Because fans should be critical, too

Retrospective: Chapter Five: “The King of Omashu”

It goes without saying that children’s programming—especially the animated variety—is a lot more lenient than it’s adult counterparts when it comes to character types and environments. Unlike the cartoons you’d see on network television—just how many primetime animated series aren’t centered around a white bumbling male surrounded by a cast that can consist of other sexes, races, and even other species?—the protagonist in a children’s cartoon can be a boy, a girl, an adult, a dog, a sponge, an alien, etc., and can take place in any setting conceivable by the creators and art directors. As long as it is colorful, kinetic, and doesn’t contain any overtly questionable content (e.g. we can see Zuko’s terrible scar, but we’ll never actually see the moment when fist and fire met his face), a show can stay on the air as long as it has a sizable audience and/or as long as its merchandise sells (shows based on toys, trading cards, and other collectibles have exploited this fact for years, a la Pokemon).

Naturally, television executives concerned more concerned with profit could care less about narrative and meaning, and thus took this leniency as an excuse for laziness and lack of imagination. For the sake of longevity (that is, prolonged advertising), the formulas for children’s programs were quickly discovered and narrowed down to: 1) Z-grade sitcoms (The Smurfs); 2) action serials (G.I. Joe); 3) edutainment (Sesame Street); or 4) commercials (cereal mascots). These formulas pretty much persist today (with varying degrees of success), though since the advent of channels like Nickelodeon, they started to be more creative about it, and at least a few original ideas do pop up once in a while.

Of course, a sizable audience is not necessarily an indicator of quality. With no filter to weed out cartoons of actual substance, even the most vapid and formulaic of cartoons could find an audience with young kids as long as it appealed to their most basic senses. These days, thanks to the commercialization of nostalgia, those same idiotic programs continue to maintain a willing audience (resulting in, among other things, the Smurfs movies).

The necessity of television programs to perpetually keep people invested and coming back for more is at once the medium’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. One the one hand, if a show does initially capture people, there’s nothing to prevent it from becoming empty and senselessly cyclical once its initial well of inspiration (assuming it had any to begin with) has run dry (e.g. Spongebob Squarepants). On the other hand, a show of genuine quality can fail to find a sizable audience if that quality goes unrecognized during its airtime, and be canceled before reaching a satisfying conclusion (e.g. Invader Zim). This can happen for various reasons, the most common being terrible marketing.

To the credit of DiMartino, Konietzko and company, Avatar is definitely a show of genuine quality, and it’s some kind of miracle that, even without any merchandising that I’m aware of, they maintained a strong audience (one that well exceeded their intended demographic) long enough to see their intended narrative through to the end. That it took them three seasons to finish was part of the plan. (This degree of narrative forethought and coherence is missing from The Legend of Korra as a whole. Perhaps this is because DiMartino and Konietzko, having never planned for more than a twelve-episode mini-series, suddenly had to scramble and piece together a new storyline once Nickelodeon ordered more seasons, all of which had to be done with considerably less time than they had to conceive Avatar‘s three-season arc and the first season of Korra. But I’m sure it’s debatable.)

Still, even Avatar wasn’t prone to the Leniency Clause of Television, and the lesser episodes of the series are almost always the ones that retreat to formula in the face of a narrative challenge. “The King of Omashu” was the first example of these lapses in quality that happen sporadically throughout Avatar; episodes such as this are largely responsibility for bringing the show down.

In the grand schemes of things, the purpose of “The King of Omashu” is to introduce us to King Bumi, the crazy king of the title and an ally to Aang (he and Aang were childhood friends before Aang got frozen in the iceberg), so that he can further establish Aang’s main objective: master all four elements so that he can stop the Firelord from winning the war and bring balance to the world once again.

The rest of the episode is essentially filler. This wouldn’t be such a big issue if it were at least entertaining or gave us some insight into the characters. It does neither. Instead, we get an unconvincing scenario in which Aang must quickly complete three challenges for Bumi, or else Katara and Sokka will be forever encased inside a magic rock that grows on your body (think the scene in The Matrix when Neo touches the mirror and it crawls over his entire body).

The magic encasing rock is supposed to function as a ticking clock for Aang, but it feels more like a sitcom antic rather than a legitimate threat. Bumi could have easily just threatened to keep Katara and Sokka imprisoned in Omashu and in the “newly-refurbished” chamber (which used to be the “bad” chamber) if Aang failed the challenges. At least then there’d be no need to pretend it’s suspenseful, especially since all three kids agree that the “newly-refurbished” chamber is pretty nice. Plus, they’re fed really well. And from the looks of it, Omashu doesn’t seem all that affected by the hundred-year war. What better reason for Aang to fail the challenges than on behalf of his friends!

In any case, it’s a shame they couldn’t find a better way to frame Aang’s challenges or the “think-outside-the-box” theme, because the challenges themselves are fairly inventive. It’s kinda fun watching Aang figure out how to retrieve a key from a waterfall, fetch Bumi’s pet Flobzy, and pick a Bending duel with Bumi himself (Bumi’s pretty ripped for being over a hundred years old). But what does it all amount to, really, aside from amusing hijinks? This entire scenario is more suited to a level in a video game than a crucial chapter in a grand narrative. Hell, it’s more suited to a show of lesser ambition and purpose than Avatar.

In addition to these severe writing woes, the episode is just plain painful to look at. When people praise Avatar for its great animation, they conveniently forget that episodes like “The King of Omashu” look like utter shit. Characters periodically go off-model in the most charmless fashion possible; nothing has a sense of scale and weight (Omashu, in its establishing shots, looks like a pile of sand rather than a huge city); and the color palette is horrendous (mostly disgusting greens and over-saturated tans). It’s true that DR Movie, one of the three animation studios that helped create Avatar, was the worst of the bunch (incidentally, they were dropped in favor of Moi Animation by season three), but their episodes are rarely this bad. I honestly wonder if DiMartino, Konietzko, and company, fully aware of the script’s terrible quality, were simply indifferent to how this episode came out. I certainly hope that’s not the case, but given the hectic workload of television animation, it doesn’t sound implausible.

If anything, “The King of Omashu” is a friendly reminder that, for all of its ambition, Avatar is a product of the same system that continues to generate new and terrible episodes of Spongebob Squarepants and Fairly Odd Parents, and thus, just as liable to fall back on the bad habits of most television animation for children. It’s a testament to DiMartino, Konietzko, and company’s usual standards of excellence that these episodes don’t pop up too often, but I’ll skimp on higher praise until after we’ve suffered through “The Great Divide.”

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4 responses

  1. Ian

    The King of Omashu was definitely one of the weaker episodes to me as a kid and definitely now. Once i stumbled upon Return to Omashu on tv and as soon as I saw they were in Omashu again, I almost stopped watching the episode because I didn’t really care for the city, nor did i want to come back (thankfully that episode turned out to be great!)

    The big problem with this episode is that all the twists are the easiest to solve and it really feels like the creators were for once treating their audience with the same amount of respect that Spongebob would. As a kid, I knew that Bumi was the king, I knew the monster was Flopsie, I knew that Sokka and Katara were in literally no threat what so ever. The episode in regards to its narrative is one big “No duh” aside from what you said about King Bumi stating Aang’s goal, and also to teach him to think outside the box. Unfortunately that never really comes into play or is brought up again in the series sooo….

    The animation is pretty bad as well, mainly the faces when the characters are reacting to things (though some are for some reason really good like when Bumi is deciding the kids fates and they all have great humorous expressions)
    The character designs on the guards are, in my opinion, the laziest in the series for just how bland they are and the city itself isn’t fully realized to be cool or interesting, though i will give credit to the slides, the swirly walkway leading to the city, and the large opening walls)

    With all that said, the reason i think this episode is above the average kids show is because this episode was just all the way through incredible fun and entertaining. Fun being the key word. I love the slide scene! Its fast and creative and even funny! The challenges are really cool and all of them have some level of complexity and a pleasing aesthetic. I was blown away by Aang’s solving of the key puzzle when i was a kid because I thought to climb the ladder myself, which was one of the two times when the episode genuinely surprised me! The other being when Aang is given the option of fighting two fighters, who look like they walked off the set of completely different shows. As a kid i was like, “Wait a second… he said you could pick! Pick the old man!” When Aang did I was just as shocked as he was to find this crazy King was a fierce warrior! The show tricked me, and I loved it!
    Heck, Flopsie the Goat Gorilla (that is in fact what he is) left such an impact on me and my sisters watching the show as kids that we named our pet rabbit after the Flopsie from this episode (all of us coming to that name at some point in the discussion on what to name the rabbit)

    This episode is also just funny to me. My friends and i still quote the kangaroo island joke for just how dumb it is, but I think that’s part of the charm that the episode just falls in love with the silliness of this king that the whole episode becomes silly, but in a fun way.

    The episode isn’t for everyone as if you don’t find the episode funny or like Bumi then this episode is already a mess, all you’ll be left with is a really good action scene (a really under appreciated fight out of season 1 i must say) But for me while this episodes story is super predictable and very lazy i just have to much fun with the episodes humor, challenges, and characters to care, which is where i think the real effort of the creators went. For better or worse is up to you.

    On a side note, I really like King Bumi, I think hes the perfect balance of a silly character who has a purpose. Hes silly and bit crazy, but is incredibly smart and strong!
    What are your thoughts on him Marshall as you didn’t really talk much about him in this retrospective?

    Please Reply 🙂

    June 25, 2015 at 3:29 pm

  2. Ian

    Also, i found an interesting quote from Mike in the Art of Avatar Book about this episode…

    “Although the finished episode (The King of Omashu) exposed our first season growing pains, King Bumi became one of my favorite characters.”

    It seems that even Bryke would agree with you on this episode being a bit of a bust.

    June 30, 2015 at 2:02 pm

  3. edbva

    Ehh.. more cutesy kids show stuff as with the previous episode. The idea of challenging Aang’s problem-solving thought process was interesting, but its just hard to take seriously (apart from the duel with Bumi perhaps) and thus its difficult to feel like anything was established in this episode. Pretty much cheap filler.

    King Bumi was an entertaining wacky character with a certain method to his madness. Fine for a one-off appearance, but may have gotten really annoying if he appeared more often.

    P.S. I do believe that Bumi’s advise to Aang is pobably the first explicit reference to the ‘ultimate boss’ Firelord Ozai in this series.

    July 1, 2015 at 12:38 am

    • I like Bumi, but this episode didn’t really give us a good first impression. He’d get better in his next few episodes (a little Bumi goes a long way).

      July 9, 2015 at 2:26 pm

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