Retrospective: Chapter One and Two: “The Boy in the Iceberg” and “The Avatar Returns”
(Disclaimer: What you read here is not the final form of my thoughts or format, which will undergo more than a few changes at this retrospective goes on. As such, topic discussions may include how to best organize this entire experiment.)
Can you believe there was a time when Avatar: the Last Airbender wasn’t considered a cult classic among nerds and animation lovers? When it wasn’t heavily scrutinized and/or speculated on via the Internet? When it hadn’t become a a minor victim of its own popularity and allowed outside influences to affect it (e.g. “shipping”)? When its legacy wasn’t overshadowed by M. Night Shyamalan’s unfortunate adaptation? When something like The Legend of Korra wasn’t even a conceivable project? When no one gave a damn who creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko were or what they thought, except that their names appeared in the opening sequence of every episode (and that’s just standard practice for television)?
When Avatar first premiered in February 2005, it was just another new animated program on Nickelodeon, albeit one that looked like the network’s attempt to compete with Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings and anime (and Star Wars, of course, but more on that later). It was certainly different from everything Nickelodeon had produced before, with its continuous and complex storyline and obvious anime influence. Somehow, it managed to stay on the air for three seasons, which was just the amount of time needed for DiMartino and Konietzko and company to tell their story. The fact that Avatar had an overall story at all (and not simply a colorful setting and characters to build an animated sitcom around like most Nickelodeon programs) must have been a shock to Nickelodeon fundamentalists.
It all started with “The Boy in the Iceberg” and “The Avatar Returns,” which more or less provided the basic premise of the show. That basic premise was so convoluted even at this point that I’ll refrain from trying to summarize it here. Just know this: by the time the episodes are over, as long as you understand that the bald white kid and his two Indian friends have to travel the world, collect items and learn stuff so they can defeat the bald Asian kid, his uncle, his minions, and his country—and that all this involves something called “Bending” either air, water, earth, or fire—you’re off to a good start. The real question is whether you’d feel inclined to watch any further or not.
Enough kids (and eventually adults) stayed tuned after “The Boy in the Iceberg” and “The Avatar Returns” that the answer is probably “yes.” Personally, this is my fourth time watching the series from beginning to end, and these episodes were not very high on my “eager-to-rewatch” list. Not because they are bad episodes, but because they are very unremarkable ones. In the grand scheme of things, they certainly do a good job of setting up the rest of the series, but at the same time, neither of them gives a single hint that Avatar would be anything more than a slightly-above average cartoon series (let alone one of the greatest of all-time).
To be fair, though, this is still just the first season, and the first season of anything (especially if it’s animated) is almost always inferior to what follows. In this case, DiMartino and Konietzko and company hadn’t yet found the balance between the scope of their vision and the limitations of television animation for American children. Scenes that should radiate with fun, intensity, and a sense of scale (e.g. penguin sledding, the first fight with Zuko) instead come across as flat, small and unexciting. The production team would rectify this stiffness in due time; for now, we just have to admire their imaginative concepts rather than fully engross ourselves in them.
Still, as boring as these episodes are, they still have merits. Having seen the series before, it’s actually fun to look through these episodes and see what plot elements were established long before they had a playoff (e.g. Iroh’s board games, Aang’s nightmare, the Avatar State, etc.) “The Avatar Returns,” the better of the two episodes, even has a cool fight/chase sequence when Aang tries to escape Zuko’s ship. It’s also nice that the most interesting and likable character thus far—Uncle Iroh—seems to be on the side of evil. Maybe it’s the nature of Iroh’s character or the vocal performance by Mako, but Iroh is so far the only character that defies easy classification (whereas, say, Sokka is clearly the comic relief).
If there’s one thing that does amaze me about these first two episodes, it’s the music by Jeremy Zuckerman and Benjamin Wynn (aka The Track Team). I have never before noticed just how perfectly each of their musical cues compliment their respective scenes, even the quieter ones (Hell, especially the quieter ones). Additionally, the music is extremely well-crafted: no cue ever overstays its welcome, ever repeats itself, or ever overtly manipulates the audience into feelings things that aren’t supported by the actual story (as they would, maddeningly, in The Legend of Korra). If anyone on the production team deserves major props for keeping the Avatar train rolling, it’s Mr. Zuckerman and Mr. Wynn.
All-in-all, what these first two episodes make clear is that Avatar: the Last Airbender is a show that requires a lot of faith, forgiveness and understanding if one is going to watch it to the end. The good news is that if you do like these first two episodes, then you’re bound to enjoy much of the rest of the series. On the other hand, if you don’t like these episodes but still want to know what all the fuss is about, just be patient and don’t give up. Avatar takes a little while to really get going, but once it does, it’s positively transcendent.