There’s a stigma that children’s television (basically anything animated), is all filler, no substance. Avatar helped buck this trend by providing a show that not only went deep but was enjoyable as well.
You could watch Avatar as a six-year-old and enjoy it for what you see. Or you could be a parent watching with kids and resonate with the complex themes and issues faced.
I truly think Avatar shows us that animated television can compete with traditional series. It’s meaningful, it’s charming, and it’s insanely creative. I wholeheartedly believe it can be enjoyed by anyone and everyone.
In my humble opinion, Avatar is the greatest god damn television show of all time. And that is a hill I’m willing to die on. My kids will be forced to watch it growing up. There’s so much to take away from it. From characters and their development to internal and external conflicts, and then the overall worldbuilding. It all just works. “Uhhh but it’s a children’s show”. So fucking what. Why can’t a kids show have deep characters, intense plotlines and quality comedy?
So let’s explain what makes an animated show good, then delve into the details of what makes avatar so good.
What Makes An Animated Show Good?
I’m in agreeance here with Rebecca Glen in her article “5 Key Elements of a great cartoon”.
Which I’ll try to explain the 5 key points of good animation here in my own words.
- Design: The art style. Animation which showcases unique or distinctive art styles could be Ping Pong the Animation, Samurai Jack and of course South Park. Avatar’s design style is heavily based off Japanese Anime, with some Western elements to it as well. What makes a well-designed show? Well, it has to be aesthetically pleasing to look at. If you don’t like the look of the show, why continue watching it? I personally love Avatar’s style. Familiar yet new. Same same but different.
- Animation: Basically how they move. Are fast-moving fight scenes fluid and understandable? Are the slower scenes similarly matched with slower-paced animation? It’s a look at how smooth it is. See my Azula gif further down for how fluid I think it is. Avatar never felt like a mish-mash of limbs flying around. You would always know what’s going on and who’s fighting who.
- Story: What’s the overarching theme? For example, The Simpsons, at its core it’s about a suburban middle-class American family. You have to buy into that overall theme to become connected to it. As Glen put it you have to have a story that is “logical, entertaining, and engaging enough for a viewer to follow in a cohesive manner.”. I think The Last Airbender honestly knocks those the criteria out of the park.
- Writing: different from story obviously. but where story refers to the overarching theme, writing more involves how the theme unfolds. Does the story flow? What happens specifically to contribute to the overall story? Again Avatar has an extreme focus on the details and the writing helps beef up the story.
- Characters: I’d argue the anchor of a show that can make it or break it. If a character is engaging, likeable and you like them, well you’ll watch them. On the contrary, if you create characters that are boring and annoying, viewers won’t stick around long. The characters on Avatar are literally second to none. They’re so damn lovable. And the ones who aren’t? Dear god at least they’re compelling and interesting. Each character has so much depth and interest they don’t feel two dimensional (pun not really intended).
The Basic Premise of the Show (Skip if familiar)
So for those who haven’t seen it before, Avatar: The Last Airbender takes place in a world where bending is possible. So the manipulation of earth’s elements, earth, water, fire and air is possible. Correspondingly there are four separate nations based on each element.
And the Avatar is? Well, he controls all four. He learns and masters all the elements and helps maintain balance and peace within the four nations. There’s only one avatar within their world, but when they die, they’ll reincarnate into the next nation in line after the previous avatars background. Eg after an Avatar from the fire nation, the next one will be from the Air Nomads. Then a water tribe avatar etc.
The story follows the current Avatar, Aang, and his story to bring balance to the world. He’s technically 112 years old but biologically 12 after being frozen for 100 years before being discovered by Katara and her brother Sokka. He’s a reluctant hero. Just wanting to experience life as a kid and enjoy the company of friends.
Avatar: The Stats
- 61 episodes across 3 Books (Seasons)
- 6th Highest Rated TV series (with at least 100,000 votes) on IMDb
- 100% on RT and 99% audience score.
- Won 5 Annie Awards
- 1 Emmy Award (Outstanding Individual Achievement in Animation to Sang-Jin Kim for the episode “Lake Laogai”)
- Unfortunately, there was never an Avatar: The Last Airbender Movie
The Fantasy Worldbuilding
It’s a well built and immersive world. Yet also kind of believable? I feel like every man and his dog has at least tried to be a water bender in a pool or in the shower before. How cool would it be just to be able to control some wind, or move the earth below you, or shoot fire out your fists? Avatar is the perfect example of that.
Their world building is extremely in-depth and nuanced, yet also extremely understandable in its simplest form.
Explain it to a child? There are four types of powers that a person can have, and there’s one person who controls all four to defeat the bad guys.
Explained to an adult? Four nations each have their own unique and identifiable culture, corresponding with their powers. The Avatar is able to learn all four powers but must grapple with the ideas of righteousness, fairness and keeping a balance and harmony among nations.
I hope I didn’t sound too much like /r/Im14andthisisdeep there.
The Fight Scenes are Second to None
With each element based on a martial art, you know there’s going to be some great beat downs. The fights and elements are so fluid. If the story sucked or you couldn’t understand English, it’s probably still watchable. Add on to this that each element’s style is based on real-life martial art!
Bending styles and their real-life counterparts explained below:
Earthbending is based on Hung Gar Kuen. Which is a style full of strong, stable and powerful moves to go with deep, long stances.
Waterbending draws its inspiration from the smooth, soft movements of Tai Chi. You might have seen old people in a park or a public space doing it before!
Firebending is based on Northern Shaolin Kung Fu. Firebending (and its source material) is known for its energetic, acrobatic, with a style renowned for its power and high kicks.
Airbending moves use the example of Baguazhang. Which heavily utilises lots of circular walking with smooth coiling and uncoiling actions, hand techniques, and dynamic footwork.
Even the non-benders of their nations fight based on these styles! Take the fight between Suki and Ty Lee during The Boiling Rock episode. Suki from the earth kingdom moves rigidly while holding her stances. Ty Lee, however, is much more fluid and agile, being light on her feet and always on the attack.
What other shows go into this much detail and reference? Not a whole lot.
Nicely timed but not overdone jokes
If I had to put Avatar in a box, I’d call it a drama. But it’s comedy aspects are top-notch. There are some recurring jokes throughout the series eg the cabbage merchant. But they never feel excessive or overplayed. Each time at a random encounter.
Also, the comedic relief isn’t just comedic relief. When making a joke it’s not always about the joke. The comedy plays a key role in advancing the story forward. Summed up perfectly by Toph: “I guess if it’s important I’ll find out”. It’s funny but also lets the viewer know of important points in the story.
One Story Many Different Ways
At the surface level, you may see Avatar just as Aang finding himself and becoming the Avatar. But I’d argue the story is just as much about Zuko and his growth.
Avatar shows how two people handle their destiny in completely different ways.
In the beginning, Zuko believes trying to capture the Avatar is the key to finding his own destiny. Aang initially abandons his destiny but finds the strength to reach it. Zuko initially is obsessed with it, but then finds the strength to forge his own path. In essence, they’re both trying to find the Avatar. They initially start completely opposite to each other but eventually converge for lack of a better word.
There’s another example of opposites, yet this time they stay opposite and roles reverse. The story between Zuko and his sister Azula.
Starting the series, they’re Ying and Yang. Azula the “good” with a bit of darkness in her and Zuko the “Bad” with a bit of light inside. Azula starts the golden child, capable, confident and in charge. Zuko literally got banished and burnt on his face by his father. By the end of the series, Azula has undergone a long descent into madness and despair. Losing all sense of self and becoming unhinges. Zuko, on the other hand, goes on a slow rise. Gaining confidence and a greater understanding of himself. It’s so crazy to see both siblings both do complete 180’s and end up like each other (in a way) by the end of the series.
Every character their own desires and purpose and this really shows through. There are not too many filler characters and everyone has their own complex background.
As the Characters Grow, the Show Grows
No one is born perfect. In fact, it should go without saying that no one is perfect at all. Except for stupid sexy Flanders. But Avatar is explicit in showing that all characters have their own flaws and problems. Even the avatar, the person known for having their shit together.
You meet Aang, Katara and Sokka during episode one and they couldn’t be more different to who they finish as. But without losing their cole elements of who they are! Aang is just looking to enjoy life and play around with friends, trying to avoid his responsibility of being the avatar. Katara burdened with responsibility which conflicts with her dream of becoming a master waterbender and helping the Avatar restore balance to the world. Also, Katara still holds the grudge about the firebenders who were responsible for her mother’s death which she was powerless to stop. And Sokka the goofball, who probably was 90% comedic relief at the start. Toph is a super tough earthbender with seemingly no flaws. And there’s the problem. She’s emotionally closed off and struggles to open up. And she can come across as quite gruff, much to the ire of the Boomeraang Squad. But all she wants is to be accepted and be surrounded by loving family.
But contrast this to how they finish. Aang embraces his responsibility and power, without losing his charm and enjoyment for life. Katara (although still a strong motherly figure) is able to only to finally learn waterbending but become a master in the process. Further to that, she finally faces her mother’s murderer and is able to come to terms with it and move on, showing important character growth. Sokka grows in confidence and knowledge to become an established leader. And tough nut Toph opens up and finds her family of friends. 🙂
Name me a better redemption arc than Zuko’s. Seriously. Because I want to watch it. Zuko shared (yet also had a lot more) problems with a common teenager in today’s world. He had an intense want to be accepted by those he admires. Not too dissimilar to kids growing up today. Over the course of the series, he had to grow as he discovered who he truly was as a person. And it wasn’t smooth sailing. Growth is not a steady climb. It has peaks and troughs and is bloody messy. Zuko exemplified this to a tee. You think he’s finally about to make his turn to better choices, yet falls back into bad habits. But he kept making progress little by little, before making that big leap changing definitively who he was. And even that wasn’t smooth sailing! He lost his firebending due to his change of identity and joining the group wasn’t an easy process either. Showing that sometimes you just and to keep on pushing.
Even Uncle Iroh himself is a redemption story. When he was young he had a vision that he would be the one to conquer the city of Ba Sing Se. Had he not lost his son Lu Ten in the siege, he might have done it. Only does Iroh realise though at the end of The Hundred-Year, that his destiny was to take back Ba Sing Se.
Avatar shows that everyone is redeemable, no matter how far seemingly gone. Giving kids and viewers an important message that it’s never too late to change and that you’re in control of your own destiny and choices. You might not be able to choose your situation, but you can choose your choices.
Uncle Iroh has probably given me more guidance than nearly any other source throughout life. Dude was a walking quote machine.
I’m going to list my favourite quotes from him with a small explanation.
You get the benefits of positive thoughts and framing:
“If you look for the light, you can often find it. But if you look for the dark that is all you will ever see.”
Not following the crowd and finding yourself:
“There is nothing wrong with a life of peace and prosperity. I suggest you think about what it is you want from your life, and why.”
You get experience in moving forward and getting on with it:
“Sometimes life is like this tunnel. You can’t always see the light at the end of the tunnel, but if you keep moving, you will come to a better place.”
And even about life in general!
“Life happens wherever you are, whether you make it or not.”
Iroh makes a great point in the last one. You may not like or enjoy your current situation. Life certainly isn’t perfect. But it is what it is. So why not make the most of it? When life gives you lemons…
Delving into it deeper, he just wanted the best of those around him. A simple man with simple values. I think we can all learn a little from Uncle Iroh. A character who has been through so much pain, yet still powers on and is a source of positivity to those around him.
Dark Topic Matters
The main characters may all be under 20, but it doesn’t mean the show can’t handle dark topics.
Throughout the series, it touches in topics such as self-doubt, abuse, spirituality, death, and then straight up genocide. Yet it manages to do this without straight-up terrifying children and keeping the overall show fun and engaging. It’s a fickle balancing act. In line with the comedic timing, Avatar knows when to get serious. And it gets serious. Take the episode ‘Tales of Ba Sing Se’ for example. It balances some good humour in Sokka’s section and for a part of Momo’s. But then it gets super serious later in Momo’s, and then in Uncle Iroh’s. Uncle Iroh’s section in particular. It starts off super wholesome with some classic wisdom, before transitioning into Iroh dealing with the birthday and location of his son’s death.
Friendship and Support
Avatar’s characters growth is often supported by those closest around them. You can only develop and improve so much alone. “Faster alone, further together”.
Sokka was so unsure about his qualities as a leader before the day of black sun. But his support from Hakoda and Katara helped build him up and reassure him. Next time his chance came round, his confidence was bulletproof and was sure of his qualities.
“While it is always best to believe in oneself, a little help from others can be a great blessing.” – Uncle Iroh
Overall Avatar was very clear and concise both in concept and in delivery. The show never dragged on. Out of the 61 episodes, I’d only count one as a filler episode.
Konietzko and DiMartino have done an incredible job with the worldbuilding and building an engaging story alongside it. Yet still packing in deep and complicated subject matters not normally associated with animated shows.
Avatar will be the show most associated and remembered from my childhood.
It’s just that good.