Thursday, March 4, 2010

Avatar: The Last Airbender

When I started seeing ads for the Avatar: The Last Airbender movie from M. Night Shyamalan, I was a bit surprised. All I knew of the animated TV series was that it was on Nickelodeon and everyone knows that there are two kinds of shows on that network: drivel aimed at keeping kids quiet while their parents do something else and shows that get canceled fast (c.f. Invader Zim). Throw in the confusion caused by the James Cameron movie, Avatar, which had nothing to do with the show, and I just needed to watch a bit of it to get the facts straight.

So, with every expectation of hating it, I watched the first season on Netfix via their TiVo instant-watch player. I was hooked.

To be sure, it's a kid's show. The characters are mostly children; the stories tend to be simple morality plays; and there's all the cute animals you could want (or orders of magnitude more if you're like me). So why did I like it? For starters, it's a solid story that's well written and that always draws me in. For another, the story isn't your average U.S. fare.

Let me describe the outline (spoiler-free), first. The story takes place in a fantasy world where four nations represent the four alchemical elements of fire, air, water and earth. This is not merely symbolic. There's a sort of shamanistic magic called "bending" in this world, by which people can manipulate these elements (the Fire Nation's benders can manipulate fire, and so on). These nations are currently at war and the only one that can end the war is Aang, the Avatar. An Avatar is born to each generation and has the ability to manipulate all four elements, but the current Avatar is 100 years late and a child who hasn't been trained in anything but the art of air bending.

The tale goes pretty much where you'd expect: he seeks out masters of the other three arts to train him and encounters friends and adventures along the way. Standard children's fantasy. Except...

What I didn't expect was a story about the nature of personal transformation and the acceptance of responsibility for one's own destiny. The story explains, in the basic terms of a show aimed mostly at children, many of the Eastern traditions of energy manipulation and meditation along with reincarnation, karma and some anti-totalitarian politics for good measure. It's a bit like the Promethea comic, but aimed at a younger generation and with far less sex.

I strongly suggest seeing the original before M. Night takes a swing at it. Even if his movie is excellent, I really don't think you'll want to watch the series after the movie, just because it's such an investment of time.

We're just about to start the third season and can't wait to find out what happens to our now favorite characters.