In my years of TV watching, there have been tons of well-regarded shows that have eluded my gaze. Thanks to the magic of Netflix, I now have an opportunity to watch these shows and share my thoughts on them. It may be a classic to you, but It’s New To Me!
After the roller-coaster of quality that was Twin Peaks, I decided to go with something a little more recent and well-known with my next subject for this feature. I ultimately decided to go with Avatar: The Last Airbender, that beloved serialized cartoon adventure series that aired on Nickelodeon from 2005 to 2008, inspired a terrible live-action adaptation by M. Night Shyamalan in 2010, and was followed by the current critically-acclaimed spinoff The Legend of Korra. Having now seen the first two episodes of Avatar, which originally aired on Nick as a one-hour pilot, I now see why some have called this one of the best animated series of the past decade and one of the few “kids’ cartoons” in recent years that have managed to hook adult viewers with its rich storyline and highly developed characters.
The premiere episode, “The Boy In The Iceburg,” begins with a concise and effective pre-title sequence that introduces the world in which this story is set and summarizes the backstory behind the existence of a group of gifted individuals who are able to manipulate, or “bend,” one or more of four basic elements (Air, Fire, Water, and Earth) and to their will. The narrator explains that every tribe on this world contained a few “benders” and that at any given time in history, there exists one special person who is able to manipulate all four elements, known as The Avatar, who reincarnates into another form when that particular Avatar dies. The narrator states that all the tribes lived in relative peace and harmony with one another until the clan of Firebenders, known as the Fire Nation, decided to violently overtake the other tribes one hundred years prior to the events of this series. It is at that point that the final Avatar was killed and no new Avatar had been found. With no one left to stop them, the Fire Nation successfully takes over the other tribes, wiping out most of the other Benders in the process.
The episode then begins a century after those events with two teenaged Water Tribe members, wide-eyed Katara and her brash and arrogant older brother Sakka, fishing in the icy waters of their territory. Their conversation establishes Katara as a Waterbender who is not yet able to fully control and harness her powers. They come across an iceburg that contains a large bison and a bald twelve-year old boy with a blue, downward-facing arrow on his forehead, which is the sign of the lost tribe of Airbenders. They free the boy from his icy prison and discover that his name is Aang. He introduces Katara and Sakka to his pet bison Appa, who he claims can fly, even though the beast is unable to prove it at the moment because he still needs to recover from his time spent in suspended animation. They return to the Water Tribe, where Aang gleefully shows off his airbending skills. Katara is convinced that Aang is the long-anticipated Avatar and reveals her own waterbending skills to him. Aang and Katara make plans to travel to the other tribes in order for her to get the training she needs to become a full-fledged Waterbender. They soon attract the attention of the exiled Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation, who is also searching for the fabled Avatar in order to destroy him and win back the favor of his father, the king of the Firebenders. The episode ends with Zuko spotting Aang and Katara through a pair of binoculars, convinced that this boy is the foe he has been seeking.
Not only was “The Boy In The Iceburg” a near-perfect introduction to this series and its main characters, but it did a wonderful job in establishing the setting and overall mythology of the show in a tight 24 minutes. Avatar makes its influences fairly obvious (The Benders are obviously modeled after the Jedi from Star Wars and the overall look of the show is heavily influenced by anime and kung fu films) but they are not so obvious that they detract from the overall story. I also enjoy how this premiere episode balanced the more serious aspects of the storyline with short yet endearing bits of humor, which reminds us that the protagonists of the show are in fact children. I’m quite bummed that I was not able to get in on this show from the beginning but am overjoyed that the entire show is available via Netflix for me to catch up on. The rest of Avatar: The Last Airbender has a lot to live up to in order to match my enjoyment of the premiere, but I am more than confident that the creators of the show are more than capable of matching this level of quality with every episode. “The Boy In The Iceburg” gets 4.5 out of 5 Makeshift Hang Gliders.
The strength of the premiere episode continues with the second chapter, “The Avatar Returns,” in which Prince Zuko invades the Water Tribe and takes Aang captive on his ship. Sokka and Katara decide to go save Aang, ignoring their grandmother’s commands to let the Fire Nation have him. They reach the ship with the help of Appa, who has regained the power of flight, to find out that Aang has broken free by using his Airbending powers. During the resulting battle, Aang’s Avatar powers kick in and he creates a giant wave that knocks everyone overboard, including Zuko. Aang then hops onto Appa with Sokka and Katara, and our heroes decide to go find the Northern Water Tribe in order for Katara to learn how to realize her true potential as a Waterbender.
“The Avatar Returns” is a lot heavier on action and lighter on exposition than the first episode, which is fine because that first chapter did a great job of establishing everything we need to know about this show. Most of the character development in this episode is devoted to Zuko, who is less of a fearsome enemy than he is a disgraced child willing to do anything to get back in his father’s good graces. We also get a few delightfully humorous moments with Zuko’s Uncle Iroh, who displays a hilarious amount of detachment and ambivalence toward his nephew’s mission. The episode contains two gorgeously rendered fight scenes, the first of which is the inital duel between Aang and Zuko and the second is the grand battle on the ship. It’s fitting that this was originally aired as the final part of an hourlong episode, because it wonderfully wraps up all the setup from “The Boy In the Iceburg” and eventually establishes what will more than likely be the main plot of this first season. These two introductory episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender provide a near-perfect combination of story, action, and character that kept me riveted and entertained with every second I spent with them, and I am very much looking forward to watching and covering this show in its entirety. “The Avatar Returns” gets 4.5 out of 5 “Yip-Yip” Commands.