The Moment Avatar: The Last Airbender Proved It’s More Than a Kids’ ShowBy brian longtin • Jul 22nd, 2010 • Category: watching • Popularity: 35%
Like the best shows for kids or adults, Avatar assumes we have the patience to get involved with its characters as human beings, not just action figures.
Two thirds of the way through season one of Avatar: The Last Airbender, in an episode titled “The Blue Spirit”, a single moment cemented the decision: “I’m sticking with this series ’til the end.”
Avatar had sufficiently charmed me leading up to this point — at least enough to find myself thirteen episodes deep into an anime-inspired Nickelodeon series — mainly by subverting my expectations. Here we have a show about teen heroes with the ability to control the elements, who inevitably have to use those powers to save the day. Shades of Captain Planet come to mind, a comparison which no show would ask for. But instead of campy feel-good environmentalism, Avatar employs these elements artfully, mixing a mysticism inspired by Eastern spirituality with the fluid fight choreography of Asian wire-fu cinema. The resulting dynamic allows for gripping action sequences, while telling meaningful stories in a fantasy world that stays grounded in its own logic. (As we discussed on our recent podcast, it would make a hell of a movie, if handled properly by the right people.)
Other potential kids’ show pitfalls are deftly sidestepped as well. The obligatory “And the moral of the story is…” moments are occasionally present, but tied in to the characters’ ongoing development in a way that feels earned rather than forced. Slapstick gags with Hanna Barbera sound effects are routinely employed, but for more than just cheap laughs, often bringing a character back down to earth when they become too serious or self-centered.
However, “a tolerable level of shtick” is not a very strong recommendation. Nor does being less shrill and shallow than other kid-safe cartoons make Avatar worth watching. Hence the revelatory moment in “The Blue Spirit” — the moment during which I fully realized that all the things the show does very right outweigh the litany of things it merely avoids doing wrong.
The scene in question comes after a mysterious stranger rescues Aang, the titular Last Airbender, from captivity in an evil Firebender fortress (’bending’ being this world’s term for controlling earth, air, fire, or water). During their escape, circumstances force them to work together (teamwork, kids!), and in a climactic plot twist, the stranger’s identity is revealed as Aang pulls him to safety.
What follows is not an intense showdown. There is no screaming argument, or a giant gasp of a cliffhanger. Instead, the two share a quiet character-building moment, and Aang flees. But after this small scene of surprising maturity, we won’t look at either character in the same way for the duration of the series.
It’s moments like this that put A:TLAB among the best programming for kids or adults. Even if it is simplified for a younger crowd, it treats its audience like they have brains. It’s willing to have a quiet moment when the expectation is a bombastic conflict, and assumes we have the patience to get involved with the characters as human beings, not just action figures. The kung-fu sequences, though impressive, are woven into the dramatic arc of the characters, as opposed to the typical kids’ formula — flimsy plots that only serve to move characters from one fight to another. Like any good serial, it plays to the strengths of the TV format; any single episode plays like a tightly scripted short film, but also works as part of a larger arc in which characters grow and learn and change.
Aang himself is a surprisingly relatable protagonist. He may be a tween with glowing arrow tattoos and supernatural gymnastic skills, but in a way, he’s also a hero perfectly fit for the millennial generation: thrust into a world of adult responsibilities at a too-young age, pressured to learn how that world works as quickly as possible, and expected to solve the problems of the generation before him — problems he had no hand in creating. All this while trying to hold on to his inherent optimism, or sneak in some goofing around wherever he can (perhaps appropriately, he displays the occasional A.D.D. symptom typical of this generation as well). He gives the show its childlike innocence, but also allows us to follow a prototypical coming of age story dressed up in epic tribal conflict.
Though it took one skillfully handled moment to fully crystallize my appreciation for the show, a full season has me convinced there’s no shame in loving Avatar. It stands up to favorites like my personal benchmark, Batman: The Animated Series, for great storytelling in short form animation. It’s made by a team that obviously loves its characters and wants us to share that affection, to the point where seeing Aang blush when a girl is nice to him evokes grins, not groans. It even tops some of its anime peers like Bleach, another teens-saving-the-world epic I watched compulsively, but whose manga style feels more like an action soap opera than an enriching narrative. I may be only one season in, but it doesn’t take long to see that Avatar: The Last Airbender will go down as one of the greats.