Chapter One and Two: “The Boy in the Iceberg” and “The Avatar Returns”
(Rating Out of 15)
(Rating Out of 15)
Every series has to start somewhere, and Avatar: the Last Airbender started with “The Boy in the Iceberg” and “The Avatar Returns.” These two episodes waste absolutely no time in establishing the overall story, giving the audience just enough information to understand what’s going on, while leaving just enough a mystery to be explained and explored throughout the remainder of the series. By the end of “The Avatar Returns,” we have at least a broad understanding of what Bending is, who the Avatar is, what his disappearance and his return means for the world, who our protagonists are, who the villain is, etc. As the collective Pilot, these two episodes are virtually flawless.
But here’s the real question: setting aside their absolute importance to the overall story, how do “The Boy in the Iceberg” and “The Avatar Returns” fare simply as individual episodes?
They’re nothing special really. They’re not bad, but there’s nothing truly resonant about them. By the series’ overall standards, these are just average episodes of Avatar (which is still better than just about anything else on television). This may have actually given the show a great advantage: if you enjoyed these episodes, you’ll like nearly everything the show has to offer. If you don’t like these episodes…well, some patience will be required.
Personally, I think they’re just all right (though “The Avatar Returns” is slight better). The thing that interests me most is how the genesis for every other episode and the formation of the Avatar formula definitely can be seen here, as well as nearly every strength and every weakness that has affected Avatar since. This includes the notion that, despite being an American animated kids’ show, Avatar was pretty original, intriguing, and surprisingly mature. Conversely, for its wonderful qualities, it was still an American animated kids’ show, and thus prone to all the traps that shows of its kind tend to fall into. How well could Avatar circumnavigate those traps without surrendering to them?
The plot basics: two Water Tribe siblings named Katara and Sokka find a boy named Aang who’d been frozen in an iceberg and is an Airbender. This discovery alerts a Fire Nation prince named Zuko that the Avatar is near, and he vows to capture him. By the end, we get the general idea: Aang, accompanied by Katara and Sokka, will travel the world so that he, as the Avatar, will learn to master all four elements (air, water, fire, earth) in order to finally bring the war—which has gone on for a hundred years—to an end. And all the while, Zuko, accompanied by his wise and very loving Uncle Iroh, will try to stop him.
It only becomes more complicated from there, and I must give creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko and their creative team credit for never losing sight of the overall story. Avatar is never confusing or hard to follow, and the occasional 100% filler episode notwithstanding, nearly every episode builds on those that came before it and adds to the experience. Unlike other kids’ shows, Avatar actually has a story to begin, middle, and end. Maybe it wasn’t as clear cut as that, but DiMartino and Konietzko and company structure Avatar so magnificently that it’s hardly an issue. It all builds to an epic conclusion that leaves you, if not completely satisfied, glad you stuck with it all this time.
That said, these first two episodes only kind of lead you to expect such wonderful things from the show. It all really comes down to Roger Ebert’s law: “A movie is not about what it is about. It is about how it is about it.” As this pertains to Avatar, the story was always great; it was the storytelling that nearly foiled its success.
Take Aang, for example. Throughout the series, he constantly tightropes between being: 1) an energetic and mischievous twelve-year-old boy who also happens to be the savior of humanity that can end the war; and 2) a fairly amusing cartoon character who is doomed to succeed in the end by the mere virtue that he is the main character. The latter is not necessarily a bad thing, for lots of cartoon characters are built on this premise (Bugs Bunny comes to mind). The problem is that it leaves very little room for any kind of emotional investment in the character. How are we supposed to root for a character to succeed if he doesn’t really have anything that would stop him from doing so? Characters like this may be entertaining, but they almost never feel real.
This is the main reason I’ve never really liked Aang throughout the series. Only on extremely rare occasions is his dual status of child and savior, and his choice between fun for himself and responsibility towards others actually addressed. These are the most interesting aspects of his character, and yet they’re constantly pushed aside in the interest of amusing hijinks (hijinks which, admittedly, are more often than not fun to watch).
In “The Boy in the Iceberg” and “the Avatar Returns,” this distinction is, thankfully, portrayed as more of a deliberate guise on Aang’s part rather than a lapse in judgment by the writers. Or maybe “guise” is the wrong word, because this really is Aang’s personality: he’s a fun-loving, compassionate, carefree kid who wants nothing to do with saving the world. Immediately after he’s unfrozen by Katara and Sokka, the first thing he asks Katara is if she’ll go penguin sledding with him.
This does set up an interesting dynamic between Aang and the two Water Tribe siblings. Having been frozen for so long, Aang didn’t have the exposure to war and destruction that Katara and Sokka had. He doesn’t seem to have been affected by the war at all. (Later on, it turns out he didn’t even know it happened.) This leads to one of my favorite exchanges in the entire series:
Katara: Why are you smiling at me like that?
Aang: Oh. I was smiling?
Aang doesn’t need a reason to smile. He just loves life. His exuberance is pretty contagious, especially when he meets the villagers of the Southern Water Tribe. All of the children take an immediate liking to him, but the adults, particularly Gran-Gran, are skeptical: who is this strange new boy, and why isn’t he gloomy like the rest of us?
“The Boy in the Iceberg” also establishes the overriding traits of Katara and Sokka, for better or worse.
I realize I’m in a very small minority on this, but I don’t like Sokka. I really don’t. He’s supposed to be the comic relief, but his jokes nearly always fall flat. I largely blame Sokka’s annoyance on voice actor Jack De Sena, who apparently got the role because, as Konietzko put it, “he brought a lot of comedy and stuff into the character that we hadn’t thought of initially, but he’s really funny.” Either DiMartino and Konietzko are playing some sort of Kubrickian mind game with De Sena and the audience (I’ve often wondered if Sokka was unfunny by design, because characters tend to deride his lack of wit pretty frequently), or this is just a case of my own bias coloring how I view the character. It’s likely the latter, which is a real shame. I still, however, stand my belief that De Sena is a better dramatic voice actor than a comic one. So even though his snarky comments may be lame, when he’s ready to be serious and take the initiative, he’s a pretty cool dude. That’s not often, though.
Katara is much better—for one thing, she’s played consistently well by Mae Whitman—but until Book Three, I’d always had my reservations about her, too. Like Aang, there are times when she seems less like a human being or more like a quasi-Mary Sue. After all, it’s her voice that opens every single episode with lines like “…he’s got a lot to learn before he’s ready to save anyone, but I believe Aang can save the world.” Her extreme hopefulness combined with her severe stubbornness has been a source of controversy for her character, with a lot of people pointing out that she always gets what she wants without having to change herself.
I’ll have to discuss Katara’s character in-depth later—especially once it comes time to examine Book Three—but I will make this observation about her in these first two episodes: she essentially dominates nearly every course of action and conversation that influences the plot. She’s the one that, upon accidentally surfacing Aang’s iceberg, breaks him out of the ice. She’s the one who yells at Gran-Gran for driving Aang out of the village, the guilt of which would later persuade her to let her and Sokka go with Aang to the North Pole. She’s pretty much the reason Aang goes to the North Pole to master Waterbending in the first place. Whether this is a positive and negative trait is another discussion for another time.
Do I even have to mention how much I adore Zuko and Uncle Iroh? For one thing, Zuko is the best character in the entire series, and Iroh, in addition to be a wonderful character himself, balances Zuko out so well. Their relationship is the warmest and most interesting, providing many entertaining and emotional interactions throughout. Even in these first two episodes, they steal the show away from Aang and the others.
That’s about it for characters at this point. I tend to forget to mention the animals in my reviews, so let me say this: I like Appa, but never when he has to carry an entire episode by himself (“Appa’s Lost Days”). Momo could pull that off easily—as his segment in “Tales of Ba Sing Se” proves—but not Appa.
As far as plot goes, both episodes proceed well enough, although a few things stood out in “The Boy in the Iceberg.”
The pacing is more leisurely than almost any other episode in the rest of the series (out of Book One, I only recall “The Fortuneteller” and “The Waterbending Master” having the same feel). For the most part, I’m pretty grateful for this choice of atmosphere over plot. Not only does it allow for some great animation, but it also allows the audience to take in this fantastic setting, as well as give them time to suspend their disbelief at the thought that someone could survive in an iceberg for over a hundred years. This may be a fantasy world, but it has rules. If Aang hadn’t been the Avatar, he wouldn’t have survived that trip.
However, for some reason, that same leisure didn’t stop the writers from getting extremely cutesy and sentimental in one scene, in which Katara realizes that Aang had been frozen for a hundred years and relays this fact to him. You’d expect his reaction to be a little more anxious than it is. Rather than taking a moment to let this fact sink in, we get this horrid exchange:
Aang: A hundred years! I can’t believe it.
Katara: I’m sorry, Aang. Maybe somehow there’s a bright side to all this.
Aang: I did get to meet you.
There’s a scene earlier where Aang and Katara go penguin sledding together. This should be a fun scene, but due to Rigid Action Syndrome, it isn’t. The movement is too slow and fragmented to really be any fun to look at. I feel like I’m watching a slideshow rather than a cool sequence. This also affects the scene where Aang demonstrates how he flies on his glider. It just doesn’t feel right.
Thankfully, Rigid Action Syndrome does not affect the action sequence in “The Avatar Returns.” The scenes of Aang running around on the Fire Nation ship looking for his glider are all fantastic and well-animated. His first real fight with Zuko is also pretty fun.
Probably my favorite moment in “The Avatar Returns” is when Aang jumps off the bridge of the ship to fly away, and Zuko jumps right after him and catches him. This is one determined guy! Imagine if he didn’t manage to get a hold of Aang as he took off. He could have very well killed himself. The fact that he even thought he could do this says an awful lot about Zuko.
There are other great moments, too. There’s the sequence in which Zuko’s ship crashes right through the village wall while Sokka, geared to fight, is vastly overshadowed by the ship’s size. Before that stupid sentimental exchange, Aang and Katara explored an abandoned Fire Nation ship that is pretty ominous. It’s also pretty thrilling seeing Aang go into the Avatar State for the first time.
I kind of liked the scene where Appa, after not living up to his flying bison status, finally takes off for the two siblings after Sokka says the magic words (“Yip-yip!”). However, I feel that they shouldn’t have used the moment as a joke. Initially, Sokka didn’t believe Appa could fly, and now when he does, Sokka is ecstatic, which earns him a knowing glance from Katara. It’s funny, but come on: this is their first time flying! This is one of the most magical moments of their lives, and it has to be a punchline?
In fact, a lot of the humor in Avatar (particularly in these early episodes) leaves me cold. Much of it seems to be the direct result of Avatar being a kids’ show, and that doesn’t bode well with me, especially when the jokes are accompanied by those distracting musical stings that essentially serve as the laugh track in case you forgot something was meant to be funny. I’ve found that much of the humor in Avatar is best when its understated, but right up front begging for attention.
In the end, though, “The Boy in the Iceberg” and “The Avatar Returns” should be commended for doing their job well. They not only setup the rest of Avatar, but they set the bar for what the average episode would be. Again, these are pretty middle-of-the-road episodes from which the show could get better, or, sometimes, worse. Of course, it’s entirely possible that what I perceive as a weakness, you may see as a strength. That’s perfectly fine. But hopefully now you see where I’m coming from when I say that Avatar, as much as I love it, continues to frustrates me to no end.
Here’s the interview from which that Bryan Konietzko quote comes from those interested.
All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.