series, as we see Katara’s anger take hold, and voice actress Mae Whitman delivers one of her strongest performances in the series. So how does this episode end, maybe with a strong message revolving around forgiveness ... well ... yeah, but it’s not without its shades of grey. Even though Katara doesn’t take the life of the man who killed her mother, she decides she’ll never forgive him, which is kind of dark by the standards of children’s programming. However, she dose find the humility fo forgive Zuko for all the wrongs he’s done, and finally excepts him as a friend. More importantly Katara finally concurs her own demons. It’s a great episode and one of the more adult highlights of the series.    

3. The Headband 

Now here’s an episode that fans could either really love or really hate. Personally, I really love this episode. When our hero’s infiltrate the fire nation and disguise themselves as civilians, Avatar Aang finds himself attending a local school where he suddenly finds himself living out his dream of just being an ordinary kid. This may not be an action packed or plot heavy episode, but it’s the only time in season 3 that I felt we could just have some fun with our hero’s. Aang also realizes that the youth of the fire nation have lots of potential to be better people, and not just evil spawns of the army, which is great, I love it when the hero thinks of new ways to deal with his enemies rather than just fighting them. In the end, Aang organizes a school wide dance party for the up-tight fire nation kids, which is a lot of fun. There’s an exciting subplot involving Zuko as he reflects on his actions from the last season, Sokka has some especially funny moments and personally, this episode features my favorite moment between Aang and Katara as they share this wonderfully choreographed dance number together, complete with acrobatic dance steps and exotic music.  

2. The Day of Black Sun (2 Parts) 

In this epic two part Mid-Season finally, our hero’s launch a massive invasion against the fire nation in an effort to win the war once and for all. Unfortunately, the element of surprise isn’t on their side as the villains have been preparing for this, and once their trap is sprung, our hero’s suffer their greatest defeat in the entire series. This is arguably the most epic mid-season finally I’ve ever seen in an animated TV program, in fact, it actually felt like a season finally. The battle scenes are sensational, every character we’ve met in the show gets involved, we finally see Prince Zuko decide to join our hero’s and it all ends on a nail biting cliff hanger that leaves you hyped for what’s to come next.

1. Sozin’s Comet (4 Parts) 

Hands down, the absolute best episode of “Avatar: The Last Air Bender” is this epic 4 part conclusion titled Sozin’s Comet. As the evil fire lord makes his final plans for global domination, our hero’s split up into three groups to stop the villains for good, then epic battles ensue. This does everything a good series finally should do and more, it gives all the characters just enough attention, it thrills us with some of the shows greatest action scenes, and the battles themselves have some real suspense and dread, but there’s just enough comedy and hummer thrown in too. The animation in these episodes are especially cool, but the best part of all that makes this one of the greatest series finales I’ve ever seen is the epilogue. Unlike the ending of “Return of the King” that over stayed it’s welcome, or the ending of Harry Potter that was way too short, this show closes on the perfect epilog. We see all our hero’s together one last time, we see how the journey has shaped them, every loose end is tied up, and it all closes on one of the most touching moments of the series. In a media full of TV shows that go on for too long, or end on unsatisfying conclusions, this show had just the right length and ended on the perfect high note a series could end on.

With its consistently griping stories, lovable characters, hilarious comedy, thought provoking morals, stealer animation and intriguing philosophies, “Avatar: The Last Air Bender” is simply one of the greatest shows I’ve seen in years, and I don’t just mean animated shows, I mean it’s one of my all time favorite TV shows in general. I don’t say that lightly because I watch mostly adult programs like “The Walking Dead”, “Fire Fly” and “Game of Thrones”, so it really says something that an animated program from Nickelodeon can stand tall amongst them. It had size, passion, comedy and a fantastic cast of scene stealing characters. Even if you’re not a fan of its Japanese Anime style, I still highly recommend this show for anyone who loves mystical fantasy adventures. It’s one of the best animated shows I’ve ever seen and one of my favorite TV shows of all time.

                                   I give "Avatar: The Last Air Bender" a perfect 5 stars.

                                                                       The End


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