Monday, January 13, 2014

Penguin Sledding for Beginners

Hey, look - it's the first blogging project of 2014!

Marvel at my MS Paint skills!
Some years ago when I was in college, I noticed a new animated show on Nickelodeon. Now, I’d had a pretty rocky relationship with a once-favored TV network from my childhood at that point. They’d scrapped worthy shows like Doug, Clarissa Explains It All, and Legends of the Hidden Temple from their lineup in favor of crap like Spongebob Squarepants (it kills me that there is an entire generation of children who do not know life without that obnoxious little bastard). But this Avatar: The Last Airbender seemed pretty promising. It was interesting, at the very least. Sadly, school took up much of my time and the scheduling people at Nick were too braindead to give the show a consistent time slot and I couldn't find time to commit to it. Fast forward some years later when I’m out of grad school (Rejoice!) and have a somewhat regular day-job (Again I say - Reeeeee-jooooooiiiiiice!), I decided to give Avatar another go. Not only did I enjoy it, I mainlined that sucker like there was no tomorrow! I could not wait to get to the next episode (which, it was a good thing it’s on Netflix. At least, I think it’s still on Netflix. I haven’t had a Netflix account for some time). I found compelling stories, engaging characters, beautiful artwork and worldbuilding, and a mythology that so many fantasy novels would give their back covers for! I couldn't believe that a gem like this show had found a home on Nickelodeon, which has become arguably the most crass and idiotic network for children in recent years (given that it’s owned by the same parent company as MTV, I shouldn't be surprised).

Last September, I decided I wanted to watch Avatar from the beginning and review each episode in their turn. But since I was neck-deep in Librarian in the TARDIS, I decided to shelve the project until the new year. Well, New Years has come and gone and work is somewhat scarce (it always happens in January) and the snow just won’t quit (also always happens in January), now is a good time to begin. Yes, I know I am not the first to undertake such an endeavor and I'm certain I won't be the last, but I've read enough similar blogs to know that I think I have something new to bring to Avatar fandom, otherwise I wouldn't even bother trying.  Even if no one else says a word about it and it's just for my own entertainment and edification, at least it's out there.

A few things before I start: every review will be Spoiler-riffic, so if you’ve never seen the show and want to stay unspoiled, I’d advise you watch the episodes before reading my thoughts. Also, if you’re the type to think “Oh, gee - I don’t have the time to commit to three seasons of 20 half-hour episodes each, I’ll just watch the movie,” I would strongly advise you - NOOOOOOOOOOO! Not just because the movie is a slap in the face to the original material and not because fans of the show cringe at the very mention of it, but because it is such a horrible, terrible, awful, craptacular, mess of a movie. I would almost go so far as to say that it makes Batman and Robin look like Shakespeare. Terrorists could use it in their torture chambers, it is that bad. I would rather you give the whole franchise a pass than have to sit through that garbage. But the TV show is fantastic. I promise, if you make the time for it, you will be paid hundreds of times over in entertainment, enjoyment, and even personal enrichment (though I do understand that life gets busy and other things take precedence).

Also - a word to parents. I know that many parents have concerns over what their kids watch and if something is too crude or too violent or too annoying. If you have kids and you’re about ready to shoot that little turd from the pineapple and you’re aching to see your kiddos get hooked on something that wasn't squeezed from the same rectal cavity as Ren and Stimpy, I think Avatar will be a great choice (given the fact that I'm doing this blogging project, that probably comes as not-that-big-of-a-shock). It continually treats its intended audience (kids around ages 8-12) like intelligent people who can handle tough subjects, but without overburdening them with a lot of emotional intensity. It’s also very appealing to adults (Hello! 28-year-old single chick with a life and career here!), which makes it a great family show, or even a show that fans of good storytelling can enjoy. It has made a considerable cultural impact and it continues to be a hit - as evidenced by its sequel series, The Legend of Korra, which I may get to reviewing here at some point. But this is where it all starts -

All right then - let’s begin.

The show’s opening credits are a huge clue that this is not going to be your run-of-the-mill slapstick that you put on to keep the kids from killing each other while you make dinner. There is effort and care put into each frame of animation. Even the rich backstory is told in a way that shows the writers really wanted to tell a quality story in a way that kids and adults could connect to. Granted, the opening monologue in this first episode is a bit different from how things are handled later on, after key characters and plot points are introduced, but in style and tone, you pretty much know what you’re going to get from here on out.

The first characters we are introduced to in the show proper are Katara and Sokka, a sister and brother from the Inuit-inspired Southern Water Tribe out hunting for their village. Their mother has died and their father is off fighting the Fire Nation (the main antagonists in the show). They both seem to lead a pretty ho-hum existence, but we are quickly introduced to the concept of Waterbending (mentioned in the open credits, along with Firebending, Earthbending, and Airbending).  Katara is a Waterbender, meaning she can manipulate water to do what she wants it to do, but her skills are underdeveloped (it's not just "magic water," as Sokka dismisses it). We later learn that there is no one in her tribe to teach her how to properly Waterbend and there’s no way she can leave to find someone to instruct her. So, she’s pretty much left to her own devices.

Sokka is - well, Sokka is amazing. He starts out kind of as the comic relief, which you need in a kids’ show, but as the episode progressed, you see that he takes his duty as a warrior seriously. He’s a young kid (I don’t remember if it’s ever said, but I think he’s about 15), but he’s taken on an enormous responsibility to keep his sister and his tribe safe, a sense of responsibility that he tries to pass on to the younger generation (with rather amusing results). I admit, I didn't quite appreciate his unique blend of humor and seriousness at first, kind of thinking he was just a cynical pain in the ass, but over time he quickly became my absolute favorite character (along with another that we’ll meet later this season).

Katara and Sokka bicker as many siblings do, but this particular little tiff results in Katara Waterbending a gigantic iceberg out of the ocean.  They see a person with glowing eyes in the iceberg, which prompts Katara to break the iceberg open (as you do). When the ice breaks, a bright light shoots out into the sky, signaling to everyone around that Something Big is happening. A young boy falls out of the remains of the iceberg, accompanied by Appa, his Sky Bison that looks like it fell out of a Studio Ghibli production (which is NOT a criticism, believe me!).

So, big glowing light, strange boy surviving in an iceberg for x-number of years - you think this is pretty important?  Well, not as important as this boy's first words after being broken out of the ice -

“Will you go penguin sledding with me?”

Everyone, meet Aang. The eponymous last Airbender (and he doesn't tell you he's an Airbender, he sneezes and flies ten feet in the air - that's how you know). Also, the Avatar (though he pretends that he doesn't know what happened to the Avatar, but the show kind of makes it obvious that he's it). A 12-year-old (plus-or-minus a hundred years) kid who just wants to go penguin sledding and asks the first person he sees to go with him. My friends, you just witnessed the creation of one of the best animated characters in recent memory. I mean, it’s no spoiler to say that this boy has the weight of the world on his shoulders - whether or not he knows it at this point (here's a spoiler: he does). But he’s still a lovable, carefree, funny little kid with a great sense of humor and you just can’t help but adore him. Of course you see the gravity of his responsibilities and you realize that he’s often thought about the weight he must carry and that is a huge part of his character - but for now...


(Sorry - I can’t get over it).

Okay - so the Avatar is a pretty big deal (even bigger than that stupid Dances With Smurf-Gully movie that James Cameron plastered all over our faces whenever that was). In this world, the Avatar is the one person that can master all four Elements and must use these powers to restore/keep balance in the world. A hundred years previous to the beginning of this episode, the Avatar had completely disappeared and no one knew where he had gone. Ever since that time, the world has been engulfed in war - even the oldest inhabitants of this world do not remember a time when there was no conflict or fear from invasion. So, discovering an Airbender who may or may not know what happened to the Avatar is pretty damn huge!

Hot on the trail (sorry, bad pun) of the Avatar is the prince of the Fire Nation, Zuko. From the word "go!" you can tell Zuko has piles and piles of backstory.  He's not just some spoiled brat prince who gets to be the teenage antagonist of the show - though he kind of starts out that way.  His main mission (at least for now) is to find the Avatar for the glory of the Fire Nation.  There's more to it than that, but that's the basics of it and all you need to know for these first few episodes. Right behind Zuko is another favorite character, Uncle Iroh.  Iroh and Zuko's first scene together paints a beautiful picture of their relationship - they clearly have an interest in seeing the Fire Nation succeed at ruling the world, but have very different methods of achieving that goal. Zuko yells and barks orders at the world, Iroh wants to serve the world calming jasmine tea (you'll quickly find that Iroh loves his tea). With Iroh, at least, we get a sympathetic character from the Fire Nation and you start to get the idea that not all the Fire Nation people are so bad - though most of them are at this point.

Like many season openers in the Avatar-verse, "The Boy in the Iceberg" is actually the first of a two-part premiere.  After setting up the sweet, curious boy that makes friends with everybody, Aang and Katara go exploring other parts of the Water Tribe land and they find an abandoned Fire Nation ship.  Aang convinces Katara to go with him to explore, though Katara is reticent about it, seeing as it was an attack from the Fire Nation that killed her mother.  Aang hasn't quite got the hang of the idea that the world is at war, since he'd never heard of any war before he left home (quite a feat, seeing as the war has been going on for a hundred years and Aang is only 12).  Katara, using actual logic to solve a question that most live-action shows for grown-ups would take entire half-seasons to dink around with and then give a half-assed answer to (I'm looking at you, Once Upon a Time!), deduces that Aang must have been trapped in the iceberg for over 100 years. Understandably, Aang is shocked by this revelation, though Katara reassures him that they'll figure out what to do.

Except that has to wait.  Because moments later, they accidentally set off an old flare from the Fire Nation ship that, unbeknownst to Our Heroes, Prince Zuko sees in the distance.  Zuko sets a course for the Water Tribe village and we have ourselves a cliffhanger!

This first episode, while keeping things bright and light-hearted, serves as a beautiful introduction to a more complex world that the viewer is about to experience.  There is so much that I want to say about this show, but I'll save it for later reviews when it comes up.  Suffice it to say that I have never been more impressed by a show meant for kids than I have with Avatar.  And I hope that my reviews and analysis in the days and weeks to come will help others understand what is so remarkable about this story. Stay tuned!

Next Time -
Episode 1.02 - In which Stuff Gets Real from here on out (and never, ever stops).


  1. Glad to find this blog. I know nothing of Avatar, however. I think this franchise has taken a beating from the motion picture world: both from the James Cameron film of the same name which sucked all the oxygen out of the Avatar room, and the specifically franchise-related movie that caused a reviewer I read to say "The last one? I sure hope so".

    1. Thanks for your comment! I try to ignore all the peripheral "Avatar" stuff and focus on the TV show because it is so worth my time and attention. Though I do think it's hilarious that they thought there would be another movie after "The Last Airbender." Think again, Shymalan.