Avatar: The Last Airbender

All three seasons on DVD and streaming on Netflix.

Avatar: The Last Airbender is definitely a children’s show. Unlike the Pixar movies or some of Hayao Miyazaki’s films, which seem to have an adult sensibility and adult rhythms underlying the animation, Avatar follows the familiar contours of kids’ programming: a single strongly expressed theme in each episode; straightforward plotting; goofy, broad humor. And yet, as the show progresses, complexities reveal themselves beneath the simplicities. The morals of the story, though transparently conveyed, are more challenging, sometimes more unsettling, than typical kids’ fare. It took most of the first season for me to settle into the guileless storytelling, even longer for the boisterous child hero Aang to endear himself to me, but the vivid Japanese-style animation held my attention in the meantime. Eventually, I could see why so many people love this show so deeply—and why M. Night Shyamalan’s widely reviled live-action adaptation of the first season is such a travesty.

The creators of Avatar: The Last Airbender pulled widely from Asian mythologies to create a textured alternate universe, both Earth-like and otherworldly. In this world, human civilization is divided into four peoples: the Water Tribes, Earth Kingdom, Air Nomads, and Fire Nation, each with a deep connection to its element. Particularly gifted individuals have “Bending” powers, the ability to manipulate their element in a sort of martial art. One special person, the Avatar, has the power to master all four elements and help keep peace among the peoples.

As Avatar opens, war has been raging worldwide for a century due to the unchecked aggression of Fire Nation. The Avatar is presumed lost until two adolescents of the Southern Water Tribe, siblings Katara and Sokka, stumble across a young Airbender held in suspended animation in a block of ice. They free the boy, who introduces himself as Aang and reluctantly admits that he is the Avatar, though he is untrained, having mastered only his native element. Katara decides that they must find masters of the other elements to teach Aang, so the three set off on their quest, pursued by Zuko, a disgraced Fire Nation prince determined to restore his honor by capturing the Avatar.

The overarching quest gives shape to the three seasons, but most of the episodes are relatively self-contained. Aang prefers not to travel incognito—he believes helping and inspiring those hurt by the war is part of his destiny as the Avatar—so there are many small stories about his encounters with different villages and travelers. The show also spends time with Zuko, who becomes increasingly sympathetic over the course of the show (though, amusingly, he never quite shakes his dour demeanor), and Aang, Katara, and Sokka pick up a variety of allies and antagonists along their way, my favorite being Toph, a blunt, cheeky Earthbending phenom. By the finale, some dozen or so recurring characters are involved in the showdown between the evil Fire Lord and Aang, and crucially, it doesn’t simply come down to Firebenders versus everyone else.

Most of the characters, on both sides of the good-evil divide, are children and teens who talk and behave like children and teens, not miniature adults—which means, frankly, that they can be immature and bratty and tiresome. That can be annoying, obviously, but I think it’s ultimately to the show’s credit. Avatar reflects its primary audience, and the true-to-life limitations of the characters help ground the fantastical story. Besides, over time, even the most immature little quirks become charming as the characters grow on you.

Even more endearing, though, is the vibrant, diverse world Airbender paints. Each culture is distinct—from the fashions to the architecture to the social structures to the nuances of speech and even to the Bending styles, each of which has its own physical vocabulary. I had read that the show’s creators used different martial arts as models for the different Bending techniques (tai chi for Waterbending, Northern Shaolin kung fu for Firebending, et cetera) but had dismissed the fact as a geeky bit of trivia, irrelevant when you’re simply watching the show. I was wrong. Even if you don’t know why, Katara’s Waterbending looks very different from Zuko’s Firebending, and that helps convey something about the characters and how they approach conflict.

It also gives the action scenes in Avatar more flavor than your run-of-the-mill anime action, especially as the series progresses and deepens. The best such sequences are genuinely thrilling because the action is so intimately connected to the characters. You can see the strategy in their movements, the strengths and vulnerabilities. Too often, animated action feels low-stakes because it seems to have no boundaries (you run into the same problems with lackluster CGI), but for the most part, Avatar’s action is rule-bound in the best sense. The Bending gives structure and, by extension, drama to the battles.

The surprising nuance of the episode themes is probably what makes Avatar special (the show won a Peabody for “unusually complex characters and a healthy respect for the consequences of warfare,” which is well put), but the beautifully directed animation is key, too. The show’s fantastical subject matter is perfectly suited for the medium—so much so that I can’t understand why anyone thought a live-action adaptation was a good idea in the first place. What irks me most is the implication that animation is somehow “less than,” that live action is required to elevate the story and make it truly epic. The wrong-headedness of that should be obvious by now. (Plus, the CGI necessary to make Avatar “live action” is itself basically a different type of animation—a nasty little piece of irony.) Avatar: The Last Airbender isn’t a great kids’ show despite the fact it’s animated; it’s great in part because it’s animated, with finesse and imagination and heart.