Nickelodeon Review: Avatar: The Last Airbender

This feels nice. In case you’re new here, I started this blog almost two years ago because I was watching a vast quantity of movies and streaming series and felt like I needed an additional avenue to share my thoughts and discuss with others. Then writing quickly became something I just wanted to do, so not having it these past 7 months…well, I’m simply delighted to be back. Although I haven’t really felt the need to write given very little happening in theatres and conversely a lot happening in my life outside of this blog, with news of our local AMC re-opening I felt like the time was right to start back up. And then it promptly shut down once more, like everything else right now. No matter, because many new shows have aired and many more with continuing seasons have dropped on streaming networks since the pandemic first shut down many theatres, and I have been able to knock out a few (yes, I hope to have more reviews coming soon!). However, none of them gave me the desire to get back here like Avatar: The Last Airbender (and yes, I’m giving credit to Nickelodeon even though it has been picked up for streaming purposes by Netflix). I finished the series about a month ago now and have been dying to write about it, and for those of you who have seen the show I would assume you know many of the reasons why. We all have shows or films on our “Hollywood Bucket List” that we can never seem to get around to, and for many years this has been near the top of mine. I’m going to give a brief spoiler-free overview of the show for those of you who have never seen it (including a few reasons why YOU SHOULD WATCH IT), and then I will dive into all the spoilers to knead my loaf of Avatar love, baked fresh for you to enjoy.
Avatar: The Last Airbender aired on Nickelodeon in 2005 during an era when most cartoons were designed to be very episodic with very little story arc: something easy for a kid to turn on as a lighthearted distraction while parents prepared supper or picked up an extra hour of sleep (Saturday morning cartoons were the best!). Avatar stepped in to challenge this era in a big way, but it did take most of the first season for me to really begin to buy into what the creators DiMartino and Konietzko were developing. The show opens with a narrative telling us that their world is in disarray and only the Avatar is believed to have the power to put things right. And right there, they have set the stage for a plot that will carry through to the end.
Pretty quickly, you learn that the Avatar is the only one who can master all four elements of Water, Earth, Fire, and Air, and that when they die their spirit is reborn into another, tasked with keeping harmony between the nations. But after the Fire Nation attacked, the Avatar was defeated and the new Avatar seemingly vanished. 100 years later, water tribe siblings Sokka and Katara find Aang floating in an iceberg with his companion Appa, a flying bison, and soon discover that he is the lost Avatar. Together, and with the help of friends they meet along their journey, they must help Aang master the four elements so that he can defeat the Fire Lord and restore balance.
I love the simplicity of the story line because it appeals to both kids and adults, and it sets up a future final confrontation right away, which gave me something to already look forward to. But the show then chooses to begin by focusing on character development, doing so for pretty much the entire first season. And during that time, in addition to giving emotional and spiritual depth to the protagonists as they struggle to help Aang master waterbending, two of the most well-rounded characters I have ever seen on screen are introduced: Zuko and Iroh. The Fire Lord is the big bad wolf, but Prince Zuko is the primary antagonist of the show. And his uncle Iroh…well, that one you will have to watch to appreciate. The dichotomy and relationship between the good and bad characters is one of, if not the most fascinating element of Avatar, and it seriously rivals that of more recent popular television characters such as Walt and Jesse (Breaking Bad) or the Starks and the Lannisters (Game of Thrones). Simply put, Avatar reminds audiences that good and bad are very loose titles to give a well-written character.
Okay, so I want to get into some spoilers here as I discuss more of what I really enjoyed in Avatar. If you haven’t seen the show, please hold off from continuing reading and just go binge it on Netflix this weekend. Then come back and agree with everything I say and enjoy life. For the rest of us, let’s go…

**SPOILERS**
Before diving into hardcore deets about the characters and plot, I would like to point out some acting facts that I found interesting to learn while looking up Avatar info for this post. Maybe you already knew all of these, and if you did nobody cares because they’re still cool.
1) Katara’s voice actress Mae Whitman (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Parenthood) has had the most Hollywood fame since the show ended, but Azula’s voice actress Grey Griffin boasts a whopping 602 IMDB acting credits to her name, thanks to many voice acting roles like the evil babysitter Vicky in The Fairly OddParents, Emily Elizabeth in Clifford the Big Red Dog, and the titular character Wubbzy from Wow! Wow! Wubbzy!.
2) Prince Zuko’s voice actor Dante Basco took on his second biggest role since 1991’s Hook, in which he played Rufio, the leader of the lost boys (poor Rufio…).
3) Sokka’s voice actor Jack De Sena was just coming off of his regular comedic performances in Nickelodeon’s hit kids show All That, and I believe that the sometimes overly-goofy nature and animation of Avatar would have been much more off-putting to watch had it not been for the consistent humor he gave his character.
4) Although the face of Fire Lord Ozai isn’t first seen until season three, he is first heard in season one, and portrayed throughout by the remarkable voice actor Mark Hamill (Star Wars, of course).

Now then, what did I love most about Avatar? Uncle Iroh of course. HOW COULD YOU NOT?!? Oh, my heart just broke watching the episode “Zuko Alone” and it was only 24 minutes of a kids show! The development of not only Iroh and his past, but also his relationship with Zuko has to be one of television’s greatest accomplishments. And there is reason for arguing that Iroh is the linchpin of the show, especially as it’s philosophy can be directly traced to not only Iroh’s own, but even more his words of wisdom to Aang in season two: “Protection and power are overrated. I think you are wise to choose happiness and love.” Iroh embodied the heart of Avatar and his kindness toward everyone, in spite of his fiery past, speaks louder than any other character or theme in the show.
Iroh’s relationship with Zuko was another heavy hitter for me because for so long both characters saw their mentor-mentee relationship in a different light. Early on, Zuko was fighting for his right to regain honor and eventually take over as Fire Lord, and he basically put up with his uncle tagging along. He saw Iroh as a crazy old man who gave up his honor to choose a life of drinking tea, trading power for a much simpler life. Zuko wanted no part of Iroh’s wisdom, yet as he learned to realize his own faults, he in turn realized that Iroh was not mentoring him to return home and become the next Fire Lord, but to be a better person with a life Iroh himself regrets not learning to live much earlier. Iroh always wanted better for Zuko, and he kept with him if for nothing else than to be his anchor to acknowledge opportunities for choosing love and kindness in the little moments until Zuko eventually figured out the better life for himself.
On a lighter note (I’m not wiping away tears, you are…), I loved how goofy this show was. For all the serious moments and philosophical teachings, it also brought a lot of laugh-out-loud moments. As an adult, watching the show for the first time I was still finding a lot of the goofy humor approachable. The animation of bulging eyes or being crushed with a rock fit in right alongside everything else because as a whole, the show was created for kids. The creators and actors knew when and how to convey the complex themes, and beyond that they were totally fine with being weird and funny. I would say that the show seemed to become more resolute in the final season as Aang approached his showdown with the Fire Lord, but with established characters like Sokka and Toph hanging around, there were still plenty of one-liners and slapstick moments.
After most characters are introduced and developed, the series continues with the main plot in seasons two and three, titled Earth and Fire respectively. As I said earlier, it took some time for me to be fully on board and committed to seeing the show through (as if I hadn’t heard enough praise for it over the years, what was I thinking?). But what the first season did right was fully establish the main characters. And then even better, the next two seasons went back to bring along several secondary characters into the remainder of the series, some in big ways. When a show or film is more focused on its characters than in telling a story, the story usually comes along just fine. Even after Toph and Azula are introduced in season two, both of their characters are dove into right away so that you feel all caught up as if they had been there all along.
Finally, I appreciate that the show isn’t perfect (Whaaaaaa…?). For several reasons, foremost because it took so long for me to sit down and watch it! But also it says a lot about a show for it to be so highly regarded yet also have some glaring flaws. Avatar doesn’t really touch on the collective conscience of non-benders. I have since started watching The Legend of Korra, which picks up on this idea much more. I was always wondering how people (other than Sokka) viewed everything happening around them as benders fought each other and waged wars. The focus is almost solely on individuals with powers and what they could do for others. Avatar also left us hanging. I know, that’s unfair because there was more planned that was ultimately scrapped for a live-action disaster (thanks Shyamalan). And what’s worse is that the creators were hired by Netflix to create a new live-action series and it just recently fell through because of “creative differences” (thanks Netflix). Where several characters end up in season three is not an ending they deserved. I wanted to see where Azula’s arc carried her, and I wanted to know what happens during a time of peace in their world. Are there other duties that the Avatar has when the four nations aren’t at war? Last but not least, Avatar was bad at romance. For everything the writing team got right, it did hopeless romantics no favors. Aang’s schoolboy crush on Katara (even though she’s about his age) got really weird to watch in season three, and I appreciate that he calls it out. They could have just showed interest and then not end up together; staying friends would have been fine with me. Plus, she was more of a mentor and a mother to Aang than she was a potential lover.
As you can tell, this show has easily become one of my all time favorites. I really, really enjoyed the story and the depth of every major character. And during a time when so many new television and streaming shows are sad and depressing, Avatar is a nice change of pace. Plus, and I forgot to mention this earlier, it is soooooo cool that the different forms of bending were based in actual martial arts! The way each bender moved was a unique art style, which must have taken the animation team a long time to flush out on screen. Okay, if you’ve read everything up until this you must have either already watched the show or returned to finish reading my thoughts after binging it for yourself, so let me know what you love (or don’t) about Avatar: The Last Airbender! Who is your favorite character, and why do you also pick Iroh? Thanks for reading and I hope to be back soon with some more recent film and streaming reviews, cheers!

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