Rewatching Avatar: The Last Airbender

Based on my Twitter feed, Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005–2008) is experiencing renewed life since its arrival on Netflix in May. Jenn and I loved this one when we originally watched it back in the ‘oughts—side note: isn’t it weird we never really nicknamed that decade?—so it was with real pleasure that we jumped back on the bandwagon to revisit it.

Avatar: The Last Airbender is a delightful mix of fantasy and martial arts, set in a secondary world wherein magical power revolves around four elements: air, earth, fire, and water. A hundred years ago, the Avatar—a legendary figure capable of commanding all four elements, and destined to bring peace and balance to the world—mysteriously disappeared. Since then, a war instigated by the ruthless Fire Nation has wiped out the Air Nomads and continues to rage with the Earth Kingdom and the Water Tribes.

At the south pole, young waterbender Katara (voiced by Mae Whitman) and her wise-cracking brother Sokka (Jack De Sena) find the lost Avatar, Aang (Zach Tyler Eisen), who has spent the past century frozen in an iceberg with his trusty sky-bison Appa. While Aang is supposedly destined for greatness, in reality he’s still a carefree little kid. It quickly becomes clear Aang has a long, arduous quest ahead of him. When the Fire Nation arrives to capture him, led by the sullen, exiled Prince Zuko (Dante Basco) and his Uncle Iroh (Mako), Aang, Katara, and Sokka realize they must elude the Fire Nation and help Aang master the elements, in order to save the world.

Structured into three distinct, well planned seasons, Avatar: The Last Airbender starts modestly but quickly builds into a rousing, epic middle-grade adventure. The camaraderie and humor of the primary ensemble—Aang, Katara, Sokka, Appa, Aang’s pet lemur Momo, and later a number of additional characters, including a badass earthbender named Toph (Jessie Flower)—develops quickly, and the series builds into a compelling, fast-paced saga. On my earlier watch, I remember having a fairly casual reaction to the first season, but really getting into it later. This impression held true on the rewatch: while the show’s humor and storytelling is solid from the get-go, the show really hits its stride in the second season. The stakes increase, the villainy—headlined by the truly monstrous Azula (Grey DeLisle)—becomes far more menacing, and the fight scenes grow ever more inventive and epic. Indeed, the “bending” magic, which ties specific kung fu styles to the manipulation of air, earth, fire, and water, is thoughtfully designed, and as the characters become more adept at it, the action sequences get all the more eye-popping and impressive. That said, from the first episode there’s a sound, intentional strategy to the way the show is constructed; the way Aang’s alliance builds, the touching uncle-nephew relationship between Iroh and Zuko, and the distinct, world-shaping challenges the team face are well clocked. Throughout, the writers do a terrific job managing the large cast—heroes and villains alike—with a keen sense for conflict, fun, humor, and depth.

A handful of minor imperfections did seem more evident to me this time around. There’s one glaringly unconvincing, unnecessary romantic subplot, and the jokes about Toph’s blindness—which happens to also be a problematic “magical disability”—grow tiresome quickly. But on most levels, Avatar: The Last Airbender is a rousing success from start to finish, bracingly paced, mindfully structured, and full of excitement, humor, and heart.

 

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