Friday, January 31, 2014

Fighting Fire With Fun

So many apologies up front! In my defense, January is always a hellacious month and this year was no different.  But I'm back for more Airbending antics in...

And I feel even worse that I left this so long because when the show originally premiered, the first two episodes were aired as a one-hour special. So, I probably should have reviewed the first two episodes together (heh heh - oops).  But here we are, so let's get started!

From the very first moment of this episode, we see just how grim everything really is. The first episode showed how happy and light-hearted this show could be - but then we get a taste of the dark depths that it can go. Not too dark, mind (this is still early-days for a kids' show) - but this is a world at war. Sokka gets angry that Aang and Katara set off that signal to the Fire Navy - and Gran Gran (Sokka and Katara's grandmother) agrees that Aang needs to go. Katara, to her everlasting credit, nearly packs up and leaves with Aang, but Aang tells her that he doesn't want her to abandon her family just because they might have a chance at finding her a Waterbending teacher.

As the show goes on, I often have cause to wonder why the Southern Water Tribe let Waterbending become nearly extinct in their culture. I can't remember if it's explained later (and I do know that the Fire Nation attack plays a role in it), but it becomes clear just how important the Elements are to these civilizations. Even if most of the people aren't benders, the legends and ceremonies that have formed around the Elements (and especially the Avatars from the past) are so vital to cultural identity and balance in the world. Of course, the Southern Water Tribe is so very small - the men have left to fight in the war, leaving behind women, children, and the elderly to keep things going at home - so it could be that everything is just a matter of survival at this point. And it's really sad - especially considering how hard Katara tries to develop her Waterbending skills, but she desperately needs a teacher. It is suggested at one point that Aang could teach her - but Airbending and Waterbending are both so very different (the creators purposely did that - each Elements' benders techniques are patterned after real-world martial arts moves. They even brought in experts from various disciplines to consult during the animation process, which gives these abilities a much larger scope than "Wave your arms wildly and hope that something happens!" There's a definite feel of this being something that you develop, rather than you're just born with it and it suddenly works).

So, Aang leaves the village with Appa, despite Katara's insistence that finding Aang was a good thing - that the world may be a war, but it doesn't mean that everything has to be terrible and they can have fun and find things to be happy about.  Still, Sokka isn't buying it and Aang takes off.  But he doesn't get too far before seeing a Fire Nation ship coming in hot and fast toward the village. Meanwhile, Sokka, being the oldest boy in the village and a sort-of self-appointed tribal chief while the men are away, prepares the village for potential invasion - which more or less entails him standing on top of the wall around the village by himself (battle-ready, yes, but still by himself).

Battle-ready, yes, but still by himself. Have I mentioned how much I love this guy?
The Fire Nation ship breaks down the wall and the soldiers disembark - Sokka tears after them on a one-man collision course. Zuko basically side-steps Sokka's attack and demands to know where the Avatar is.

Except Sokka still isn't done. It's laughable how out-matched Sokka is against the military might of the Fire Nation. Even just against Prince Zuko - Sokka gets his butt handed to him (though not without landing a blow from his trusty boomerang - yeah, we all learn to love that thing).

Oh, Zuko - your pain is my hilarity (for the first season, at least).
In the course of all this, Aang comes penguin sledding out of freaking nowhere and distracts Zuko. At which point, Zuko drops the bomb that we the viewers kind of figured, but the characters hadn't quite pieced together - Aang is the Avatar!

But Zuko assumed that he'd be looking for an old man who'd had a century to train and perfect his skills. And, if you've ever watched any kind of anime that revolves around training and preparing for battle - whether it's Dragon Ball Z or Pokemon or even Yu-Gi-Oh (which is about a freaking trading card game, you guys), you know how seriously they take their training. It's flat-out hilarious how seriously these characters can be about their chosen skill set. And Avatar is kind of in that same vein. But there is one line that sets Avatar apart from those others, at least in tone. Zuko gives the requisite "I've been training for years for this encounter" schpiel, at the end he says "You're just a child!" And where those other kinds of shows would have seen the younger opponent get all huffy and put-out about being called a child, Aang instead stops, looks at Zuko and says "Well, you're just a teenager."

Friends, Avatar: The Last Airbender may look like an anime, but it definitely NOT an anime. And that deadpan acknowledgement that Aang and Zuko really aren't that far apart in maturity level, no matter what kind of deadly skills they employ in battle. They're both still kids with so much to learn about life and being people - not just about learning to fight with their elements.

So, Aang and Zuko trade blows for a bit and Aang realizes that he's endangering the Water Tribe villagers. He gives himself up on condition that they Fire Nation soldiers leave the people alone, which is another great bit of character about Aang. The Air Nomads were a selfless and peaceful people (their culture is based on Tibetan Buddhist monks) and Aang, as the last remnant of that culture, is no different.

But Katara and Sokka aren't taking this lying down. With the encouragement of Gran Gran - who admits that the reappearance of the Avatar is the first time she's had any hope for the world in a long time - Katara and Sokka set off in search of Aang (with added help from Appa, who got left behind).

Aang isn't doing too bad for himself, though. And we start to get a good idea of everything that Airbenders are capable of - the kid basically takes on the whole crew of Zuko's ship (except for Uncle Iroh, who's taking a nap), all of whom are Firebenders. And he almost escapes, except Zuko corners him.

RiffTrax makes fun of the movie version of this scene - just to show you can't compete with the original.
You know - you've just gotta watch the whole sequence. The animation and the attention to detail is just so stinking good. Like I said before, there's a rhyme and reason to how this all works - the bender techniques are based on real-world disciplines, which add realism and beauty to the animation. And it only gets better. During the course of their fight, Zuko pushes Aang off the side of the ship (just as Katara and Sokka have caught up).

How To Tell When Shit's Going Down in the Avatar-verse
Instead of drowning, Aang's eyes and Airbender tattoos start glowing and he pretty much unleashes a giant typhoon of Waterbending on the Fire Nation ship. Katara and Sokka land Appa and rescue Aang (not before Katara freezes some of the Fire Nation soldiers with her Waterbending). Zuko and Iroh (he's up from his nap by now) try to shoot down Appa, but Aang deflects their attack, which creates an avalanche that traps their ship for the foreseeable future.

You tried, boys. You really tried.
The episode ends with Team Avatar (for that is what I'm calling them from here on out) flying away. Katara gushing endlessly at how amazing Aang's Waterbending is, though he isn't that enthused about the fact that he did it. And you start to get the sense that being the Avatar isn't all its cracked up to be. Aang doesn't want to be the Avatar and he almost hates that he Waterbended (Waterbent? Not sure on that) his way out of there. There are reasons why he's not that excited about being the Avatar (which are explored later and we'll get there), but for now, we just know that he's a very lonely little boy who's just been given the responsibility of saving the world and… you know… he doesn't really like it.

You mean being the last best hope of the entire world isn't TEH GREATEST THING EVAH?
I love that the episode gives Aang the space to express that idea and not just rush off and insist that is OMG GONNA BE THE KOOLEST THANG EVAH! (it's Nickelodeon - that's what they usually do). In fact, the only thing that seems to cheer him up is the idea that Katara wants to go to the Northern Water Tribe to find a Waterbending teacher and that they could learn together. In this instance, at least, Aang doesn't have to be singled out or treated differently. He has a friend to do this with, which is the best thing you could have given this kid right now.

(And Sokka just wants to knock some Firebender heads along the way. Given the way the Fire Nation's treated Team Avatar so far, that's actually okay).

We can't leave without Aang's travel plans for the trip - rather than this being a hardcore strategy for fighting the Fire Nation, Aang wants to stop over at various locations to ride the hopping llamas and ride the giant koi fish and catch wild hog monkeys because... reasons.  Hey, this is the kid who wanted to go penguin sledding the first minute he broke out of an iceberg after 100 years - just go with it and love him for it.

After all - we need a little fun in this world.

Next Time -
Episode 1.03 - Stop Making Aang Sad, Guys!!

Previously -
Episode 1.01 - Penguin Sledding for Beginners

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