Because fans should be critical, too

Archive for November, 2014

Quick Impressions on “Beyond the Wilds”

Let’s start with the good news.

The good news is that the final four episodes of The Legend of Korra will be on television! There’s a slight compromise here–they’ll be on Nicktoons instead of the official Nickelodeon channel–but don’t let that cloud the issue. Korra is back on the televised grid, and that’s cause enough for celebration.

The bad news has to do with “Beyond the Wilds.”

The problems I have with this episode have been addressed in one way or another in previous reviews, and to address these now, with four more episodes to go in the series, would be unseemly. And let’s face it: after the horrors of “Remembrances,” the series can’t possibly sink any lower than that. As such, I’ll try to refrain from nipping at poor formal choices unless something truly egregious happens.

So for now, I’ll just discuss what’s good about “Beyond the Wilds.” And there is plenty.

For one thing, the reunion of Korra and Zaheer came as a complete surprise, yet made perfect sense within the logic of the story. Even more remarkable is that it is he who is responsible for helping Korra out of her spiritual block, thanks to their shared goal of ending Kuvira’s reign of power. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but seeing Korra finally get back into the Spirit World after all this time was actually cathartic. I haven’t been this happy for Korra in a long time.

Actually, I’ve never been happy for Korra before. Guys, I think this girl is starting to grow on me! (And only four more episodes to go? How cruel!)

Meanwhile, Varrick and Bolin have made it to Republic City and gone their separate ways. The dynamic duo may have split, but at least they’re still very funny (if John Michael Higgins and P.J. Byrne had a podcast, I’d listen in, no matter the subject matter).

All-in-all, a good episode. Let’s see what next week has in store for us.

Before I end this, I do have a quasi-criticism that I’ve been meaning to address for some time now: what is the deal with Opal? She seems so…angry and narrow-headed, especially towards Bolin. She strikes me like one of those college-level environmental activists who just recently became an environmental activist, with all the passion and none of the poise of a veteran activist, spouting their beliefs and statistics, guilt tripping unsuspecting passerbys with almost fascist glee. And what’s with that ultimatum that Bolin can “win her back” (what is this, the 50s?) on the condition that he helps her rescue her family? Bolin, buddy! You need to stop falling into these unhealthy relationships!

Am I the only one who feels this way about Opal? Or this episode, for that matter?


Happy Anniversary to the “Avatar” Blog!

As of this past Sunday, I’ve been running this Avatar: the Last Airbender blog for three years. Is three years a long time? It certainly seems like it, especially to have been committed to maintaining a blog devoted to a single animated children’s show. Perhaps this says more about me than it does about Avatar, but don’t let that cloud the issue. Avatar is a very special show deserving of higher praise and analysis than I think it gets on average, and I’m eager to revisit it after The Legend of Korra has come to an end.

In other words, I’m much more excited to spend the time and effort needed to keep this blog alive than I’d been, say, a year ago. I’d like to think I’ve learned a lot since then—it’s hard to tell—and what I’ve learned, I’d liked to apply to this blog, making it better than it’s been in the past. How? I’m not entirely sure, but a key word that comes to mind is openness. This openness involves both myself and my general readership.

For me, I’m making a conscious effort to open up my critical approach. Tox, a relatively new commenter on this blog, has illuminated some rather glaring flaws in my writing process (flaws which, upon brutal self-reflection and extemporaneous readings, I now recognize as having seriously hindered a respectful analysis of Avatar and Korra). To fix these issues, I’ll need to write more, while remaining conscious of where my biases and lack of knowledge gets in the way. I won’t totally abandon my more subjective, more personal approach, but it won’t be as egregious as it’s been in the past (I’d hate to hold up “The Southern Raiders” as the greatest episode without any objective and formal evidence to support my claim, regardless of my personal feelings).

As for the general readership: I can’t remember who suggested this, but I love the idea of making the Avatar reviews much more democratic. As opposed to the old model—in which I give my full thoughts on an episode, with little room for dialogue—perhaps the way it’s been going lately (with the quick impressions, followed by further discussion and elaboration from commenters) should be the standard for the future. Everyone here is so civil and articulate, even in disagreement, and I’ve really loved the responses to the individual episodes of Book Four. I think such a dialogue can only improve once our attentions are focused on the entire series in the retrospect (and in lieu of the production history). I’m still pondering this one, but it feels like the right way to go.

In the meantime: 1) there are still a few more episodes of Korra to go before the franchise comes to an end (and, judging by Korra‘s eventual slide out of the time slots of cable television, there will be no further on-screen stories or developments in the rich and intriguing Avatar universe), and those have to be dealt with as they come; and 2) among other things, the Frozen video review is still underway and taking up much of my free time. How much time? Enough to realize that my issues with Frozen go way beyond the movie itself—which is a typically well-made, moderately entertaining American feature-length animated movie—to the culture that surrounds it and made it such a massive success. I can’t say anymore that, since I want to save it for the actual review, but I will repeat a single observation: it’s frightening how thoroughly this latest generation has been swayed by nostalgia for even the most insipid products of our childhoods in the midst of late capitalism. [This has also affected the Avatar franchise, resulting in episodes like “The Headband” and “The Beach,” which pay awkward homage to the 80s films that creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko grew up with. The terrible love triangle of Book One and Two of Korra also hints at this postmodern self-indulgence (ominously calling to mind a belief of film critic Pauline Kael that a collaboration, or a “joint authorship…usually means a shared shallowness”).]

In a way, the issues I have with both Korra and Frozen are one in the same: their inherit progressive potential is squandered by their poor storytelling. Who knows what affect Korra could have had on the public consciousness had its creators fully adhered to the pragmatic needs of good narrative and entertainment. Who knows how much more meaningful Frozen could have been had it been conceived as more than a self-conscious continuation of the “Disney legacy.”

Maybe all these things and more will be speculated in the following year. Maybe it won’t. Either way, I’m excited to see where we go from here. I hope you all are, too.

Quick Thoughts on “Rememberance”

No amount of justification can excuse this episode for being what it is: the single worst, most useless, and most unfunny episode of The Legend of Korra.

Being a clip show episode certainly doesn’t help, but it’s incredible how lazy it is. Anyone could have made this episode. Anyone. All they’d need is a half-decent video editing program, a half-assed imagination, and the YMWV section of TV This is barely even passable as your average Internet video humor (making Korra‘s banishment to the  Internet seem that much more prophetic).

I don’t know who DiMartino and Konietzko think they’re fooling if they believe this is acceptable even on the grounds of basic entertainment. And don’t get me started on their attempted self-critique of their poor story decisions!

What did you all think of this episodic placeholder?

EDIT: I’ve re-watched the episode with Konietzko’s tumblr post in mind. Personally, I still think the episode is horrible in the context of the series, but given the circumstances, it’s unfair to take it as a real episode. As such, a full review won’t be about the episode per se, but rather about speculations on why it came to this in the first place. The production history of Korra is steadily becoming more interesting than the actual show.

Announcement: “Frozen” on Vinyl? Has It Really Come to This?


Was the music of Frozen really that good enough to warrant a vinyl pressing?

How much more money does Disney need?

On one hand, if this exposes kids to the mysterious wonders of vinyl records, then I don’t see the harm. Any excuse for mom and pop to dust off the old turntable and play some records is a good excuse to me.

On the other hand, it’s the fucking soundtrack for Frozen. Just how does this overproduced, squeaky-clean music benefit from being heard on vinyl? Unless someone plans on playing “Let It Go” at half-speed backwards and uncovering some hidden Satanic message, I consider this precious waste of vinyl a sin. (Those bizarre “sexy Olaf Halloween costumes” were more tolerable than this.)

Consider this an update of sorts: the Frozen video review is still underway (and overdue), but if people are really dishing out the money to buy this crap, is a critical assessment even worth it anymore?

(Speaking of pointless criticisms, here’s a bit of Fry and Laurie that I think everyone here will appreciate.)

Quick Impressions of “Reunion”

Starting with “Battle of Zaofu” and continuing with “Reunion,” The Legend of Korra is rapidly turning into The Varrick and Bolin Show. Having escaped Kuvira’s clutches, the two goofballs now have a single objective: get to Republic City and warn the officials of Kuvira’s plot. Their subplot clearly lacks the narrative and thematic complexity of the main story, and that turns out to be its greatest asset. Instead of careening through obvious dialogue and contrived emotionality, the characters and their situation are allowed to breathe and develop in interesting and hilarious ways. It helps immensely that voice actors P.J. Byrne (Bolin) and John Michael Higgins (Varrick), two natural comic actors, are consistently getting material worthy of their talents. The same goes for the animators, who haven’t been allowed this much visual comedy since Book One. If the adventures of Varrick and Bolin seize after this episode, I’ll gladly cherish what we’ve been given.

I can’t say the same for the main story, which reunites Korra with Mako and Asami after three years. They’re accompanied by Prince Wu, who has become more tolerable, though still unfunny (that said, his attempt to join in on the group hug in the end was adorable). I think it’s the voice actor that’s letting him down. Perhaps a young Christopher McDonald could have pulled off the sleaziness required of Prince Wu, but not Sunil Malhotra.

The exciting train sequence notwithstanding, the main story felt flat and perfunctory, especially compared to the Varrick and Bolin antics. Much of the characters’ interactions reeked of melodrama and bad action serials, especially in the absolute need to spell out everything with dialogue (the most egregious example being the “just like old times” prattle near the end). It’s quite amazing how poorly the episode portrays their alleged friendship (meanwhile, the bond between Varrick and Bolin gets stronger by the minute).

Aw, well. At least this episode has yet another great cliffhanger. What will become of the great swamp? Will it all be plowed away, or will we get a sequence of Toph Bei Fong fighting against (and likely losing to) the unstoppable onslaught of fascist industrialism? We’ll just have to wait and find out.

What did you all think of this episode?

Quick Thoughts on “Battle of Zaofu”

Wow. I could not have been more wrong about this one. “Battle of Zaofu” (at least, the stuff actually pertaining to the title) is one of the dullest episodes of The Legend of Korra in quite a while. Everything felt so by-the-numbers and perfunctory, to the point that I felt like I was watching the first draft of an episode that still needed a great deal of fine-tuning before being uploaded on the Internet (I almost wrote “aired on television”). The assassination attempt–which is just wrong for multiple reasons–and the fight between Korra and Kuvira were disappointing in equal measures.

Having said that, I was shocked by how much I enjoyed the antics of Bolin and Varrick, a character that can be funny and/or annoying depending on the episode. Turns out the two goofballs have good chemistry together. And it looks like we’ll have more wackiness to come in the next episode now that they’ve made their escape from Kuvira. I’m all for that.

What did you all think of this episode?

Chapter Forty-Four: “Enemy at the Gates”

“I know people have been angry about the decisions I’ve made.” – Korra

This line of dialogue is uttered in the middle of the scene in which Korra attempts to dissuade Kuvira from attacking Zaofu. It might as well have come straight from the mouths of creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko and directly to its loyal yet ambivalent viewers. Watching The Legend of Korra, especially as a fan of its predecessor, Avatar: the Last Airbender, is a sometimes delightful, mostly disappointing experience in which the viewer constantly wades through wasted opportunities and bizarre choices made by its creators. The elusive charm of Avatar may have been missing as early as Book One, but what’s more troubling is that they never found a satisfying alternative to it.

The promise of a more mature and more intellectual show was nothing more than a put-on. Certainly Korra is more heady than Avatar on a thematic level, but emotionally and formally, it’s actually less mature and less engaging.

Part of the problem may be the negative stigma of the “children’s show” label. Since the beginning, Avatar was primarily geared towards children, and rather shameless about it, too (sometimes too shameless, as “The Great Divide” demonstrates). They probably didn’t become aware of their much older fanbase until after Book One or Two of Avatar. Maybe they felt pressure to make something consciously darker and more mature than Avatar, yet still functional as a Nickelodeon children’s show.

Unfortunately for them, it hasn’t really worked. The dramatic possibilities created by the thematic material are savagely undercut by the constant reminder that their primary audience should be the average child, and not the vocal and fickle fandom. Whereas Avatar took a simple story and embellished it with complexity, Korra took a complex story and neutered it with simplicity. And that doesn’t even get into the issues of fandom appeasement.

While the average child these days is pretty savvy about certain things, especially pop culture (hence why The LEGO Movie was even remotely conceivable as a good idea), expecting any new viewers to take in all the specific references and callbacks to a whole other series–in addition to heavier story material–is asking way too much. There isn’t a stable point of entry that would make Korra accessible to the unsuspecting viewer looking for a new television series to tune in to (you could watch any random early episode of Breaking Bad or Mad Men and get the gist of it even if the specifics are unknown; that’s hardly possible with even the first episode of Korra). Korra has always been too dependent on the goodwill created by Avatar for its own good. (This is the part where I’d like to dissect Avatar as a “modern” show, and Korra as a “post-modern” show, but I have neither the time nor the wit.)

In this sense, Korra‘s banishment to the Internet was probably inevitable. It lacked its own internal infrastructure necessary to survive the time slot shared by it’s far less ambitious, far more horrid, and far more accessible competition on Nickelodeon. Considering that most older and more hardcore fans probably watched Korra online by default anyway, the switch was highly appropriate.

Before I actually discuss the actual episode, I’d like to draw your attention to a comment by JMR, who makes an extremely interesting point:

My issue with this episode is one that I’ve had with the series for a long time: the fact that it’s a straight up action adventure series attempting to teach it’s protagonist a moral about non-violence. The action adventure format’s demand for, well, action and adventure consistently trumps any attempt by the characters to solve problems in a non-violent way. As such, all of Korra’s character development in this direction, here and elsewhere, has always rung very hollow to me.

After all, this is the series finale. Do we really believe that the conflict here is going to be solved at a Diplomatic Summit over tea and biscuits? Of course not, it’s going to come down to a fight in the end, likely involving Korra going into the Avatar State and beating the crap out of Kuvira.

As such, this episode wherein the central plot element is Korra attempting to solve the Kuvira problem diplomatically doesn’t really know what to do with the idea of actually solving a problem diplomatically. Because of this, the entire episode revolves around the weak exchange between Korra and Kuvira that boils down essentially to:

Korra: “Hey Kuvira, would you please leave the city alone?”
Kuvira: “No.”
Korra: “Okay.”

Just like all of the previous seasons, we have to set up Kuvira as this extremist who won’t listen to reason and so needs to be put down violently. We need Kuvira to justify any violence committed against her. At best, we can hope for this sort of limp, half-hearted nod to non-violence while knowing that in the end, violence will be the solution to the problem. The episode is all about saying, “Hey, look, we did the non-violent thing! Can we get to the fighting now?” Yes, you can show. And in doing so you will again undermine Korra’s character development because violence is always the answer to your big conflicts, no matter how much you may bluster to the contrary on occasion.

I completely agree, sadly. In fact, it’s easy to see how Avatar had the opposite problem: it’s an action-adventure show whose protagonist is a pacifist who learns that sometimes fighting is necessary (which both satisfies the action quota and provides an interesting morality play). Ending that show with Aang sparing the Firelord’s life—but taking away his Bending—was nothing short of genius (how it revolved the morality play, though, is debatable). Korra, in contrast, wants to fight all the time. But there’s no balancing act with a morality play this time. Instead of growing and learning to find peaceful solutions, every season of Korra has ended with a giant battle between good and evil. The few scenes where she appears to be growing up are just plot place holders masquerading as “thought-provoking” dialogue and character development, the equivalent of playing a video game in which a cut scene or a power-up must be unlocked before y couan go on to fight the final boss.

JMR’s condensed version of the conversation between Korra and Kuvira is spot-on, as it perfectly captures the insipidness of most of the dialogue in Korra, as well as reduces her moment of “development” to what it really was: bullshit.

I truly hope DiMartino, Konietzko and company have some trick up their sleeve that won’t be pulled until the finale, because the rest of Book Four isn’t looking too hopeful.

Now, about the episode itself.

It’s fine. It’s about as good an episode as we can expect this late in the game. That doesn’t mean a true stand-out episode can’t sneak up on us like it does every season (Book One’s “And the Winner Is,” Book Two’s “Beginnings,” and Book Three’s “Long Live the Queen”); it just means that expecting any real nuance and faith in the audience’s intelligence on a consistent basis isn’t a smart strategy if you want to gain any satisfaction from watching a new episode of Korra.

Take the scenes with Asami and her father Hiroshi, for example. The conceit is that Asami, after three long years, has finally decided to visit her father in prison. Hiroshi seems resentful for his actions—as well as proud of his daughter for doing well for herself—but Asami won’t accept his apology. However, she does want to at least try to rebuild their relationship, even if it means just a few games of Pai Cho, the game he taught her to play as a little girl.

Someone on the writing staff must have realized that Asami never really got a chance to develop as a character after three seasons, and they concocted this moment with her father to set things right. While I appreciate the attempt to give Asami something meaningful to do—and the notion of father and daughter reuniting over a shared childhood game is quite potent—it’s too little too late.  And it really doesn’t help that their reunion is filled to the brim with the sort of on-the-nose and expository dialogue that became acceptable ever since Christopher Nolan became successful. The scene in which Asami returns to her father for a game of Pai Cho has her explaining the intentions of her first visit (“To hurt you the way you hurt me!”) when all she needed to do was show up and ask him to play some Pai Cho. Every single emotion at play here—Hiroshi’s surprise and then joy at his daughter’s return, as well as Asami’s reluctant determination to make things a little better—could have been made explicit by the character animation, thus saving the writers and the voice actors the time and effort of telling us things they could, more effectively, be showing us.

(That said, even showing can be trite. Did we really need to see Asami see that father and daughter in the park playing Pai Cho themselves? Were the writers afraid that Asami’s return would seem unmotivated without such obvious symbolism? Come on, guys! Have a little more faith in your remaining audience!)

The rest of the episode is marginally better, though. Any scene with Kuvira is bound to be entertaining in one way or another, especially since the writers have gone out of their way to assure us that, yes, she is crazy, and like all crazy dictators—fictitious or real—she has the potential for a very scary and very funny character. Her funny side hasn’t gotten too much action, sadly, but it’s there, particularly in her scenes with Bolin. Those scenes—in which our earnest hero catches on too late that his superior office is a nut job—felt very reminiscent of a similar scenario in Dr. Strangelove (without any of that film’s subtlety or humor, but still). Poor Bolin’s attempt to escape with Varrick and Zhu Li ends with him being sent to a concentration camp of sorts. We’ll have to wait patiently to see what that entails.

By the way, that escape and subsequent action scene has Bolin and the others fighting in giant mech suits. Those mech suits are among the most embarrassing and horribly animated CGI ever featured in this show. Perhaps they’d be more acceptable in the Korra video game that came out recently, but not in the television show (though, to be fair, even Book One had trouble animating giant mech suits).

I’ll refrain from discussing other details from the episodes (I’ve repeated myself enough for one review), but I will say that, against all odds, I’m still eager to see what happens in the next episode. Whatever course of action Suyin plans to take on Kuvira—and whatever Korra tries to do to prevent that—will likely result in an exciting action-filled episode. Those kinds of episodes have always fared much better than those dealing with ideas and/or emotions. Besides, getting through another episode of Korra brings us that much closer to the end, and once that finally happens, we can go back to watching Avatar!