I'll always be a big kid, and always appreciate good animation and storytelling. There are definitely cartoons for which I am not the target audience, but in the last few decades I've seen an increase in continuity, in series having story arcs and character development on par with any of the hour long live action dramas I watch in the evening. Gargoyles. Beast Wars. Digimon Tamers. TMNT (2003 series). And of course pretty much every series in the DC animated universe, culminating in Justice League Unlimited. Of course, for every series with tight animation and a rich plot behind which the writers clearly seem to have a plan, there are dozens of “seizure” shows, crude drawings and flashy colors while characters shout gibberish. The only people my age who watch those shows are probably unemployed and smoking a very particular type of homemade cigarette.

A few years back, some coworkers were singing the praises of Avatar: The Last Airbender. I'd occasionally see DVDs in the store and they didn't interest me. The box art, which didn't always represent the actual animation style, seemed juvenile with overly primary color schemes. Most featured some goofy little bald kid with an arrow tattooed on his head, sometimes surrounded by creatures I assumed were Pokémon ripoffs. No doubt, it was just another one of those badly dubbed seizure shows based on a card game or video game or whatever Japanese phenomenon was just making it to our shores. I forgot about it, and went on my merry way.

So a few weeks ago, I saw the teaser trailer for M. Night Shyamalan's The Last Airbender. It looked good. Compared to his last film, from just those short scenes I knew this would be a film in which something was actually happening. So, I went back to check out the source material, to at least see the first episode and understand what it was all about. The world of Avatar is divided into four nations separated by the classic elements of Water, Earth, Fire, and Air(I told you I'd come back to the elements). Within these nations are benders, spiritual artists who, through training, discipline, and some natural ability, can actually control or bend the elements of their nation to their will. This world exists in harmony until the Fire Nation rises up to attack the other nations. The mostly peaceful Water Tribes are vastly weakened and relegated to the polar regions. The Air Nomads are seemingly obliterated. Only the Earth Kingdom manages to remain standing, though behind the walls of its most formidable city its king sits as a figurehead, his advisors keeping him unaware of the war.

In each generation of this world there is an Avatar, an individual with the ability to master all four of the elements. Through a cycle of reincarnation, the Avatar is reborn into a different nation each time. A Firebender was the last great Avatar to fall opposing his nation's devious turn, and an Airbender named Aang was next in line. But the 12-year-old boy had a hard time adapting to the fact that he was no longer like his friends, and he fled his temple when he heard he was to be taken from his favorite monk and given over to someone else for training. Caught in a storm and knocked into the ocean on his flying sky-bison, his instincts take over as he enters the “Avatar State”, in which his eyes and tattoos glow and he taps into the cosmic energy fueling the entire line of Avatars before him. He encases himself and his bison Appa in a sphere of ice, where he remains for 100 years until a brother and sister from the Southern water tribe discover and free him. As the series unfolds, Aang learns of how the world changed in his absence, how his people were exterminated, and realizes he needs to learn the other three elements in order to defeat the Fire Lord and restore balance to the world.

If that seems like a heavy premise and a lot of plot for an animated series, consider the fact that the preceding paragraphs only describe the first few episodes. The series ran for a total of 61 episodes broken into three seasons. Seasons were referred to as “Books”, while each episode was a “Chapter”. And it felt like reading a great fantasy trilogy. Characters were introduced and would return in later episodes, even if their role seemed small initially. Aang is initially pursued by the exiled prince of the Fire Nation, Zuko, whose own father challenged him to combat and burned one side of his face to teach him a lesson. When Zuko learns of the Avatar's existence, he decides that capturing him and bringing him home will restore his honor and get him a seat at his father's right hand. Zuko's hotheaded nature is balanced by his kindly uncle Iroh, a chubby old man who enjoys tea and games and serves as both comic relief and Zuko's moral compass. As the series unfolds, we learn that Iroh was once the greatest general in his nation, and find out just what tragedy in his past shaped his present state. Everything is initially black and white, with good guys and bad guys, but shades of gray are soon introduced. These are people, with complex emotions and motivations, and both the heroes and the villains are given opportunities to question themselves. Heroes don't always make the right choices. Villains don't always make the wrong ones. And it is EPIC.

I hate to give too much away, but it was a very addictive series that got better and better. Aside from moral and spiritual growth, there were style changes too. Characters changed hairstyles and outfits and didn't follow one set model. Items lost and items found were kept track of, as were little details that were noticed and appreciated. One character suffers an injury at the end of one season, and by the end of the next one you see he's still healing and still bears a mark. It's a show that must have had a clear outline, with a solid beginning, middle and end. And for all the drama and tragedy, there's a good blend of humor. Aang is still a kid. His friends have their own comedic turns. And before the series ends, there's one particularly great and clever recap which offers meta-commentary about some of the plot twists on the show, from the great to the ambiguous.

So what does this mean for the film version? I think the visuals and the effects in the teaser echo the show. There's some controversy over the casting, for though Avatar is set in a fictional world, its inhabitants bear resemblance to Asians, Inuits, and Indians. The mostly-Caucasian cast seems to have angered many people who feel it was intentional. I can't really comment on this until I see a real trailer, and see whether the actors capture the spirit of their animated counterparts and deserve the roles. Hollywood has ignored race in source material in the past, such as when Michael Clarke Duncan portrayed Kingpin in Daredevil. I think my real concern is that the series set the bar so high, that no adaptation can possibly live up to it. This thing has Harry Potter or even Lord of the Rings potential, but I don't think we'll get that. I hope I'm wrong. I do think at the very least it will be the best thing this director has done in a while, and I hope I'm right about that. The film will adapt the first season, which covers Aang's awakening and his journey to find a Waterbending master. If successful, the film will spawn a trilogy with adaptations of the Earth and Fire seasons as well. With most of 2009's most anticipated films now behind us, this is a good start for things to look forward to in 2010....


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