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Retro: Avatar: “The Southern Air Temple”

B.A.S.S. Line:

Aang returns to his home in the Southern Air Temple only to discover that the Fire Nation really did wipe out his entire race. Meanwhile, Zuko must capture the Avatar before his rival, Commander Zhao, does.

Key Points:

  1. Just in case the title of the show didn’t make it clear, Aang is most definitely the last Airbender on the planet. Knowing that the next Avatar in the cycle would be reincarnated as an Airbender, the Fire Nation made sure to eradicate every single one of them in the hopes of stopping the Avatar from foiling their plans for world domination. Ruthless is an understatement.
  2. It would be one thing if Aang, having returned to his home after a hundred years of being frozen in an iceberg, discovered that the Southern Air Temple was still brimming with life and activity, let alone with Airbenders. What he, Katara, Sokka, and Appa find instead is a decrepit ghost town, and the only initial signs of life are the tall weeds growing from the cracks of the crumbling structures.
  3. For their part, Katara and Sokka expected as much from the evil Fire Nation, and do their best to brace Aang for the brutal truth of what happened to his home and his people. Aang, the eternal optimistic, refuses to give up hope that there’s someone still around after all these years, despite all evidence to the contrary.
  4. They do find one living creature: a flying lemur that the nature-loving Aang vows to make his pet and that a starving Sokka vows to make his dinner. In the end, there’s a nice compromise: the lemur, which they name Momo, brings the hungry kids an assortment of fruits from God knows where, and is graciously made a part of their oddball family before they leave the Southern Air Temple.
  5. Other than Momo, there’s not a single soul left in the temple. Who is Aang looking for specifically? According to a flashback, Aang’s old mentor and best friend, Monk Gyatso, informed the newly anointed Avatar that when he was old enough, he’d be able to enter the Air Temple sanctuary and meet someone who would guide Aang through his Avatar training.
  6. Aang and his friends do find the sanctuary and go inside, discovering over a hundred statues that represent all of the Avatar’s past lives. It is here that we learn about the Avatar cycle, which goes Air, Water, Earth, Fire, and repeats. Aang’s predecessor was a Firebender named Avatar Roku (a fact Aang just knows by looking at the statue, since there’s no writing of any kind on the statue), which explains why the Fire Nation knew the next Avatar would be an Airbender and killed all of them. Including, much to Aang’s horror, good old Monk Gyatso.
  7. It’s not that Gyatso is dead that sends Aang over the edge (it’s been a hundred years since Aang last him, and he was pretty old then); it’s that his skeletal remains are surrouned by the armor and corpses of dozens of Fire Nation soldiers, leaving no mystery as to how Gyatso must have died.
  8. It’s all too much for the poor little Airbender, and for the second time in the series, he goes into the Avatar State to unleash his fury. Had Katara and Sokka not been there to calm him down, he probably would have destroyed the entire temple. Luckily, they bring him back to his senses by reassuring him that while he may have lost his original family, he’ll always be a part of theirs. With that, they continue on their journey.
  9. Meanwhile, Aang’s Avatar State sets off a chain reaction around the world, alerting everyone that the Avatar has finally returned. This worldwide phenomenon is a major blow to Zuko’s plan to keep the Avatar’s return a secret. Or, at least, it would be if his secret hadn’t already been figured out by one Commander Zhao.
  10. Commander Zhao is a snaky, condescending man who lives to inflate his own ego and humiliate those he sees as beneath him. Zuko is an easy target, having been banished from the Fire Nation and only allowed to return when he captures the Avatar. If Zhao catches him first, then that’s just one more insult he can shove in Zuko’s face. How proud these Fire Nation folks must be that a grown man gets off on putting down a teenager with enough of a burden on his shoulder.
  11. And so this strong-headed prince and this overconfident commander engage in a Firebending duel known as an Ag Ni Kai. Zuko barely manages to emerge victorious, thanks in part to Uncle Iroh, who yells fundamental advice from the sidelines.
  12. What matters most, however, is that Zuko decides against delivering the finishing move on his fallen opponent. It’s Zhao, who in a fit of sore loserdom, tries to attack Zuko when his back is turned. Again, Iroh saves his nephew, and delivers some choice words to Zhao before he and Zuko depart to their ship.

High Points:

  1. The tense encounter between Zuko and Zhao (and Uncle Iroh) are easily the best and most intriguing scenes in the episode. At this point, it’s pretty clear that Aang and friends are the “heroes” and the Fire Nation is the “villain.” But this episode throws some ambiguity our way by presenting us three different variants of “bad guy.”
  2. Zhao is the most traditional (and least interesting) villain of the three, and would likely have been the main baddie along with the Firelord in a lesser children’s show. But Zuko and Iroh? Iroh doesn’t seem all that villainous at all, with his love for tea and his nephew. Zuko, of course, wants to capture our hero Aang, but he’s hopelessly outmatched by Zhao in terms of resources and connections. Yet, as Iroh puts it, he’s a much more noble and honorable person than Zhao, even as an exiled prince. (And can a person who’s been exiled from the bad guys’ homeland really be all that bad?)
  3. One really has to give props to DiMartino, Konietzko, and company for further developing and humanizing the main bad guys. How many children’s shows even attempt to do that as early as episode three of any series?
  4. The Ag Ni Kai is also a fantastic demonstration of Firebending. This is one of the many ways in which the series makes concept of Bending more grounded and palpable by connecting it to actual martial arts principles and techniques. Scenes like this really benefit from the consultation of Sifu Kisu of the Harmonious Fist Chinese Athletic Association, hired to provide insight on the real life forms which inspire each element of Bending.
  5. As for our heroes, there are two moments in this episode that rank among the most emotionally resonant in the entire series, both of which take place just before the end credits, and both of which have to do with Aang coming to terms with the loss of his people and culture.
  6. The first, in which Aang says to Momo, “You, me, and Appa. We’re all that’s left of this place. We have to stick together.” So simple. So poignant. What more is there to say?
  7. The second, which closes the episode, shows our heroes flying away from the Southern Air Temple. Aang and Momo watch silently as the abandoned temple disappears behind the clouds.
  8. Both moments are underpinned by an amazing music cue from the Track Team, Avatar’s resident music composers (and sound designers) Benjamin Wynn and Jeremy Zuckerman. These two have always been an integral part of Avatar’s success (and would later work on Korra), and this is just one of many standout moments. It’s little wonder fans used to beg year after year for a CD release of the Avatar soundtrack.

Low Points:

  1. Thank God the episode ends on such a soaring high note because, except for the scenes with Zuko and Iroh and Zhao, the rest of the episode SUCKS. The animation? SUCKS. The voice acting? SUCKS. The dialogue? The humor? The drama? SUCKS, SUCKS, SUCKS!
  2. That’s a bit hyperbolic (not to mention juvenile), but it’s honestly shocking how bad this episode is. I know, it’s the first season and they haven’t worked out all the bugs yet. That doesn’t quite explain how this episode came out so terribly, especially since the first two episodes weren’t that bad at all.
  3. Then again, those episodes were animated by an entirely different animation studio. For the entirely of Avatar’s production, the only way that Nickelodeon and the Avatar crew could fulfill their huge workload and episode order each season was to delegate the animation production to two separate studios (all stationed in South Korea). During Book One, those studios were JM Animation Co., Ltd and DR Movie. JM Animation animated the first two episodes, while DR Movie animated this one.
  4. The odd thing is, if you look at the two studios’ track records, DR Movie would appear to have the more impressive resume. According to their Wikipedia page, DR Movie is the only Korean studio to have a contract with Studio Ghibli. (Hell, as of this writing, DR Movie is the only one of the three animation studios that worked on Avatar to even have a Wikipedia page.) But as Avatar went on, it was JM Animation that consistently produced the best-looking episodes of the series. DR Movie even quit Avatar after Book Two and handed its animation duties to its sister studio, MOI Animation.
  5. So maybe DR Movie wasn’t quite sure yet what to do with Avatar, or maybe the directions they received from DiMartino, Konietzko, and company weren’t entirely clear. Whatever the case, the first few episodes they animated for Avatar are pretty bad.
  6. Every time Aang has to express an emotion like disappointment, reminiscing, or sorrow, he just looks sleepy. The voice performance by Zack Tyler Eisen is on-point (as it usually is), but sleepy Aang just makes me laugh.
  7. You know what doesn’t make me laugh? Sokka. At least not in this episode. In the past, I used to think my hatred of Sokka was entirely due to Jack De Sena’s voice acting. He can certainly go overboard sometimes, but at the end of the day, he’s just an actor doing his best to make something out of a terrible script. (Not even P.J. Byrne, the voice of Bolin and one of the funniest character actors in Hollywood today, is immune to the horrid lines this franchise can occasionally pump out.)
  8. The animation doesn’t do Sokka any favors either. Because he’s the comic relief, we’re supposed to believe that whatever violence is inflicted upon him is automatically funny. But flipping him in the air with an Airbending blast seems intolerably cruel coming from someone like Aang. Later, when Aang enters his Avatar state, we see Sokka get blown about twenty feet into a stone wall. He’s not knocked unconscious, and he doesn’t experience any broken bones. So why should I care if he and Katara get blown off the mountain by Aang’s windy rage?
  9. That entire sequence is particularly awful. These kids are hundreds of feet in the air and in danger of being blown away to their deaths by the merciless winds of Aang’s despair. Yet Katara and Sokka speak to each other about the situation like people reciting their lines for an Advil commercial. Katara immediately volunteers to attempt to calm Aang down (with absolutely no precedence of how she could possibly do that), and Sokka callously tells her that she better hurry up before they both get blown off the mountain. Is Sokka’s sudden lack of brotherly concern for his sister’s safety supposed to be funny?
  10. To make matters worse, the scenes of Aang and friends at the Air Temple are clumsily intercut with the scenes of Zuko, Iroh, and Zhao. It’s particularly jarring towards the end, when Aang’s Avatar state havoc is edited around Zuko and Zhao’s Ag Ni Kai. I think they should have saved the Avatar state business for after the Ag Ni Kai, that way the worldwide reveal of the Avatar’s return doesn’t undercut the tension between Zuko and Zhao (who, aside from pride, are basically fighting for the right to capture the Avatar).
  11. All this confusion really does undermine the main emotional point of the episode, in which Aang discovers that he really is the last Airbender left on this planet. As harrowing as this concept is in theory, within the context of this episode’s messy script and clunky humor, it rings pretty hollow (at least until the final two moments discussed in the High Points). As time goes on, the episodes will strike a firmer balance between its pathos and its humor, making for some wonderful episodes. This is just one misstep (but unfortunately not the last).

Random Points:

  1. I always wondered about that scene when Aang goes into the Avatar State, which transmits a signal to different places in the world, alerting everyone that the Avatar has returned. Does this happen every time an Avatar goes into the Avatar State? Or did it only happen this time because Aang was in the proximity of the Air Temple sanctuary containing all the statues of the past Avatars? If it’s the former, why wasn’t the world alerted to the Avatar’s return back in episode two, which was the first time we’d ever seen the Avatar State activated? If it’s the latter, then I suppose it makes sense. The episode doesn’t clarify this one way or the other, which is why it still puzzles me after all these years.
  2. Did you know that DiMartino and Konietzko hired Jason Isaacs to play Zhao based on his performance in The Patriot starring Mel Gibson? That said, am I the only one who think that Zhao’s character design and voice performance resembles Gibson more so than Isaacs?

Conclusion:

As we can see, Avatar has a few production hurdles to clear before it can even qualify for the title of “best American animated children’s series ever made.” The ambitious and the potential is there, at least. As Konietzko put once it, “the first season of anything is Hell.” He was referring to the production side of things, but it can be true for the audience as well. It’s a good thing children are way more forgiving of sloppy execution, so long as whatever is on screen provides enough sustenance for their imagination, and even the worst episode of Avatar has more creativity and interest than most kid’s show.

Next week: Korra: “The Revelation” & “The Voice in the Night”

Retro: Korra: “Welcome to Republic City” & “A Leaf in the Wind”

B.A.S.S. Line:

Having mastered Water, Earth and Fire, Korra leaves her home to learn Airbending from Aang’s son Tenzin in Republic City. The Airbending lessons go poorly, however, and Korra ends up finding more success in a new Bending sport known as “Pro-Bending.”

Key Points:

  1. These episodes really want to make sure you understand that Korra is absolutely nothing like Aang. Where the former Avatar was basically a kind and good-nature soul who did not want to be the Avatar, but needed to learn to be brave, assertive, and confrontational in order to fulfill his duty to the world, Korra is the exact opposite: she’s a head-strong, aggressive young lady who loves her status as the new Avatar, but desperately needs to learn patience and tenderness, especially if she’s going to master Airbending, the most evasive and spiritual of the elements.
  2. Needless to say, Airbending masters aren’t exactly abundant anymore. To make things worse, Tenzin, son of Aang and currently the only Airbending master on the planet, can’t make time to teach Korra anything because of his duties in Republic City. And it’s not like there’s any pressing reason to teach her right away. Republic City may have its problems, but that’s nothing compared to having to single-handedly end a war that had been going on for a hundred years.
  3. But Korra doesn’t just run away to Republic City to learn Airbending: ever since she was “discovered” to be the Avatar at the age of four (?), the White Lotus have kept her in her Southern Water Tribe village for the past thirteen years. The better part of her developmental years were spent in isolation and what must have been constant training to be the next Avatar. (Apparently, Aang wanted the White Lotus to make sure the next Avatar was well-protected from an early age. This makes a certain amount of sense coming from Aang, but the show implies that the White Lotus took this to the extreme, and sheltered Korra from the outside world most of her life.) The girl desperately needs to get out into the world, and the giant metropolis where her Airbending teacher lives is a great start.
  4. Republic City is the capital of the new world, envisioned by Aang and Zuko to be a place where everyone—Benders, Non-Benders, etc.—could come together in peace and harmony. It’s societal issues notwithstanding, Republic City is a marvel of a place, booming with modern industry, technology, architecture, business, entertainment, etc. Unfortunately, the dream of “peace and harmony” has given way to violent disputes between Benders and Non-Benders, so much so that an organization known as the Equalists is calling for a revolution to end “Bending oppression.”
  5. Not that any of this concerns Korra (yet), who just wants to learn her Airbending and fulfill her duty as Avatar. Mostly, she just wants to kick ass and bring justice whenever she can, wherever she can. Unfortunately, there’s only so much ass you can kick in Republic City before the law gets involved. That law is firmly enforced by the Metalbending police, led by Lin Bei Fong (daughter of Toph), and they won’t stand for vigilante justice, not even from the Avatar. If Tenzin hadn’t persuaded Lin to drop the charges, Korra could have very well been the first Avatar with a record.
  6. Against his better judgment, Tenzin decides to keep Korra in Republic City with him, letting her live with his family (including his wife, Pema, and three Airbending children, Jinora, Ikki, and Meelo) and making time to teach her Airbending. The first hurdle they have to overcome is Korra’s stubbornness and impatience. Not that she’d admit to anything like that: when all fails and she still can’t break her own wind, she blames it on Tenzin’s incompetence as a teacher. For his part, Tenzin barely manages to maintain his composure when dealing with this prideful teenager. Still, the girl has a point: Tenzin’s old school methods and principles simply don’t translate to the “here-and-now” ethos of a young woman who has only just begun to explore the outside world.
  7. For someone as competitive and aggressive as Korra, Pro-Bending is where it’s at. In this sport, two teams of three Benders face off and try to knock each opposing player out of the ring. It’s a fast and dangerous sport, requiring as much agility in evading attacks as it does brute force in giving them. For everyone in Republic City, Pro-Bending is the main source of entertainment. Everyone but Tenzin, who considers it a mockery of the art of Bending. So naturally, Korra sneaks off to see a few matches against his wishes.
  8. Conveniently, she not only gets to meet her favorite team—the Fire Ferrets—and see them play first-hand, but when one of the players unexpected quits, she gets to play on the team (as long as she only Waterbends). Lo and behold, Pro-Bending turns out to be just the thing she needed to put those annoying Airbending lessons into practice. Even Tenzin recognizes this and (begrudgingly) allows her to continue playing professionally as long as she devotes as much time to her actual Airbending.
  9. Being on the Fire Ferrets also means making actual friends (boys, no less!). First, there’s Bolin, the Earthbender of the team, who is a bit of a goofball and absolutely loves the adoration of his fans. Then there’s Mako, the Firebender, who takes the sport (and life in general) very seriously and has no time for anyone who doesn’t. Bolin warms up to Korra almost immediately, while Mako only starts to have respect for her once she pulls her weight in Pro-Bending. For her part, Korra likes Bolin a lot, too, but seems very keen on getting Mako’s approval since he’s, like, her favorite Pro-Bending player ever.
  10. By the way, Bolin and Mako are brothers, which unfortunately makes the prospects of a love triangle very probable.

High Points:

  1. Maybe this is more a testament to how little Korra develops as a character throughout the series, but the most entertaining scenes of these episodes are those of her failing to properly learn the principles of Airbending. One of her first challenges is to successfully navigate through a series of spinning doors by using the air currents created by their rotations. Not one for nuance, Korra constantly tries to force her way through and gets smacked around by the revolving doors like a pinball. Again, my enjoyment of these scenes probably have to do the fact that Korra so rarely gets any comeuppances for her terrible behavior. Scenes like these are a blessing.
  2. Same goes for her arrest by the Metalbending police and her initial failure as a Pro-Bender, where her rookie mistakes nearly cost the Fire Ferrets their chance at the championships. At least in these scenes, when she does get a handle on the sport thanks to Tenzin’s Airbending lessons, there is a sense that Korra can grow and learn from her mistakes, so the Fire Ferrets’ victory feels earned instead of forced.
  3. As for the Fire Ferret brothers, Bolin and Mako thus far are solid characters and well-voiced by P.J. Byrne and David Faustino respectively. As time went on, both would fall victim to some damning Flanderization. But for now? Just two cool dudes.
  4. We don’t see much of Tenzin’s family, but they all start off fairly likable. Meelo is the stand-out with his potato head and his bizarre, but cute animation patterns. Not that Ikki and Jinora aren’t cute, too.
  5. J.K. Simmons as Tenzin is one of those pitch perfect casting decisions that keeps reminding you just how much range Simmons really has. (Tenzin even bears enough resemblance to Simmons that you wonder if it’s intentional.) As the only Airbending spawn of Aang, Tenzin must endure the unenviable burden of being the Avatar’s son and training the new incarnate of the Avatar. Simmons finds a way to play up Tenzin’s put-upon seriousness for pathos and comedy.
  6. If there’s one constant in these two episode and the entirety of Book One, it’s the high quality of the animation. For American television animation, this is as good as it gets. The traditional animation of the characters and Bending is as good as the best stuff in Avatar, but it’s the computer animation that really gives it the edge. Sometimes the effect is obvious (as with the huge zeppelins that hover above Republic City), and sometimes it’s very subtle (as when the “camera” moves freely through the CG environment to produce the effect of a pan, a tilt, a dolly, etc.). All of this creates a sense of space and intensity that Avatar could only rarely capture. Truly impressive stuff from directors Joaquim Dos Santos and Ki Hyun Ryu (and Konietzko as art director).

Low Points:

  1. Unfortunately, not even the best animation could save these episodes from the lethargy of the writing. Unlike with Avatar, DiMartino and Konietzko wrote each of the twelve episodes themselves, which you’d think would keep the story tight and concise, preventing the occasional interludes of nonsense found sporadically in Avatar. Not only are those interludes present in these episodes, but the real problem is that the story proper doesn’t actually begin until episode three, when Amon makes his grand entrance.
  2. Two episodes of nothing but setup wouldn’t be so bad if the episodes were consistently entertaining and completely devoted to developing the new characters and the new setting of Republic City. But much like our protagonists, the writing lacks restraint.
  3. Within the first five minutes of the first episode of the new Avatar spin-off mini-series, we get a completely unnecessary and utterly unfunny joke where Katara is unable to answer the question “What happened to Zuko’s mom?” The fact that, seventy years after the fact, Jinora could read all about the adventures of Katara and friends from Avatar, and yet there’s still no closure to the mystery of Zuko’s mother is mystifying enough. But the real question is, in the context of this new adventure, “Who cares?”
  4. In Republic City, Korra meets a hobo who lives in the bushes. This hobo is supposed to represent the disparity of the classes in Republic City, shattering Korra’s delusion that everyone in the city is “living it up.” The problem is that this hobo and his situation is portrayed with the cheerful whimsy of…a kid’s show (or a Broadway musical). You’d think this man would at least be a little more desperate and broken in spirit if the intention was to show how low you can go living just enough for the city. Instead, this man looks as if he’ll break out into a lavish musical number any second about life as a hobo in Republic City. (His behavior is explained later in the season. Not that it helps.)
  5. The main problem with these episodes is the lack of any real drama. In Avatar, the war and the Avatar’s purpose to end it was established before we even met the characters. In contrast, Korra’s delay on her Airbending lessons seems more like a personal problem than a conflict worth investing in by the audience.
  6. Perhaps DiMartino and Konietzko were banking on Korra’s personality to carry these episodes. For all her aggressive and occasional outbursts, however, she’s just not a very interesting person. I believe this is in large part because of Janet Varney’s voice performance, which is just a little too cool and restrained for a loose cannon like Korra.
  7. The scripts do her no favors, either: mistakes are made, but invariably, nearly every one of Korra’s decisions works in her favor, and there are damn near no consequences for her lousy behavior and actions. (After being arrested, it’s Tenzin who has to pay the damages for Korra’s destruction of private property; she all but destroys the 2,000-year-old contraption used to teach her Airbending and somehow makes Tenzin look like the one at fault.)
  8. I certainly don’t recall Aang getting off that easily for some of his more reckless behavior. I can recall how, in the span of two episodes, he damn near lost his only friends by: 1) withholding important information about their father, who they hadn’t seen in years (and didn’t even know was alive or not); and 2) burning Katara’s hands due to his impatience with his first Firebending instructor. If either of these things had happened with Korra, the narrative would surely have found some way to make her behavior seem justified.
  9. Before moving on, I must confess that I forgot all about Naga the polar-bear dog. I’ll let that speak for itself.

Random Points:

  1. All that said, I have to admit: I love little four-year-old Korra. I love the fact that she can easily Bend water, fire, and earth at such a ridiculously early age. I love that she’s very aware of what the Avatar is and especially that she’s the latest reincarnation. Little Korra is simply adorable, and I really wish that precious child could have had a better upbringing (by the White Lotus and by DiMartino and Konietzko).
  2. Of course, I can only judge her upbringing based on the results we see throughout the rest of the series, since we never actually get to witness any of Korra’s training up to the present day. We don’t even get so much as a flashback to those crucial years of Korra’s development. Did the idea never even occur to DiMartino and Konietzko that perhaps the audience would want to see snippets of Korra’s upbringing the same way we got to see the upbringings of villains Amon and Tarrlok?
  3. Then again, by leaving those thirteen years or so of training out of the big picture (except through throwaway lines of exposition), DiMartino and Konietzko almost successfully cover up some questionable choices in the story they wanted to tell. In fact, the more familiar you are with Avatar, the more damning these choices are.
  4. For instance, one of the White Lotus leaders (thanklessly played by Stephen Root) says that Korra always excelled at the physical side of Bending since she was a little girl, but ignored the spiritual side. Presumably, he’s referring to that same little girl that we all witnessed as fully capable of Bending water, earth, and fire, to which the only appropriate response is a resounding “no shit.”
  5. Let’s quickly compare this to Aang’s learning curve. The kid couldn’t even Earthbend until Book Two, and that required him to learn assertiveness and combativeness when the situation called for it. Then he couldn’t even Firebend until Book Three, after learning the true source of Firebending from a pair of dragons. The way I see, being able to Bend any of these elements at all is the first major obstacle towards mastering them. The fact that Korra is able to Bend earth and fire at the mere age of four is nothing short of a miracle.
  6. You would think that the White Lotus, having witnessed this little girl’s capacity to Bend three of the elements already, would immediately ask to see her Bend the fourth one. And when she couldn’t, they would instantly set about creating the conditions in which Airbending would be possible. Not that they would neglect her mastery of the other three elements, just that they’d put more focus and energy on her weak spots. Just thinking about it from a teacher’s perspective: if a student excelled in all but one subject, would it not be reasonable for the teacher to further investigate why that one subject that gave the student trouble where the others didn’t? Wouldn’t it have done the White Lotus some good to do the same for Korra (much like Aang had to do for himself when Earthbending just wasn’t coming to him)?
  7. The series does have an excuse for this lapse in judgment: Korra could only possibly learn Airbending from Tenzin, the only Airbending master on the planet, and the only reason he delays his teachings is due to his heavy workload in Republic City. This makes sense up to a point.
  8. Sure, he couldn’t teach her directly, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have given her something to study and practice until then. In Avatar, specifically “The Deserter,” Jeong Jeong didn’t teach Aang how to Bend fire right away; he started with basic breathing exercises. In Korra’s case, it’s vaguely established that he’s visited her in her homeland before. Couldn’t he have given her some exercises during his visits? Hell, when Korra actually gets to Republic City and starts learning from Tenzin directly, one of their first exercises is meditation. Couldn’t Korra have practiced meditating all those years in the Southern Water Tribe? (As for Tenzin’s excuse that Korra needs a “calm, quiet place free from distraction” to learn Airbending, well…what better place than the fucking South Pole?!)
  9. In fact, Tenzin wouldn’t even have to be physically present to give Korra these exercises. Postage clearly exists in the Avatar universe, and there’s no reason he couldn’t send her letters filled with Airbending practices, positions, and wisdom until he could teach her directly. In Avatar, Aang and Katara came upon a Waterbending scroll that taught them a lot of moves. This scroll wasn’t the be-all-end-all of Waterbending mastery—they’d still need to guidance of an actual master—but it was a start, especially since Aang hadn’t really Waterbended at that point. Couldn’t Korra have gotten something similar in letter form from Tenzin from time to time? I mean, it would be one thing if she got such letters and did ignore them (generating some tension between her and Tenzin). The fact that the idea never crossed anyone’s mind is negligence on someone’s point, be it Tenzin’s or the White Lotus’, or DiMartino and Konietzko’s.
  10. I could honestly continue much further down this train of thought, but for the sake of time, I’ll stop here. I believe much of this confusion comes from the fact that DiMartino and Konietzko wanted so badly for their initial conception of Korra (teenaged, female, anti-Aang to the point of not being able to Airbend) to work. The fact that they couldn’t even make it properly cohere to the mythology and logic previously established by Avatar should have been the first warning sign that Korra, the series and the character, were simply not going to live up to our expectations.
  11. I think what DiMartino, Konietzko, Santos and Ryu really needed during the development stage of Korra’s production was another writer; someone who could play Lawrence Kasdan to their George Lucas and Steven Spielberg; someone who could exclusively focus on the narrative, the characters, the drama, and all that important foundational stuff while the other four guys were busy arguing over the best way to draw a fucking ear. That writer could have even been Aaron Ehasz.

Conclusion:

The best way to sum up these two episodes would be “visually engaging, narratively uninvolving.” (By Book Two, the first part wouldn’t even be true, absolving audiences of the only reason to continue watching the show.) Thankfully it will get better—even great—before it gets worse. Much, much worse.

Retro: Avatar: “The Boy in the Iceberg” & “The Avatar Returns”

B.A.S.S. Line:

Two Water Tribe siblings, Katara and Sokka, discover Aang, the last Airbender and the Avatar, and decide to help him learn the elements and end the 100-year war with the Fire Nation. All the while, they’ll be chased by Prince Zuko, an ill-tempered teenage Firebender, and his loving uncle Iroh.

Key Points:

  1. Earth. Fire. Air. In the Avatar universe, Bending is the ability to manipulate one of these elements through a combination of magic and martial arts. Not everyone in this universe can Bend, and those who can are only able to Bend one element (i.e. Waterbenders, Earthbenders, Firebenders, and Airbenders). The kind of Bender you are is determined by which of the four nations you’re born in, be it the Air Nomads, the Earth Kingdom, the Fire Nation, or the Northern/Southern Water Tribe.
  2. There is one exception to the one element per individual rule: the Avatar is the only person on the planet capable of Bending all four elements. The Avatar is also the one in charge of maintaining order and balance between the four nations.
  3. There’s a problem: the Avatar has disappeared, and his absence, the Fire Nation sought complete global domination, resulting in a terrible war which has gone on for a hundred years. Where, when, and why did the Avatar vanish in this time of need? And will he ever come back to finally defeat the evil Fire Nation? All of this is relayed to us in the minute-long introduction. From then one, these first two episodes waste no time defining the main conflict of the series and setting the narrative in motion.
  4. We’re introduced to our three main heroes: Aang, Katara, and Sokka.
  5. Aang is the fun-loving twelve-year-old Airbender and the long-missing Avatar of the title (a fact he initially hides from the others for reasons that will be revealed later). When we first meet him, he’s frozen alive inside a giant iceberg that was trapped underwater in the Souther Water Tribe. Upon being freed, immediately requests to go “penguin sledding.” As Katara will remind us every episode, this kid is clearly not up to the task of saving the world, but he’s going to try with a little help from his new friends.
  6. Those friends would be Katara and Sokka, Southern Water Tribe sister and brother (wisely ruling out any possibility of a love triangle, a la Harry Potter). Despite being siblings, the two teenagers couldn’t be more different: she’s a Waterbender and an eternal optimist, while Sokka is a non-Bender and a skeptic (except where his manly ego is concerned). Accordingly, she warms up to Aang almost instantly while Sokka is quick to accuse him of being a Fire Nation spy.
  7. Aang’s sudden appearance provides a break from the monotony of Southern Water Tribe life during wartime. On the one hand, Katara and the children in her village love him for his strange foreign ways, while Sokka and the elders don’t trust him for the same reason. More importantly, for Katara, Aang is her ticket out of the Water Tribe to find a tutor who can help her reach her potential as a Waterbender (the only Waterbender in the entire Southern Water Tribe, no less). For Sokka, as long as he can do his part in stomping the Fire Nation out of existence, teaming up with Aang to help him master the elements is a sweet deal.
  8. Aang even has an impressive mode of transportation: Appa, the sky bison (and the most overt Miyazaki homage thus far). Imagine the Catbus from My Neighbor Totoro with the utility and mobility of the Millenium Falcon and you’ll immediately understand the appeal and popularity of Appa.
  9. Appa is definitely as asset in the group’s efforts to reach the Northern Water Tribe, to evade the Fire Nation, and especially to escape the clutches of Prince Zuko.
  10. Prince Zuko has been searching for the Avatar for years, and in a stroke of luck, Zuko and his crew are exploring the Southern Water Tribe when Aang makes his entrance in the story. Zuko, along with Iroh, Zuko’s uncle and Firebending tutor, finally have a real chance of capturing the Avatar, ending their (initially hopeless) search, and being allowed to return to the Fire Nation.
  11. There’s a lot at stake, especially for Aang, since committing to his role as Avatar means mastering the four elements, stopping a hundred-year war, and finding the maturity to do so. All the while making time to ride the hog-monkeys.

High Points:

  1. Like all pilot episodes, “The Boy in the Iceberg” and “The Avatar Returns” have one important job: establish the characters, the world, and the drama unifying it all just enough to make us eager to see how it all plays out. And in that respect, they’re a great success, which is something of a miracle considering just how much plot and exposition is in these two episodes alone. Avatar could have easily turned into a convoluted, aimless, emotionally void mess (which, unfortunately, is exactly what happened to Korra).
  2. Lucky for us, these two episodes already showcase the merits of the series as a whole: good writing, a solid voice cast, and a colorful, imaginative visual style.
  3. There’s a good helping of humor sprinkled throughout these episodes, but it’s not of the snarky, mean-spirited variety you see in most “hipper-than-thy-parents” children’s program, or of the sitcoms-for-toddlers variety you find in those programs which mostly function to sell merchandise. This humor is good-natured and stems organically from the characters and their circumstances, which is quite refreshing.
  4. There are a few standout sequences. Aang and Katara’s exploration of an abandoned Fire Nation ship creates an eerie atmosphere that perfectly complements the revelation that Aang has been frozen for a hundred years (hence his ignorance of the terrible war that has all but defined Katara and Sokka’s lives).
  5. In “The Avatar Returns,” we get our first major action sequence, in which Aang, having been taken aboard Zuko’s ship, takes back his Airbending staff and attempts to flee Zuko’s capture. Not that the Prince makes it easy for him. Such is his obsession with capturing the Avatar that he jumps from the ship’s observation deck about twenty feet in the air, which absolutely no regard for his own safety, just to stop Aang from getting away on his glider. Determination is, in Zuko’s case, an understatement.
  6. This sequence also showcases the potential of Bending as a means of generating visually impressive fight scenes. In later episodes, the writers and animators will continue to top themselves with the creative ways in which the four elements can be used in a fight.
  7. None of this would matter, though, if we didn’t start to care for Aang and friends as they duke it out with the banished prince and his goofy uncle. Thankfully, by the end of the episodes, each character’s personality and objective is so clearly defined that we’re pretty eager to follow them on their journey to save the world from this ongoing war.

Low Points:

  1. Honestly, I can’t say there are any genuine “low points” this early in the game. One could make the argument that these episodes are a little too leisurely in their pace, and that some jokes—despite how refreshing different the humor of the show is from that of most others—are a bit too silly, and that some of the animation isn’t as good as it will be later on. Then again, how many pilot episodes—especially of the animated variety—actually compare favorably to later episodes?

Random Point:

  1. Quick: can you recall ever hearing the word “sexist” used in an American animated children’s television program before Avatar? I can’t. I can certainly recall many programs that dealt with sexism as a concept and a theme (one of the best examples being The Powerpuff Girls with the cleverly-titled episode “Equal Fights,” whose story was written by Lauren “Friendship is Magic” Faust, no less), but never one in which a character outright says the word itself.
  2. In the case of Avatar, it occurs in the very first episode, in the very first real scene. And it does make sense in context. Sokka, the macho warrior, instantly blames Katara for crashing their canoe, insinuating that girls ruin everything. Katara’s furious scowling of her brother—exacerbated by her Waterbending, which nearly gets them crushed by an avalanche and ends up uncovering the iceberg in which the Avatar is frozen—is certainly justified (and hilariously animated), especially she’s the one stuck doing all the Charlie Work that comes with living and surviving in an Antarctic region while all he’s off, as she puts it, “playing soldier.” She also tosses in some choice adjectives, such as “immature,” “nut-brained,” and yes, “sexist.”
  3. But let’s think about this moment in the context of the overall narrative. There’s been a war going on with the Firebenders for almost a hundred years, and two years prior to this scene, Sokka and Katara’s father and the other men of the village have left to fight and contribute their efforts to defeating the Fire Nation. Presumably, that left Sokka as the only “man” to look after the village and doing his share of the labor. Katara belittles his role in all this by calling it “playing soldier.” But is that all? Does Sokka not hunt? Does he not help maintain civility and order in the village? Does he not try his best to prepare the next generation of soldiers—all adorable pre-pubescent children—for the war effort against the Fire Nation?
  4. Or did the absence of the father and other male role models render him incompetent and unprepared for the challenge, and thus reduce him to inflating his impotent ego by making muscles whenever he sees his reflection in the water? In such harsh living conditions where survival is the name of the game, Sokka would have long been exiled to freeze in the cold if he didn’t contribute something to their well-being. (Or does his status as the absent chief’s son prevent that?)
  5. Do any of these questions really matter? Not really. For one thing, the scene is clearly geared in Katara’s favor, and all Sokka can do is coward in fear as her angry Waterbending nearly gets them both crushed by a nearby glacier. At no point is Sokka allowed defended his place in the village as more than “playing soldier.” He’d probably point out that he does all the hunting (by himself, no less), and Katara would even retort that he may capture the food, but she and the other women are the ones who have to actually clean it, gut it, and cook it.
  6. None of that matters because the point of the scene is to present Katara is a fiercely independent young woman who has the balls to call Sokka out on his sexist attitudes. That’s fine. My contention is with the use of the word itself, because its such a modern word (it didn’t exist before the 1960s) that it sticks out like a sore thumb in this Asian-influenced fantasy adventure show.
  7. Ultimately, my problem is that “sexist” is not something a character would say ever say in this universe—in point of fact, the word is never uttered again in either Avatar or Korra—but something that the writers wanted her to say to signal to the audience “look how progressive we are, our female character knows what sexism is and calls it out when she sees it, aren’t we so hip and clever!”
  8. Not hip and/or clever at all, in my opinion. Maybe in 2005 it was at least surprising, but now, it comes across more like “self-conscious” and “pandering.” Not to mention “unnecessary,” because the series as a whole handles the issue so damn well and without calling attention to itself when doing so. Here, though, not only do the writers betray their motives in such blatant, tasteless fashion, but they damn near destroy the element of timelessness that makes these kinds of stories work. (If anything, this “virtue signaling” would eventually help to destroy Korra, but it’s rather disheartening to see the seeds of destruction already planted in the first goddamn scene of the first goddamn episode of Avatar.)

Conclusion:

Looking on the bright side, though, the show creators’ “self-conscious progressivism” didn’t apply solely to the show’s politics. Whether it was in the animation, the storytelling, the voice acting, the themes, etc., Mr. DiMartino and Mr. Konietzko fought hard to expand the limitations of what could be done in an American animated children’s television program, and for that, they should be commended, and the show they and their crew created should be praised. For better and for worse, these first two episodes are the perfect harbinger of things to come.

Next week: Korra: “Welcome to Republic City” & “A Leaf in the Wind”

(P.S. I want to apologize to everyone for not responding to their comments yet. It’s been a hectic week, and I’m still trying to find my groove with this retrospective. Thanks for sticking with me, guys, I promise the quality of these retrospectives will improve with each week.)

Retrospective: Episode(s) Analysis Format

(Once again taking a page out of the book of everyone’s favorite Russian music reviewer George Starostin, the format for the episode analyses is a variation on that of his Important Album Series. For example, here is his write-up on Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon.)

B.A.S.S. Line:

This will include a very brief summary of the episode(s) in discussion.

Key Points:

  1. This section will focus almost exclusively on the narrative aspects of the episodes. This includes character, plot points, locations, etc., in no set order.
  2. New characters, new locations, and any new insight into the mythology and inner workings of the Avatar universe are detailed here.

High Points:

  1. This is where things get more subjective, in which I elaborate on the effectiveness of the storytelling, action set pieces, animation, music, voice acting, editing, etc.

Low Points:

  1. Same as “high points,” but for moments and choices I thought didn’t work as well.

Random Points:

  1. This section is reserved for any loose observations or thoughts that have no place in the previous ones.
  2. This section will be a bit of a wild card (and likely the most subjective of all), as it deals more so with the “meta” of Avatar and Korra than with the mythologies of either show.

Conclusion:

Finally, any final thoughts on the episode(s) will be put in this section.

 

Keep in mind, too, that none of this is set in stone. As the series progresses, previous reviews can be revised and amended in light of new connections between episodes, and new information and insights about the series. This will be an experiment as well as a retrospective, which means it’s just as liable to reveal new layers to both shows as it is to crash and burn into chaotic nonsense.

Any thoughts? Suggestions? Concerns? Let me know. In the meantime, let’s get started and see what happens!

Next week: Avatar: “The Boy in the Iceberg” & “The Avatar Returns”

Announcement: Schedule for Dual Retrospective Complete

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.

Announcement: New Page for Research Material

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!

…But I’ll Be Back (Again)

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.