For the past few days, I’ve combed through the episode lists of Avatar: the Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra to figure out a way to review them side-by-side while taking into account the difference in their number of episodes (Avatar has a total of sixty-one episodes, while Korra has fifty-two). The schedule I’ve devised perhaps doesn’t completely rectify this problem, and yet somehow that may work in this retrospective’s favor. We shall see.
So here’s the plan: starting next Saturday, I will alternate between reviewing Avatar and Korra. The first week will focus on Avatar, the second on Korra, then on Avatar, then on Korra, etc., etc. What episodes I review and how many of them will vary as the weeks go by, especially since I want to conclude both series at the same. Depending on how significant the individual episode is, it will either receive its own weekly review, or be lumped together with one or two or even three other episodes. In other words, I will no longer be giving each and every episode its own personal write-up for a few reasons. One, it’s too arbitrary and time-consuming, especially if I want to post once a week. Two, I’ve already done that Avatar, and absolutely refuse to do the same for Korra. Three, this isn’t about ranking each episode so much as making note of the emotional high points and low points of each series as they progress. And fourth, and pettiest of all, so much of Korra past Book One is such a blurry mess in terms of quality that attempting to dissect each episode on its own terms is all but impossible.
And this all comes back to the general thesis I had in mind for both series: Avatar, even when it wavers in quality, manages to overcome to the inherit limitations of television animation and maintain a strong and specific emotional core because of its unified narrative structure and unique vision, while Korra ultimately falls apart because its narrative is so fragmented and shaped by forces and values that don’t grow organically from within but rather are imposed from the outside (hence why Korra and Asami’s surprise union at the series’ finale, while cathartic for some audience members, makes little to no sense from a narrative standpoint).
It will be interesting to see how this develops from week to week, and I definitely hope to get more than a few different voices in on this discussion. I definitely can’t wait to start watching Avatar again, even if means sitting through Korra one more time. Let’s do this!
P.S. I’ve finally created the Research Hub page for all Avatar/Korra interviews, articles, and the like. Expect more to come.
While I have no delusions of this re-vamped Avatar: the Last Airbender retrospective becoming some kind of professional thing (i.e., no MLA citations), as I’m amassing all of these articles and interviews, I figure it would be a good idea to create a specific spot on this blog where it can all be collected and viewed for easy reference, by myself and anyone interested who’s interested. There is a lot of great stuff out there and more seems to pop up every other week (just two weeks ago, Nick Animation’s Youtube channel posted an interview of co-creator Bryan Konietzko and co-composer Jeremy Zuckerman discussing the music of Avatar and The Legend of Korra).
Hopefully, if time allows, this new page will be implemented by the end of this week, and all this great material can slowly be compiled onto it. Who knows, maybe some people would like to contribute to the reference pool with interesting articles and/or interviews they’ve come across themselves. Rosemont, a long-time follower, frequently links me interesting articles and posts relevant to Avatar and animation in general (including just recently linking an article on the declining quality of Disney animated features up to Moana).
In the meantime, I’m busy with this and other projects (and my day job, ugh). So stay tuned and thanks once again for your patience. And Happy Valentine’s Day!
My God, it’s really been over ten months since my last post!
What could I have possibly been doing all that time that didn’t involve updating this blog on a regular—if not frequent—basis? Has life finally gotten the better of me so that I can’t see the use in yet another re-evaluation of Avatar: the Last Airbender and/or The Legend of Korra (especially when so many others out there have taken that burden upon themselves)? Is my mental health such an issue that I’d rather wait until I had it under complete control than continue writing out of fear that the blog would de-rail into another emotional train wreck?
Or did my enthusiasm for Avatar simply fade away as I’ve gotten older and grown more accountable to my responsibilities as an adult?
To that last question, the answer is absolutely not. If anything, my appreciate for Avatar—as well as my relative disdain for Korra—continues to grow as time goes on. As an animation lover and a sucker for plain old good storytelling in any medium, Avatar has thoroughly secured its place in my heart and imagination.
I never planned to be away from this blog for so long (let alone without warning or without any updates on my state of mind or when I’d be back), and all I can do is apologize to those who remained loyal and checked up on this blog every now and then for something new. My negligence is inexcusable, especially since I continue to receive new comments and messages every month.
On the plus side, however, these past ten relatively Avatar-free months may have given me the proper distance and clarity needed to give this retrospective idea another shot. That said, it won’t be a continuation of the retrospective I’d already started. No, I’ll have to start from scratch again, from episode one, with current insights and citations.
However, since starting from the beginning won’t necessarily mean on a weekly, episode-to-episode basis. I’m not certain what my schedule will be (or if there’ll even be a schedule), but I have an idea for the format: this time, instead of going in strict chronological order from Avatar to Korra, I’ll simply review them both at the same time, starting with the two-part premieres of both series and ending with their respective multi-part finales. Of course, this parallel reviewing style won’t yield perfect results, since Avatar contains sixty-one total episodes, while Korra has fifty-two. However, with a little maneuvering, this could work pretty well, especially if, like me, you’re privy to the idea that Avatar only got better as it went along, while Korra only got worse. In that respect, such parallel reviewing could be extremely illuminating.
Don’t expect to see any of this to take root until the beginning of 2017. As of now, this is the only project I’ll have in the foreseeable future (that Frozen project, for instance, has been put on the back burner). In the meantime, I’ll be doing as much preliminary work as I can, including gathering and listening to/reading interviews, any behind-the-scenes stuff I can find, notable opinions from other Avatar writers, etc.,etc.
This time we’ll get it right. No question.
Having seen the movie twice, I have a few things to say about Disney’s Zootopia. These are general thoughts, so you don’t have to worry about spoilers. (For the record, I’d recommend everyone see the movie at least once.)
– I don’t think any recent Disney animated feature has left me as cold as Zootopia did. It is probably the most mechanical, by-the-numbers approach to a premise that—as witnessed in its few truly inventive sequences—could have been much more entertaining, and ultimately could have gotten its message across in a more nuanced manner than in its ham-fisted handling in the actual film.
– Zootopia wants to do two things: 1) create a funny world of anthropomorphic animals that’s essentially a mirror for modern day society, much like Futurama created a futuristic world to reflect and satirize the present day; and 2) present a serious tale about overcoming bias and stereotypes in order to live in harmony. These two goals are not compatible, at least not under the sanctimonious gaze of Disney and John “Grandpa” Lasseter. After all, what’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding? To admit how stupid the basic premise is—and it’s pretty stupid—would severely undermine the anti-profiling message, which the film wants us to take very seriously.
– But it’s clear that, while making the movie, the creators just couldn’t resist the occasional wisecrack or high-octave silliness made possible by the premise. Not only are those little occasions the best part of the movie, they get to the heart of the prejudice issue better than the scenes that literally deal with the prejudice issue (in those instances, and there are a few of them, the movie stops dead, and you’re not sure whether you want to leave the theater or watch it burn down). Watching the protagonist, Judy Hopps, overachieve as a meter maid or chasing down a thief is a lot of fun because we’re allowed to laugh at the absurdity of it all and cheer on our optimistic hero against these crazy odds (i.e. as the first bunny police officer, her tiny size compared to her huge colleagues is just one of a few handicaps she must overcome). On the other hand, her childhood confrontation with a bullying fox and the montage of her training days, while interspersed with gags, only function to aggrandize our hero and her wonderful qualities that we should emulate. These scenes are obvious, painful, and manipulative, and clearly meant to give our hero’s character arc some gravitas.
– I mentioned Futurama earlier, and Zootopia, at its best, captures the madcap stupid-smart sense of humor of that series and similar works (in fact, one of Futurama’s original directors, Rich Moore of The Simpsons and Wreck-It Ralph, is one of the three directors of Zootopia). Had they pushed that angle to the foreground and stuck with it, Zootopia would probably be one of the funniest animated features ever made. Unfortunately, not only were the creators too ambitious—hence the anti-bias message—but they tried to please everyone, fitting in jokes that, while cute, make little sense in context (at one point, “Everybody Hurts” plays on a radio, and it’s not even a cute animal version, it’s the actual song), outdated parodies (Shark Tale already beat the Godfather jokes to a pulp twelve years ago, and even that was outdated), heartwarming moments between Judy and Nick Wilde, a criminal fox turned partner-in-crime, and, most idiotically, a scientific explanation for how the animals came to be civilized.
– This last point is a key component to the movie’s (oddly effective) mystery plot, so I’ll refrain from spoiling anything if you haven’t seen Zootopia. I will, however, observe that, for a universe founded on the idea that animals were once savage, but evolved past their brutish ways to live in harmony, there is not one single mention of religion. I don’t know whether to applaud or condemn the movie for this blatant omission, especially since it’s a such great missed opportunity for a “lamb of God” joke. (Given the corporate, committee-approved feel of the movie, I have no doubt that, even if such a joke was tossed around a lot during production, it was systematically whimpered out of the final cut to avoid offended Middle American God-fearers.)
– The closest thing to a religious maxim in the film is the central motto of Zootopia: “Where anyone can be anything!”Judy believes this with all her heart, and it inspires her to want to become a police officer. Naturally, this is met with skepticism by everyone, including her parents, her town, and everyone on the police service. The problem with this conflict is that they make it all about Judy being a bunny and not about her being incompetent, a problem which could have been alleviated by having at least one or two other smaller animals in subordinate positions at the station (imagine: a Spalax in charge of surveillance!). We all know Judy will get respect and a promotion in the end, so why make the journey getting there so bloodless and boring?
– Without resorting to spoilers, I’ll say that the mystery plot is actually really intriguing for the entire second act of the movie. It’s resolution, unfortunately, is kind of dumb, and really disappointing. Let’s put it this way: had the movie gone the direction I thought the movie was going in with the mystery, I’d agree with Peter Travers that Zootopia had “balls.” Sorry, Travers, but this movie is as lacking in any discernable genitalia as its animal characters.
– Speaking of genitalia, there is an extended scene revolving around a group of animals who call themselves “naturalists,” meaning they don’t wear clothes. This being a typical cartoon, the animals have no visual genitals, so their nakedness is not offensive to the audience, but in-universe, it’s an affront to poor little Judy’s innocence seeing an animal with no clothes on. Bonus points for the scene taking place in a yoga lounge, so the many suggestive positions the “naked” animals take is the main source of hilarity. If only this was in a smarter movie.
– I take that back. If anything, the movie is too smart and too self-aware. This is the most self-referential Disney film in a few years. At one point, Judy’s boss tells her that life is not some animated musical where all your dreams come true. (And then he ends that thought with three words that I won’t reveal; rest assured, I nearly walked out of the theater.)
– And it’s not just Disney movies being referenced: nearby every clichéd animal character ever designed finds its way into Zootopia, from mice out of a Don Bluth movie to a weasel straight out of a Warner Bros cartoon.
– The weasel (named Duke Weselton, and voiced by Alan Tudyk, aka Disney Animation’s John Ratzenburger) is probably my favorite character in the movie, which is saying something, because I’m usually the biggest Jason Bateman fan, but Nick Wilde comes in second.
– All the vocal performances are great—as per usual for Disney—but I have a minor nerdy nitpick. Good as Ginnifer Goodwin is as Judy (and she’s marvelous), I couldn’t help but feel that she and Amy Poehler had been cast in the wrong movies. Goodwin should have been the ever-optimistic Joy in Inside Out, and Poehler should have been the ever-optimistic Judy in Zootopia. I can imagine Poehler and Jason Bateman be able to trade even sharper jabs at each other. Actually, I have a major nerdy nitpick: why didn’t Kath Soucie (who voices the young Nick Wilde) voice Judy?! Would the forged continuity from Soucie’s Lola Bunny in Space Jam to Judy in Zootopia be too meta for a generation raised on cartoons?
Oh, and that Shakira song sucks.
To call Avatar: the Last Airbender an ambitious show would be an understatement.
Typically, most American animated children’s programs were designed as caricatures of sitcoms and action serials—which hasn’t changed much over the years except now the cartoons are more sophisticated and self-aware. Avatar, being inspired by anime and young adult fantasy novels (especially the Harry Potter series), was conceived from the start as a sprawling epic that would stretch for three seasons, complete with elaborate world-building, intricate and overlapping plotlines, and an episode-to-episode continuity that most kids’ show wouldn’t even attempt. How could you not marvel at the sheer audacity of it all?
Was Avatar’s narrative ingenuity merely novelty, or did it consistently sharpen our understanding of the Avatar universe and how it affected Aang’s journey?
Mostly the latter. Except for a few lapses into egregiously self-reflexive humor (“The Ember Island Players”), the Avatar universe unfolds and expands gracefully alongside the main narrative, sprinkling new information about the story world that perfectly compliments the dramatic needs of the given episode. The closer the worldbuilding ties into the plot, the better the episode. That’s a difficult balance to maintain even in a live-action series.
“Bato of the Water Tribe,” while not the best display of this balance, nonetheless provides a quintessential example.
The big dramatic question mark of the episode: will the gang (Aang, Katara, Sokka) split up? Will the bond they forged over the course of fourteen episodes be broken by a set of unfortunate circumstances? How could the story possibly proceed from there?
In hindsight, perhaps it was a little naïve to believe that DiMartino, Konietzko and company ever seriously considered splitting up our heroes before the first season had even ended. Still, they did their best to make the audience believe that such a split could happen under the right circumstances.
In this case, Katara and Sokka are offered the chance to see their father again.
If you recall from the very first episode, their father, along with all the other men in the Southern Water Tribe, left their home to help defeat the Fire Nation. The war rages on, and Katara and Sokka haven’t seen their father in years. They have no idea whether he’s dead or alive.
And then suddenly, out of the blue, enters Bato of the Water Tribe, and one of those very men who left to fight the war. It’s not enough that this is the first member of the Southern Water Tribe that our heroes have encountered (and the first one we’ve seen in the series): he’s also a friend of their father. AND he’s expecting a message with the map to his location.
In the course of one evening, Katara and Sokka not only find out that their father is still alive and still fighting, they’re also presented with the opportunity to be physically reunited with him! Too good to be true? There must be a catch…
Ah, yes. They’re still tagging along with that twelve-year-old Airbender who needs THEIR help to fulfill HIS destiny. Thanks to some choice words from their grandmother, Katara and Sokka have unwittingly found themselves on Aang’s cosmic payroll with the unenviable task of making sure that he’ll be in prime shape when it comes time to face the Firelord. Essentially functioning as Aang’s de facto parents, the two siblings handle their daunting responsibility astonishingly well.
It must get exhausting, though, having to take care of Rip Van Twinkle Toes and his archaic behavior. Not to mention that his adventures thus far have gotten them in numerous life threatening situations. Why wouldn’t they be tempted to ditch him and spend some time with their native people, if for only a little while?
And yet, they refuse the offer, for Aang’s destiny supersedes their homesickness. They know that to help Aang is to help put an end to the war, which is the true source of theirs and the rest of the world’s suffering. Just imagine how many more families would be reunited after the war’s end.
Not that Aang had enough faith in his friends to draw such an altruistic conclusion. Ever since Bato arrived, Aang has been left out of just about every conversation. The history between Bato and the two siblings runs too deep for outsiders, let alone a twelve-year-old monk that missed one-hundred years of historical and cultural developments in light of the war. Under such alienating circumstances, it’s only natural that Aang would presume that his friends would suddenly leave him.
Thus, when Aang finds himself in possesses of the map to Sokka and Katara’s father, he disposes of it by hiding it uncomfortably in his robes.
Why not just burn it, or toss it in ocean? It’s not as if he needed to keep it for future reference. Frankly, he only keeps it so he can give it to Katara and Sokka later on when he confesses his treachery. With the map in their possession, the offer is once again proposed to them, and out of anger towards Aang, they take it. Can you imagine if Aang had to tell Katara and Sokka that not only did he withhold this valuable information from them, but he destroyed it as well? Their differences would be irreconcilable, and the plot would stop dead.
This plot contrivance dampens the effective of the Aesop, the moral of which is that families, biological or otherwise, stick together no matter what. Would Sokka have been just as empathetic to Aang’s anguished abandonment if the map had been destroyed or lost forever? This isn’t just an inconvenience to Katara and Sokka (and their emotions): without that map, Bato would have no way to reunite with his brothers in arms. The fear and consequences of abandonment—intentional or otherwise—are a very real concern in the Avatar narrative.
Still, the strength of the moral falters under the clumsy contrivances needed to move the episode’s plot. One of them is, interestingly enough, Bato himself, who never truly emerges as a character of any intrigue or discernable personality. Whether the writing or the insipid voice acting is at fault, Bato’s inherent lack of appeal forces you to begrudgingly come to terms with his necessity to the plot: his purpose is to coax Katara and Sokka into leaving Aang. Perhaps he can defeat the Firelord on his own, perhaps not, but at least they’ll get to be with their kin before Judgment Day. On paper, this is a tempting offer. On screen, it barely registers as a dramatic possibility. “Bato of the Water Tribe,” as a result, is a noble effort that falls just short of greatness.
Luckily, no one remembers “Bato” for its complex moral dilemmas. Most likely, they remember it for June, a one-off character and bounty hunter who helps Zuko and Iroh track down the Avatar. June, a tough young woman who’s all business, became a popular enough character that she received another appearance in one of the four series finale episodes. Using her pet shirshu—a giant mammal with an incredible nose and a paralyzing tongue—she is able to follow Katara’s scent from the necklace Zuko retrieved in “Imprisoned.” (While the necklace disappeared under questionable circumstances in “Imprisoned,” it’s since gone on to be one of the most effective plot devices in the series.)
At this point, any episode that heavily involves both Aang and Zuko guarantees an exciting action sequence between the two sides, and the climax of “Bato” does not disappoint. Aang and Zuko fight for ownership of the necklace; Appa fights the shirshu; Iroh continually flirts with June (which, thanks to Mako, is not as creepy as it sounds, and is in fact the episode’s comic highlight); Katara and Sokka recover from the shirshu’s paralyzing tongue; and the perfume-making nuns save the day by using their strong scents to overload the shirshu’s senses and make it go “blind.” It’s a fun sequence that just about makes up for the sloppiness of the main plotline.
The episode manages to connect with previous episodes in other clever ways. When June, Zuko, and Iroh travel on the shirshu to trail Katara’s scent, they encounter two different one-off characters: the crazy old herbalist and her cat from “The Blue Spirit,” and Aunt Wu from “The Fortuneteller.” Neither character ever makes another appearance, but that’s all right.
We even get an inside look at the some of the rituals and traditions of the different cultures in the Avatar universe. One of them is ice dodging, a rite of passage for Southern Water Tribe men. Sokka never got his chance to prove himself in the traditional manners—thanks to the war—but Bato makes up for it by having our heroes perform the task with rocks instead of ice. Because this sequence works neatly with the main plot—for example, Aang’s position in this task is defined as one of “trust,” which only makes the poor kid feel more guilty—it’s a nice glimpse into life in the Avatar universe and a good plot mechanism.
These moments do a convincing job of illustrating how vast and diverse the Avatar universe can be. Such moments would pop up more frequently as the series continued, as the show built and expanded on its fantastic narrative foundation with each episode. The very next episode will focus almost exclusively on Bending, providing a new perspective on what was previously just an excuse for awesome, violence-free action sequences.
I can’t say it’s all that surprising that I was disappointed with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which I only watched out of “cultural obligation” (and the fact that my friends voted me down when I wanted to see Sisters instead). What completely bowls me over, however, is how unanimous the praise has been from just about everyone else I’ve come in contact with, even from the most hard-nosed Star Wars fans (particularly those who hated the prequels). Everyone I’ve talked to had a very calm and rational explanation for moments I found questionable, characterizations I found flat and uninspired, and plot points I found bizarre and/or recycled from Star Wars: A New Hope. In fact, it’s the very rationality of their responses that leave me in doubt as to whether they actually enjoyed the movie or if they simply convinced themselves that they did.
Still, the enthusiasm I’ve encountered has been genuine, and I only wish I enjoyed the movie as much as they did. Lord knows I wanted to, and I certainly came into the movie with few expectations, positive, negative or otherwise. And yet, the movie threw too many obstacles in the way of my viewing experience for me to be completely engaged with the story and its characters. The feeling, after the movie was over, was one of being let down yet again by someone I’d previously trusted. It’s the same feeling I had with Book One of Korra, Frozen, and, most recently, Spectre (which is not the worst James Bond film I’ve ever seen, but definitely the worst I’ve seen in theaters, and definitely made worse by the fact that it followed the supremely entertaining Skyfall).
It’s likely that you’ve seen The Force Awakens by this point, but just in case, I’ll refrain from spoilers and state simply my main issues with the movie.
First of all, I found Rey to be a complete flatline of a protagonist for much the same reasons I tended to find Korra rather boring. By trying to make sure she came across as a Strong Female Character™, the filmmakers failed to give her any actual character, as well as provide her with any real obstacles that would have tested that character if she had any. Things come to her just a little too easily for her journey to be of any real interest. Whatever back story she has going for her adds little dimension to her personality. Still, she has agency, a kind heart, can hold her own in a fight, isn’t completely helpless, and played extremely well by Daisy Ridley, which I suppose is good enough for a Star Wars movie–just like Korra’s gymnastics were good enough for an American animated children’s show and the lack of romance in Frozen was good enough for a Disney Princess™ movie (in which “good enough,” of course, translates to “progressive”).
The standard retort I’ve found with Rey is that her story is basically Luke’s, and his character and story arc weren’t the deepest or most believable either. Why that’s license to give Rey even less depth and believability, I’m not sure. At least Luke got his ass kicked every once and a while, and as improbable as his victory in blowing up the Death Star was, that entire sequence had more build-up, tension, reversals, stakes, and excitement than anything that happens in The Force Awakens. (Hell, I couldn’t even begin to tell you what actually happened beat-by-beat in the movie, which is a problem in itself.)
I found both Finn and Poe to be marginally better (again, largely thanks to the performances of John Boyega and Oscar Isaac, respectively), but still lacking in terms of actual character. Some of Finn’s comic moments went a little too far for my tastes (a misunderstood head nod from Han Solo is particularly cringeworthy), and Poe–for reasons I’ll leave unexplained–simply isn’t on-screen long enough to make a lasting impression. (Also, the fact that Poe gives Finn his name could have a potentialky racist subtext, but I’m probably just overthinking what should be a bonding moment between these two characters who have just met and are helping each other escape the New Order).
On the plus side, Kylo Ren is a great villain, played surprisingly well by Adam Driver. And isn’t it nice to see Harrison Ford actually having fun in a movie again? (There’s another Korra parallel: the older actors/characters and villains are much more enjoyable to watch than the protagonists!)
Had I liked the characters more, I doubt the rest of the issues I had with the movie would have bothered me too much. Like the fact that it’s filled to the brim with that sort of awkward meta-humor that’s become the norm in mainstream films and that I’ve grown to despise. The first scene between Kylo Ren and Poe–in which Poe points out an awkward silence and then complains about not being able to understand Kylo’s voice through his mask–belongs in a Youtube parody, not the actual movie.
Then there are lines that just should have been left on the cutting room floor. At one point, Finn and the R2-D2 ball named BB-8 (who I otherwise hardly remember in the movie) are arguing about something, and Finn responds with the line, “Droid, please!” I don’t know who should be more ashamed: Boyega for ad-libbing the line, or J.J. Abrams for keeping it in the movie (if, indeed, the line was ad-libbed and not written in the script by Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, or Michael Arndt, which would be even weirder). Also, when the X-Wing fighters arrive, one of the pilots says to the captain, “Right behind ya, bro!” Since when did “bro” enter the Star Wars lexicon?
Perhaps I’m a fool for letting these little things bother me and stifle what entertainment value could be found in this movie. Perhaps I simply expected too much from a Star Wars movie. Sure, Star Wars has always been cheesy, but it was never stupid. And above all, it was completely sincere and honest about itself. The filmmakers behind The Force Awakens are too smart and self-aware for their own good, injecting a cynical wink-wink quality into a franchise that was successful precisely because such knowing cynicism didn’t spoil the picture. The fact that it not only pervades the new movie but goes by unnoticed–or, at least, completely rationalized–by most people is a fairly grim sign of the times. Back then, it was a miracle that Star Wars could be accomplished at all, let alone also be a good movie. Paradoxically, the ubiquity of Star Wars nowadays makes a new entry into the franchise easy to accomplish, but harder to make worthwhile.
Simply put, I find it hard to believe that this was the best Abrams and company could come up with. We’ve already had Mad Max: Fury Road and Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation, two more sequels with even less of a reason for existing than The Force Awakens, and yet both were much more imaginative, consistent, and thoroughly entertaining than they had any right to be. Then again, with George Miller’s recent Happy Feet credentials and Tom Cruise’s ever-fading popularity, maybe those films had more going against them and felt the need to push harder against expectations. After all, The Force Awakens didn’t have to be as good as A New Hope or The Empire Strikes Back (or even Return of the Jedi, which is currently receiving a strange, but not entirely unwarranted retroactive backlash upon Star Wars fans); it just had to be better than the prequels.
In other words, it had to be “good enough.” And so it was, much to the world’s delight, and my personal disappointment.
I have to wonder if any of Avatar: The Last Airbender’s young audience were converted into hard-nosed skeptics after watching “The Fortuneteller.” The main conflict involves a village that puts all its trust in the local fortuneteller, Aunt Wu; if Aunt Wu says the village will not be destroyed by the nearby volcano, everyone believes it. So when said volcano shows signs of an impending eruption, the villagers smugly refuse to accept that they’re in any danger, despite the evidence presented by our heroes. One could almost call the episode subversive if it hadn’t handled its faith vs. science theme so gingerly.
For one thing, the episode never makes it clear whether Aunt Wu is a sham or not. She certainly seems to believe in what she’s doing, and her prediction about the volcano was technically correct since our heroes saved the day. (She even accurately predicts Aang’s trials as the Avatar.) Then again, her cloud readings—which are interpreted with a special book—seem pretty arbitrary, and apparently take place at the same time every day, despite the fact that clouds are constantly moving and making new shapes. Even if the cloud of death had formed on its own—and without the clever Bending of Aang and Katara—Aunt Wu would have missed it had Sokka not pointed it out to her.
Speaking of Sokka, he plays the role of skeptical man of science, chastising the villagers for blindly putting their fate in the hands of Aunt Wu. And yet, Aunt Wu’s prediction that Sokka’s pain would mostly be self-inflicted is not only true, it undermines Sokka’s endorsement of facts and logic by reminding us that he’s the Comic Relief, and thus doomed not to be taken seriously, by the villagers or the audience.
The villagers themselves aren’t treated any better. Their extreme devotion to Aunt Wu is mostly a setup for Sokka’s mockery and a source of tension for the plot. Most of their predictions revolve around petty personal matters with no real significance (i.e. the man you marry will have large ears). There’s not a single substantial testimony that would give their trust in Aunt Wu’s wisdom some legitimacy. It’s one thing to ignore the crazed ranting of Sokka. But to ignore the physical evidence of an incoming volcano eruption is straying too close into Darwin territory.
So is the “The Fortuneteller” pro-faith or pro-science? It’s hard to tell, and that’s one of the problems with this episode. The fact that this conversation takes place at all is an unusual achievement for a children’s show, but the writers’ refusal to take a stance and instead use the potential dialogue as a platform for silly comedy is all too typical. It’s rather telling that the one person whose reaction we don’t see to the volcano’s pre-eruption activity is Aunt Wu. Her reaction probably would have determined once and for all whether her abilities could be called into question. But alas, she’s conveniently away when the plot doesn’t need her and conveniently back when it does (we have no idea where she was when the volcano was starting to act up, but Sokka comes across her immediately when its time to point out the doom cloud).
Tangled into this fortunetelling business is the subject of love. Aang’s feelings for Katara have finally started to manifest, but for most people, it’s pretty much a forgone conclusion that the two will end up together, so there’s not much of interest there. At this point, Aang is waist deep in the Friend Zone, so his feelings aren’t reciprocated. But, while eavesdropping on Aunt Wu’s prediction of Katara’s love life, he learns that she’ll eventually marry a powerful Bender, which puts the odds in his favor.
Of course, putting your love life in a fortuneteller’s hands turns out to be a bad idea. Aunt Wu’s assistant, a little girl named Meng, was told that she’d eventually marry a man with large ears. Upon meeting Aang, she just knows he’s the one (although any five-year-old can tell you that you can’t marry someone you just met). Naturally, her feelings aren’t returned, which should provide a lesson about moving on, but considering how predictably Aang and Katara’s story turns out, it’s a lesson for us normal people and not the main characters in fantasy tales.
The only real point of interest with Meng is that she’s voiced by Jessie Flower, who would return in the next season as Toph Bei Fong, one of the most beloved characters in the series. Otherwise, she’s a pretty indistinct character, which may or may not have been the point, but I’m not sure. In any case, she stalks Aang throughout the village, and ends up helping him find Aunt Wu’s cloud book to save the village. The stalking aspect of that sequence is played for laughs, but considering that it conveniently worked to Aang’s (and the village’s) advantage, Aang should consider himself lucky for having those big ears.
At the end of the episode, Meng initially appears to have pushed her feelings for Aang aside for the greater good. But after waving goodbye to our heroes, she calls Katara a naughty word. Again, it’s played for laughs, but the implication that Meng will never let it go and harbor some lingering jealousy is a little much. Isn’t this girl, like, eight-years-old? (Admittedly, we’re never told Meng’s age, but considering Flower must have been ten when they recorded this episode, that’s probably the range they were aiming for.)
So “The Fortuneteller” is not of the series’ strongest episodes—in fact, it’s borderline filler—but it’s entertaining enough. The humor generally works, which is always a good thing. Katara’s obsession with Aunt Wu’s predictions is funny thanks to Mae Whitman. And who doesn’t get a kick out of seeing Sokka being tormented by the universe? Having said that, the writers missed a big opportunity for a laugh by not having the doom cloud be a cute fluffy bunny (especially since the episode establishes that fluffy bunny clouds are signs of doom and destruction) instead of the obvious skull of death.
Perhaps the lack of a Zuko/Iroh subplot keeps this episode from being better, but that will be somewhat rectified in the next episode.
On a side note, this episode may just be the first appearance of a Hybrid Animal. Not the concept itself (which goes back as far as the first episode), but the explicit nature of naming them after the animals being fused (in this case, it’s a platypus-bear). Apparently, during production, the writers were so taken with co-creator Bryan Konietzko’s initial Hybrid Animals (i.e. Momo the lemur-bat) that they took it upon themselves to up the ante with the weirdest possible combinations in future episodes. I won’t go so far as to say Hybrid Animals ruin the series—it’s a harmless running gag—but it does reek of typical children’s show cheekiness in that the cleverness of the joke stifles our engagement with the story and its characters. This type of humor always feels like it’s more for the writers’ amusement than ours. (This kind of meta-humor pops up sporadically throughout the series, and would eventually reach its nadir with the awful “The Ember Island Players.”)
Additionally, the piecemeal nature of the Hybrid Animals calls into question the series’ own imperfect synthesis of different parts and sensibilities (mostly those of anime, Western cartoons, young adult fantasy, and of course, Star Wars). Avatar may be a fantasy, but even fantasy requires a cohesive tone and consistent worldbuilding in order for the story to resonate. Hybrid Animals have no true connection to the reality of the world of Avatar and continually shatter the suspension of disbelief. Might it have been better if the combinations didn’t breach good taste (ex. bison-manitee, yes; pig-rooster, no) and if they hadn’t lazily named them after the animals they were created from?
If you ask me, things like the Hybrid Animals—and all the silliness they exude—are why Avatar ranks fairly low in the pop cultural conversation.
P.S. Great Scott, the responses to this post were lengthy, passionate, and well-thought out. Once I have a chance to sit still for a good hour or so, I’ll contribute to the conversation. Thank you so much, guys! This is what I’ve missed the most in my time away from this blog!