Because fans should be critical, too

Retro: Avatar: “The Warriors of Kyoshi” & “The King of Omashu” & “Imprisoned”

B.A.S.S. Line:

In the span of three episodes, Aang and the gang travel to three different villages, have three different adventures, and meet at least three memorable characters. And Katara loses her mother’s necklace.

Key Points:

  1. Unlike other American animated children’s programs—most of which are just animated sitcoms for kids, or “kidcoms”—creators DiMartino and Konietzko envisioned Avatar as a true fantasy epic, using the episodic medium to tell a single, coherent narrative, complete with expansive worldbuilding and overarching character development.
  2. As a by-product of that ambition, Aang and the gang spend every episode travelling to a new location and meeting new characters (allies and villains alike) on their quest to help Aang master all the elements and defeat the Fire Nation. The benefits are obvious from a storytelling standpoint, but from an animated television production standpoint, this could be a nightmare: every episode demands new character designs, new locations and backgrounds, new props, new voice actors, etc.
  3. That Avatar holds together as well as it does is a testament to the dedication and hard work of DiMartino, Konietzko, and the rest of the Avatar crew, most of whom probably never dreamed that they’d be working on something so challenging and so rewarding of their passion and creativity, let alone something so different from the usual “kidcom” stuff. Nickelodeon deserves some praise for allowing the team enough creative freedom to develop a series so radically different from their standard fare (at the time, though, they were looking specifically for their own fantasy-adventure franchise to bank on the popularity of Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but that’s another topic for another time).
  4. “The Warriors of Kyoshi,” “The King of Omashu,” and “Imprisoned” establish what would be the typical pattern of an episode of Avatar (at least until Book Two, when they started to get real weird with it), which goes as follows: Aang and the gang travel to a new location (perfect worldbuilding and art direction opportunities), where they meet either an ally or foe who’ll present them with a conflict to be resolved before the end of the episode—most likely with a last-act action sequence full of awesome Bending—before they leave to go somewhere else.
  5. In “Warriors of Kyoshi,” they go to Kyoshi Island—Aang wants to ride the elephant koi and impress Katara—where they’re ambushed by the island’s inhabitants, specifically the all-female Kyoshi Warriors. Only when Aang proves himself to be the Avatar do the island’s residents relax and welcome the gang with open arms.
  6. Aang loves the adoration of the islanders, and wants to stay for a while. Katara, however, wants to leave soon to keep Zuko off their trail. She also finds Aang’s behavior around the villagers to be vain and childish, which Aang interprets as jealousy. Meanwhile, Sokka—humiliated to have been defeated by “girls,” the Kyoshi Warriors—wants to learn some moves and techniques from the Warriors, if they’ll forgive his initial ignorance.
  7. The gang ends up overstaying their welcome, because Zuko does eventually appear, and he immediately proceeds to burn the village in order to get to Aang. Realizing that Katara was right and that he inadvertently put the villagers’ lives in danger, he and the gang fly away on Appa (but not before Aang stops the fire and saves the village by spraying it with water from the mouth of a giant, ferocious sea monster).
  8. In “The King of Omashu,” they travel to the city of Omashu, which has a crazy, intricate sliding mail system that our heroes ride like a roller coaster. They’re caught by security and brought before King Bumi, who’ll only let them go on the condition that Aang completes three challenges of his design. The point of the challenges is to teach the Avatar to always think outside the box, especially if he’s going to be defeating the Firelord. Did I mention that Bumi is an old, old friend of Aang’s from one-hundred years ago?
  9. Finally, “Imprisoned” takes our heroes to a coal mining village being ruled over by the Fire Nation, since they use coal to fuel their war ships. In this village, Earthbending is strictly forbidden (which is odd, because you’d think that would help them mine more coal, but never mind), and anyone who gets caught is shipped off to a prison built on the water far from land, guaranteed no Earthbending. However, with a little ingenuity from our heroes, the imprisoned Earthbenders revolt and free themselves, resolving to take back their village from the Fire Nation.
  10. Unlike the previous two episodes, this episode revolves around Katara and not Aang. She’s the one who befriends Haru, the Earthbending boy who gets imprisoned after he saves an ungrateful old man from being crushed by a collapsed coal mining tunnel. She’s the one who resolves to rescue Haru by also getting herself arrested for Earthbending, thereby getting taken to the same prison. She’s the one who attempts to inspire the down-trodden Earthbenders to stand proud and fight for their freedom (to no avail). She’s the one who refuses to leave the prison without helping these people reclaim not just their freedom, but their fighting spirit.
  11. And what does she get for all her troubles? In the midst of the prison chaos, she loses her mother’s necklace, the only possession she has by which to remember her deceased mother. To make matters worse, at the end of the episode, it’s found by Zuko! (In an alternative timeline, this would be definitive proof that he and Katara must be meant for each other, but let’s not even go there.)

High Points:

  1. With the exception of “Imprisoned” (the best of the three, and a mostly good harbinger of things to come), these episodes are light as a feather, goofy and meandering, almost completely devoid of seriousness and substance. Is that a bad thing? I certainly used to think so, but the way I see it now, the seemingly aimless nature of these episodes perfectly match the temperament of our main character, Aang. And once the stakes are raised by episode eight, and our hero becomes more focused and motivated, so do the episodes. Pretty clever, eh?
  2. Until then, “lightweight” doesn’t automatically equal “bad” (as it will with the infamous “Great Divide”), and watching Aang bask in all that attention from the village girls is pretty amusing (as is Katara’s obvious annoyance with him). Besides, he does learn his lesson after Zuko arrives and nearly burns the village down, so it wasn’t entirely pointless either (unlike a certain divisive episode that we’ll deal with when it comes).
  3. Speaking of unexpected character growth, Sokka shows us a much more mature side to him than we’d been led to believe he had. He gets his butt kicked by the Kyoshi Warriors and then asks their leader Suki to forgive him and to teach him to be a better warrior through their principles. This is a much more altruistic message than the kind of “girls are better, deal with it” impression you sometimes get with The Legend of Korra, where the male characters, with few exceptions, tend to be either incompetent or evil.
  4. You know what else you’ll find in these episodes that’s lacking in much of Korra? Respect for the elderly. One of the few pleasures of “King of Omashu” is watching King Bumi, who’s over a hundred years old, best Aang with every single one of his challenges. The moment when Aang chooses to challenge Bumi in a fight—and the old man tosses off his robes to reveal he’s in better fighting shape than all three of our heroes combined—is the funniest gag in the episode. Don’t mess with crazy King Bumi!
  5. In “Imprisoned,” the show makes a point of showing just how old most of the Earthbending prisoners are, and how much their will to fight has been crushed by both their imprisonment and their age. And yet Katara still believes in them, and pushes for them to fight back even before she, Sokka and Aang bring them the coal to actually fight back with. As weak as they may be, once Haru, one of their own, instigates the riot and is nearly killed, they immediately jump to his aid, and soon every single one of them is kicking ass.
  6. There are lots of great little touches like that in “Imprisoned,” including a fantastic guest appearance by George Takei as the posh and smarmy prison warden. The prison itself is a clever creation, showing us just how thorough the Fire Nation is with its plans for world domination.
  7. I also love the elaborate gag involving Katara’s fake Earthbending, which peaks when the Fire Nation guards think it’s actually Momo that’s Earthbending. Good ol’ Momo!

Low Points:

  1. Foaming Mouth Guy. Yeah, I know, he’s one of the most iconic and most memetic characters in all of Avatar, and that he was originally supposed to just faint, and that his seizure was an animated ad-lib by Korean animator Ki Hyun Ryu (who’d go on to co-direct Book One of Korra), and I know most of the fans love, love, love Foaming Mouth Guy. I don’t get it. Why is this non sequitur of a man having a seizure supposed to be funny? It’s not acknowledged by any of the characters nor does it even get a simple reaction shot (which can save even the stupidest gags). No, it just comes out of nowhere and goes nowhere just as fast. To make matters worse, it follows a much better, much funnier gag involving Aang and a stupid marble trick he tried to impress Katara with earlier. (Hmm…maybe that’s why the seizure man’s overreact is funny.)
  2. Speaking of iconic characters that everyone loves but I don’t, the Cabbage Man (“My cabbages!”) is…kinda silly, but at least he’s not offensive like the Foaming Mouth Guy. I don’t understand his deal here, though. Is he a cabbage salesman? Before entering Omashu, the guy gets his cabbages thrown off a cliff because they’re rotten, but then he goes inside Omashu and has more cabbages? Did he buy them in Omashu? What?
  3. Also, remember how it said the meandering quality of the episodes cleverly matched that of Aang’s attitude at the moment? Yeah, it’s clever, but not much else. The episodes can still drag if they meander too much. Not “Warriors of Kyoshi,” that episode is pretty solid. “The King of Omashu,” though? Damn near filler. The premise, which is way too silly for its own good, would probably be fine in a lesser children’s show, but in Avatar you start to think, “Wasn’t this show about a kid whose entire race of people got slaughtered during a hundred-year war?”
  4. Don’t even get me started on the animation of “King of Omashu.” Seriously, what was DR Movie’s deal with Avatar? The show is no more and no less complicated than your average “real” anime. (I just saw their name credited in One Punch Man, so clearly they’re no slouch in the drawing department.) Did they initially just write off Avatar as another silly American project?
  5. Then there’s Katara’s utter determination to save the incarcerated Earthbenders, complete with a passionate, impromptu speech, which is NOT a low point in and of itself—what borders on cringe is redeemed when the speech appears to fall on deaf ears—but I want to bring it up because it sets an unfortunate precedence for Katara’s character as someone who is pathologically, neurotically, unquestionably good. It can get annoying, and the show is usually self-aware enough to call her out on her overbearing behavior. When it’s not, you get horrid episodes like “The Painted Lady,” of which “Imprisoned” is an unwittingly forebearer. (Then again, if I’m going to curse every early episode for a worse later addition it inspired, I might as well curse all of Avatar for giving way to Korra, and that just won’t do, will it?)

Random Point:

  1. While we’re on the subject of Katara’s speech, do you remember the running joke in “King of Omashu” where every horrible pun and joke was followed by the sound of some random guy coughing? If you listen closely at the end of Katara’s speech—after which she expects the Earthbenders to rise up and fight—I swear you’ll hear the exact same random guy coughing. Now that’s clever!

Conclusion:

It took six episodes, but Avatar is finally starting to gain momentum: the concepts and the world are starting to make some sense, and we’ve gotten to really know and like our main characters. It’s the next two episodes, though, that will really kick the show into gear and transform Avatar into the amazing and engaging series we all know and love. Stay tuned!

Next week: Korra: “The Spirit of Competition”

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One response

  1. italianbaptist

    You mentioned in your review that the meandering of these episodes fit Aang’s personality until he realized the need for urgency. That’s really good insight. It reminds of why I prefer the Lord of the Rings movies to the books actually. Tom Bombadil broke the sense of urgency for me. Of course I watched the fellowship of the ring movie first so maybe there’s some bias…but still at the very least it helps my thoughts to make sense to me 😉

    May 28, 2017 at 5:18 pm

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