Nickelodeon recently did a marathon of all the episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender, allowing me to recap all my favourite moments and to catch some episodes that I missed the first time around.
To be clear, this is neither a review of the recent movie The Last Airbender nor the James Cameron film Avatar. Before either of those films came out there was a cartoon television series by Nickelodeon called Avatar: The Last Airbender. It wasn’t that long ago that this show was on but they’ve already made a live action film based on it, which I think was a huge mistake. This show is an instant classic – it didn’t need to be reimagined so soon. Now I’m afraid that the quality of this show is going to be lost to people because of the confusion with The Last Airbender and Avatar films. I want to draw attention back to the show.
This show is brilliant. I have never seen a cartoon television series with such dynamic elements of character, action and story-telling. The writers are exceptionally skilled. The character development is superb. The subject matter is mature while remaining kid-friendly. Toph, Iroh and Azula are some of the best, most entertaining and most well-written characters I’ve ever seen – in a film or TV show.
The main character, Aang, is a surprising delight. It is very difficult for a character to be both innocent and super-powerful without coming off as a dousch. But Aang pulls it off. He has just the right balance of child-like playfulness and awareness of his responsibility. Which is as much a compliment to the writers as to the voice talent.
There’s a father-son, good and evil conflict in this show that I’ve compared to that of Star Wars in terms of drama and the sense of inner turmoil. There was a period of this show that actually felt like I was watching Return of the Jedi for the first time.
At first glance it looks like it’s supposed to be Anime, but doesn’t quite make it. That’s okay. The art in this show falls into it’s own unique style that suits the story and the characters well.
It was only on for three seasons – but that’s because the story ends in three seasons. To go on any longer would’ve been to drag it out too much. I’ve really been hoping to hear about a spin-off show but haven’t heard anything yet.
Have I mentioned the humour yet? Oh man, there are so many one-liners in this show. It’s highly quotable. And the facial expressions are perfect.
If I had to pick a favourite episode it’s probably “The Beach”. There are three episodes I can think of that are The comedy episodes – all in the third season – and they’re all hilarious for their own reasons, but “The Beach” is the one that stands out the most for me.
Christian viewers should be aware that the story takes place in a fantasy world taking a lot of elements from Asian culture and religion – mostly Chinese. The word “Avatar” is a Hindu term, for a physical incarnation of a spiritual being, if I’m not mistaken. The show’s premise is based on reincarnation, though, depending on the episode, reincarnation may be discussed in thoroughly or as more of an afterthought. The Four Elements also play a huge role in the overall theme of the show. Personally, there’s little in the show that makes me uncomfortable, except for the one episode that’s all about fortune-telling and actually discusses various methods – that I tend to skip over. The show is emphatic that Airbending, Firebending, etc. are not magic but abilities unique to their respective cultures. The Bending techniques are instead performed through various martial arts moves, many of which are themselves spiritually rooted.
Though the spiritual and moral messages in the show are inspired mainly by Eastern philosophies, I was surprised to see how many lessons had a Christian feel to them. In one episode in particular Aang starts off by following a philosophy taught to him by the monks of his tribe, but later sees the flaw in it and replaces it with a more Christian philosophy. Even Aang questions his teachers when necessary.
If you want to show this program to your kids then I would greatly encourage sitting and watching it with them. Talk about some of the moral and spiritual principles that come up in the show, and compare them with principles taught in the Bible.
Avatar is still played on the Nickelodeon channel. But I would highly recommend watching the series in order from the beginning, either online or by picking up the DVDs. The plot-twists and character development are that good that it’s really worth taking the time to watch things unfold from start to finish.