Before there was the James Cameron 3-Debacle, before there was the Shamalamadingdong adaptation premiering this coming week, there was a cartoon on Nickolodeon, known as “Avatar: The Last Airbender“. You should watch it. And the upside of the live-action movie release is that, probably as a means of kindling interest, Netflix Instant currently has every last episode of all three seasons available for viewing.
Now if the movie were being directed by anyone else, I might give it a chance, and my $11 plus dollars at the box office, but since Emnight continues to consider The Happening a work of genius that we rubes just aren’t smart enough to understand, that’s not going to happen. MNS (look for it on the label!) has been in a downward flush ever since The Sixth Sense, which now looks to have been even more of an accident than A New Hope in terms of displaying actual storytelling/directorial skill. Oh, you say, this time it will be different? This time, he’s not directing his own material? I say guess what, he did the entire screenplay adaptation himself… no writing credits for the original creators. Oh, he says he has great respect and admiration for the source material? So did Ben Affleck with Daredevil. For that matter, so did Frank Miller with The Spirit.
I can’t stop you from toddling off to spend your hard earned cash on the movie (don’t forget the STUNNING 3-D!!!! option), but if you want my opinion, stay home, fire up the Netflix, and watch the original cartoon. Because it’s freaking fantastic.
Look, when I was a tyke in the 80s, cartoons like the Transformers were awesome, but it wasn’t exactly challenging television. Now, if you were in a similar age range, do you remember the classic heyday of The Real Ghostbusters? Do you remember how it delved into mythologies, both historical and fictional? How it would unapologetically use big words and concepts? How it had a freaking CTHULHU MYTHOS episode that was actually fairly accurate to the source?
And yet, on another level, it still managed to be an entertaining cartoon for kids, until DIC gutted and reworked it to bring it in line with the usual, non-threatening fluff. They even gave Janine a fucking makeover so she was “prettier” and more “feminine”. In America kids are dumb, you see, and so cartoons need to be dumb. This seems to be the general guiding principle of network executives (along with “Will it sell lots of toys?”).
But every so often, rebellions slip through the cracks, subtly disguised to be dismissable fluff, but actually running much deeper. Several years after The Real Ghostbusters became, well, a ghost of its former self, Gargoyles appeared and brought motherfuckin’ Shakespeare onto Saturday morning TV. Flip it on at random, and some fat demon is waddling around stuffing his face with sausage links while “wacky” music plays. So you sneer and turn the channel. Start watching it from the beginning, though, and you’ll begin to see that beneath the kiddy friendly veneer is a very complex, interwoven storyline. Plus, Shakespeare, sneakily delivered in a way that captivates children instead of putting them to sleep. No, seriously, the Wyrd Sisters, Puck, and MacBeth were all worked into the Gargoyle mythos as essential parts of the storyline.
Avatar: The Last Airbender continues in this grand tradition, including the fact that when I would occasionally flip past episodes on Nickolodeon back in the day, I didn’t think much of it. It’s this week, when out of curiosity I went back to have a look, that I am here to tell you: go watch. So far I haven’t even gotten to Season 2 and Season 3 yet. I don’t care: go watch. If you’re going to see the movie, I don’t care if you watch before, or watch after: watch.
Why? Hell, I’ll just run down some bullet points of why this cartoon deserves your attention.
- Sheer scope of imagination. The environments, the vehicles, the fight scenes… at multiple times throughout Season 1, I am not afraid to admit it… I was wide-eyed and open-mouthed with wonder. There may have even been gasping, “ooohs”, or mutterings of “wow”. The creators hold up Hayao Miyazaki as one of their main inspirations, and it absolutely shows.
- Heroes with flaws, villains with depth. Avatar: TLA’s cast shows a richness rarely seen in children’s television. Perhaps television and cinema in general, especially in the action-adventure genre. The heroes, both male and female, are fallible, and their failings can have consequences that last beyond a 30 minute episode. The villains have motivations that make sense… they have concrete reasons for behaving as they do, which creates a sense of empathy.
Empathy, by the way, is a very distinct concept from sympathy. Empathy is being able to see where someone is coming from, while stopping short of actually agreeing or identifying with them. But even then, this series is well-written enough that you can have moments where you feel sorry for the zero sum game that for the heroes to be victorious, the villains have to lose. There’s even a reflective moment where the main hero, the young Avatar Aang, ponders to one of the villains if, in another time and circumstance, they might have gotten along. The villain in question responds with a fire blast, but only after a very pregnant pause.
- Villains that are actually dangerous. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if you make your villains into buffoons, all it does is harm your drama and the status of your hero. It’s like setting a high-jump bar at 12 inches and expecting people to applaud when the protagonist steps over it. The militaristic Fire Nation that serves as the main antagonists of the series are disciplined and ruthless troops who you fully believe are capable of taking over the world if the Avatar doesn’t stop them. When I saw the design of the steam tanks they used, I was intrigued. When I saw what they *did*, I about creamed my jeans. And even though some of what they were capable of is ludicrous in real-world terms, when the tanks advanced, they did so with infantry marching alongside — just like a real-world armored advance. And those aren’t even the guys with the power to summon and control fire.
- A prophesied savior that isn’t a complete dweeb. Now don’t get me wrong, Aang is certainly played up as the carefree, fun-loving 12 year old that he is… but unlike umpteen other “chosen ones” of fiction that can’t tie their own fucking shoelaces, Aang is a trained airbender monk who is perfectly capable of throwing down in a fight, even when he’s not channeling the power of the Avatar (when he does that, it’s nothing less than epic). Aang’s problem is not that he’s completely incompetent, only that he’s not nearly skilled enough (yet) to take on the entirety of the above-mentioned Fire Nation.
- The worldbuilding. Avatar:TLA is an imaginary land, but one based out of a fascinating diversity of Asian cultures, from Imperial China and Japan, to the monks of Tibet, to the Inuit tribes of the arctic. It may be unique in the annals of American action-adventure cartoons in having a main cast that is 100% non-Caucasian, at least in terms of that not also being “the gimmick”. The characters may be products of their culture, but they are people first and foremost, not stereotypes. I suppose I now understand why there was so much controversy over the movie’s decision to cast a bunch of white people in the lead roles, even supposedly going so far as to ask preferentially for Caucasians in a casting call. Whether or not that casting call was a result of poor communication from a third party, the final cast is sure chock full of whitey. So basically, the movie took source material that provided a rare exception to the norm, and dragged it right back into the norm again. My wife experienced a similar feeling of rage over the horrible miniseries adaptation of Earthsea, which amongst other crimes remade the protagonist Ged into a white teenage boy (this, ironically, in spite of Ursula K. LeGuin being on record as having intentionally written Ged as non-white in rebellion against the general assumption that fantasy characters should all be Caucasoids. Needless to say, she was about as pleased with the adaptation as Dawn was).
Anyhow, the “bending” mentioned is the supernatural ability of some people to control one of the four classical Chinese elements of Earth, Water, Air, or Fire. They control them through a martial style whose movements are based on real-world martial arts forms that the creators decided would best express the associated element. When benders fight each other, they’re not only throwing punches, kicks, and blocks in the manner of these styles, but hurling huge rocks, tornadoes, ice shards, etc. The end result of this is that duels in this cartoon are incredible to watch, especially when the animators are getting creative in fusions of martial arts and “magic”.
Look, the world is incredible. Just trust me on this or I may go on for days. One look at the Northern Water Tribe’s city will be worth a thousand-thousand of my words.
- The storytelling. All the fancy cultural and martial arts consultants in the world (and yes, both were on Avatar:TLA’s payroll) won’t help you in the end if you can’t tell a good story. The story told in Avatar is the kind that simultaneously inspires me as a writer, and makes me want to give up because I’ll never be that good. Aang, already a master of Air, must master Water, Earth, and Fire before he can confront the evil at the center of the Fire Nation. He must master them in that specific order, because each element corresponds to a Season. Air is Autumn, Water is Winter, Earth is Spring, and Fire is Summer. Each television season of Avatar corresponded exactly to one of these calendar seasons: Book 1 is Water, Book 2, Earth, and Book 3, the final season, including what is said to be an absolutely mind-blowing 2-hour climax, ends in the heart of Fire.
Each of these Books was comprised of 20 episodes, and although some episodes are more lighthearted than others, none of them ever feel like wastes of time or filler. Although I can only personally comment on Season 1 so far, every character grows and changes in noticeable, but also natural ways. Events set in motion several episodes before bear bitter (or joyful) fruit. If the “camera” lingers briefly on an object, you can bet there was a reason, and seeming inconsistencies turn out to be crucial plot points rather than mistakes. The pacing and presentation are nothing short of magnificent, and the climax of Season 1 was so goddamn epic in all possible ways that I’m not sure how I’m gonna be able to handle the end of Season 3 (said to be at least 10x as awesome) without going completely insane in throes of savage narrative-induced ecstacy. Again, words just can’t fully do the job, here. As another gushing reviewer ends up admitting, “You just have to see it for yourself”.
This is a “kid’s cartoon” that a lot of adult efforts could learn a thing or three from. I am hooked. You should go and be hooked, too, while it’s still on Netflix Instant for the taking. If you don’t have Netflix Instant, you are silly and need to fix that problem immediately.
Or you can take a chance on Mister Twister’s movie version, but when perfection already exists, why range abroad?