Avatar: The Last Airbender.

by waxbanks

The summary enthusiastic recommendation first: This is the best ‘children’s show’ I’ve ever seen, and will move adults (as it moved me) in surprising ways.

At first it looks like yet another cheaply produced genre pastiche on the order of Ninjago. (See below.) Certainly the premise is familiar enough: magical boy-of-destiny returns to the world to master the four elements and defeat evil, aided by a couple of plucky kids. And the pan-Asian kung fu pastiche is dangerous ground for a predominantly white cast of voice actors to tread, and…

…but then the show’s first scene sees the competent polar-tribal female lead (Katara) scold her competent brother (Sokka) for sexism in as many words, and while ‘progressive’ means something more than box-checking if it means anything at all, that’s a hell of a way to announce your intentions as storytellers. But that’s only politics. This is what matters: the jokes are funny, and the characters look and talk like people, and there’s a magical boy in an iceberg who talks like a boy, plus he’s got a flying six-legged platypus-bison of some kind (‘pretty cool’ as they say) to which he has a touchingly intense relationship, and when they travel to the siblings’ village the old woman looks and talks like an old woman rather than The Old Woman, and then the Fire Nation arrives looking like Nazi Samurai…

And there’s the magic, the ‘bending’: the ‘waterbenders’ practice a recognizable magical martial art, the ‘firebenders’ a distinctive art of their own, and the last ‘airbender’ a kinetic language unique to him — each tribe’s fighting/magic style a loving tribute to an existing martial arts tradition, each embodying in form and movement the character-as-destiny which is the standard premise of this sort of story. Because ‘bending’ is central to the story, it needs to be more than four-colour kickpunching, and it is — the most surprising and impressive thing about the show, from the beginning, is the subtle transformation of its bog-standard four-way elemental schema from storytelling convenience to philosophical argument.

In other words, notwithstanding the overacted teenage villain Prince Zuko (who (thank Christ) gets interesting pretty quickly), Avatar‘s two-part opener immediately dispels any worry that it’s just a checklist wuxia pastiche, and projects an unusually thoughtful and humane spirit, which marks it as both psychologically and politically sophisticated. I’d say ‘…for a kid’s show’ but I don’t think it’s necessary — Avatar refers time and again not only to Star Wars and The Matrix, as expected, but also (more tellingly) to Miyazaki’s elegiac fantasies; and the writing shows a subtle sensitivity to Avatar‘s pan-Asian source mythologies and folktales. At times it seems intentionally to court comparisons to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which went off the air less than two years before Avatar‘s premiere — there’s a clear homage to the canonical Buffy episode ‘The Zeppo’ that warmed my heart. Its creators clearly didn’t think of their show as proscriptively ‘for children,’ nor did they make a corporate ‘all-ages’ entertainment in the disappointing Shrek/Lego Movie/Minions mould; instead of following the constrictive rules of corporate youth-marketed products, Avatar‘s creators obeyed principles which generated both kid-friendly scenarios and believable group dynamics without sacrificing narrative momentum.

Indeed, the 90+ minute final episode, ‘Sozin’s Comet,’ is that rarest of series finales, the ideal end to both deep story and plot-mechanics. My only major complaint about the final season is its focus on romantic pairings at the expense of the dynamic, persnickety relationships which formed throughout the first two years — and my wife, who loved the show and shares this complaint, was particularly irritated by the creators’ choice of final scene and image. (I also disliked the inexplicable repeated use of the word ‘confused’ to mean ‘ambivalent’ and ‘conflicted’ and ‘frustrated’ and ‘preoccupied’; that seemed like the writers’ only obvious lapse of faith in the audience’s intelligence, or else a failure of nerve.) But ‘Sozin’s Comet’ is still an absolute triumph, and it would be even if it only brought three long-simmering conflicts to genuinely suspenseful climaxes, paid off a bit of deep ‘mythology,’ and delivered an extended knock-down, drag-out magical kung fu fight between two of the storyworld’s most powerful beings. Its real achievement is greater than that: it pays off the show’s central storyline by introducing new ‘worldbuilding’ information in a way that seems perfectly natural, inevitable, instead of convenient — the final battle echoes every conflict of the preceding three seasons, and its resolution reveals something new about the world of Avatar without violating the art/artist/audience contract.

(The finale also includes a magical island that deliberately conjures (and I think spoofs) the memory of Lost, an overpraised and derivative show whose fatal abstraction and ultimate failure of taste and sense stand as warnings to TV-serial creators. Kudos to my wife for pointing out the Lost resonance.)

Avatar‘s rare coherence and genre-defying sophistication — not to mention its bone-deep commitment to a (let’s say) progressive vision of family and community — are all the more impressive given the show’s occasional formal experiments. One episode makes the non-speaking flying bison its POV character; another is a series of impressionistic vignettes set on the eve of battle; a third uses multiple animation styles to tell a good ol’ Rashomon story. The penultimate episode has the kids watching a play about themselves, performed by a troupe of Fire Nation actors, which takes an eerie turn in its final scenes. But this isn’t cleverness or ostentation: every story about children adventuring in a grownup world draws on the same fundamental dynamic tension, whereby the kids’ clarifying (naive) vision carries a kind of moral force weighing against their discovery that the world is fiendishly complicated, and adulthood itself is no sin; indeed the idea of sin (of ultimate good and bad) seems less and less believable the more of the world you take into account (cf. recent YA examples: Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, the Star Wars prequels). As the world of Avatar deepens and variegates, the range of the heroes’ experiences is reflected stylistically, formally, on top of the actual ‘content’ of those adventures — assuming that distinction has meaning in the first place.

I really can’t say enough about Avatar. It came into our lives at just the right moment. Every day I wake up in a country whose hugely unpopular president is a bellicose semiliterate imbecile afraid of his own shadow; Avatar has allowed me to escape to a story that isn’t simple or safe or free from evil, but is filled with humanity and love, truthfully — that is to say, beautifully — told. Above all, I’m grateful to have been able to share it with my six-year-old son.

He loved it, by the way.


Ninjago note

Ninjago was the biggest casualty of our Avatar experience. I quite liked it at the time, as a light entertainment aimed at kids and their interested/hovering parents. But I’m now convinced it’s a somewhat cynical knockoff of Avatar, with none of the earlier show’s depth or grace. The upcoming Ninjago film looks miserable — more ‘meta’ comedy in the vein of The Lego Movie, ugh — and the central figure of Lloyd Garmadon the Green Ninja, once just an underwritten plot-necessity, now feels to me like the worst sort of storytelling laziness. (Aang the Avatar is Hamlet in comparison.) If they make another season of the show we’ll presumably watch it, and I’ll presumably enjoy the zany antics and genre spoofs, but now I’ve seen firsthand how much more could have been done with the same raw materials. It’s lost its lustre. Blessed are they who do not see, but still believe, etc., etc.; on the other hand, better late than never.

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