I historically would never bother with a non-Japanese animated series. Why mess with an “imitation” of anime when there’s plenty of the real thing? My previous, vague idea of Avatar: The Last Airbender was of just such a quaint, kiddy imitation with English voice actors that could never shape up to the style and depth of the best anime has to offer.
I have come to see these as horrible, ignorant opinions that have thankfully been reversed. A:TLA’s central theme is learning to move forward from past mistakes, and disliking the show sight unseen was definitely one such mistake. Having just completed the 61-episode series on Netflix, I can say without reservation that A:TLA is one of the finest pieces of televised entertainment I’ve ever had the privilege to watch. Talk about a reversal!
Does that mean the show is flawless? Not quite. Without getting into the nitty-gritty, any nitpicks I had with the show are vastly overshadowed by the sheer greatness exhibited by A:TLA in every aspect of what makes a great show: Characters, Story, Setting. All of the fundamentals are not only sound, but staggeringly adept.
Team Avatar, AKA the Aang Gang, is a group of friends, nay, a family for the ages. There’s Aang the Avatar with the weight of the world and past iterations of himself on his slight shoulders. The warm and passionate Katara. Her brother Sokka, with the plans and the jokes. Toph, one of the most stone bad-ass characters ever to grace the screen.
Then there’s Zuko, owner of one of the most dramatic, compelling character arcs of the show (or any show). His delightful, insightful Uncle Iroh. Appa and Momo. Sokka’s awesome Kyoshi Warrior friend Suki. Zuko’s twisted sister Azula and dowright evil dad Ozai. Mai and Ty Lee. The Cabbage Guy. The Boulder. Bumi. There are so goddamn many great characters, and how they grow, mature, learn from and interact with each other is never not compelling.
As I got into A:TLA, it became clear the creators borrowed a lot from the visual language of anime, from the blushing and head veins to the beautiful collection of various characters’ twisted reaction faces. But those are mainly surface resemblances. The creators didn’t just borrow the style, they expanded and in some cases, improved upon it, making something new and unique and excellent.
While this is ostensibly a “kids show” (rated TV-Y7), many of the ideas went far beyond the Saturday morning cartoons of my youth. Themes like pacifism, fascism, genocide and ethnic cleansing, and moral ambiguity were all explored in the stories and characters. It was a show that respected the intelligence of its audience and almost never sugarcoated or delivered easy answers. One of the most compelling was Aang’s eventual realization that because he was the Avatar, he’d never reach the spiritual nirvana to which every non-Avatar air nomad aspired. And, oh yeah, he was the last frikkin’ airbender!
For all of the emotional heart of the characters and their shifting philosophies and dynamics, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the astonishing action of A:TLA, with characters of different nations consistently demonstrating distinct styles of martial arts, all of it masterfully executed by the animation teams. The creativity with which fire, water, earth and air are used by the various benders cannot be overstated.
Many people have written many more and better words about this show, and I seem to be simply gushing about it right now, but suffice it to say, I am a full-blown convert: Avatar: The Last Airbender is legit great TV that transcends imitation anime at every turn. I can’t wait to dive into its spin-off series The Legend of Korra (currently streaming on CBS All-Access in the U.S.)…and to (probably)hate-watch the much-derided TLA live-action film!