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.”