(So I know I promised a post this week about the state of film criticism this week, but it is turning out to be a much more in-depth and longer post than I was expecting. Basically, it’s not finished yet and when it is, I imagine it will need to be seriously reviewed and revised. Hopefully, I’ll be able to make this happen within the next week. Until then, I thought it would be interesting to do a retrospective post on something I’ve seen before and recently revisited. Enjoy!)
A little over two years ago, before I blogged on WordPress, I watched the show Avatar: The Last Airbender for the first time and reviewed it as part of the Summer Film Challenge that year. While I ultimately gave it very high praise by the time the final season came around, I wasn’t as ecstatic about it as many other people have been, and certainly not as ecstatic as my friend Tyler who was the one who recommended it to me. Anyway, fast forward two years to this past summer where I took the opportunity to re-watch the entire series. Through this revisit, I gained a completely new appreciation for the series as a whole, from the writing to the animation to the voice acting. So I’ve decided to look at the reviews I wrote for each season and look at how my tastes have changed in the two years since I last saw the show. So without further ado, here is my original post from 2011:
Dated: 26 May 2011
I loved the story and the richness that is infused into it by the mythology that the writers have developed. The cultures and mythology are so well developed that the world of the story feels real, like it’s part of a lost history. It’s Lord of the Rings but to a lesser extent. The development of the characters is also quite good. I really liked how they develop Aang’s character by slowly pulling away the layers of his past and revealing to the audience why he does what he does. Katara is very much the same way and I actually think she is one of the stronger characters because she is the one who grows the most over the season, going from a simple village girl with spirit to a brave young woman who’s a force to be reckoned with. However, my favorite character would have to be the principal villain, Prince Zuko. He is, by far, the most complex character in the show because he’s a villain (so he’s inherently evil) but he’s also sympathetic. The viewer understands why he’s taking the course of action he’s taking and can’t say that they wouldn’t do the same thing if they were in his position. That is the best kind of villain. And of course the animation is brilliant. They utilize colors in a way that very much adds to the richness of the story.
My only real beef with this season is that it’s clearly written for kids. Because it’s written for kids, every so often there will be an episode that doesn’t directly relate to the plot or character development where there has to be a moral for the kids to learn. There’s nothing wrong with a show written for kids, I just get bored when those episodes come up because the problems they face are usually very trivial and I want them to get back to the meat of the story where interesting things actually happen.
Other than that, this is a fun show that both kids and adults can enjoy.
Hmm… Interesting. This review is way more positive than I remember it being, especially since I only gave it a 7/10. Maybe I just devoted less time to the things that bugged me on my first viewing because I wanted to be more fair and balanced to the material since I still saw it as a “kid’s show” at the time. I pretty much still think the same way about Katara’s and Aang’s characters during the first season, though I would probably be way more ecstatic about them after the second viewing I embarked on.
It is clear that I give very little credit to Katara at the beginning of the series in this review. I describe her as a “simple village girl with spirt,” and while that’s not entirely inaccurate, after seeing the series a second time, I now think she is a force to be reckoned with even in the beginning of the series. The episode, “Imprisoned,” showcases this beautifully as Katara single-handedly inspires a group of earth-bender prisoners to rise up, oppose the Fire Nation, and break themselves out of jail. It’s true that she doesn’t have the rad water-bending skills that she has by the end of the season (effectively rendering her a total bad-ass in addition to being the emotional center of the group), but she still has an incredible personality and tenaciousness that makes her a force to be reckoned with, even in the early episodes. Heck, we even see that in the first episode when she blows up at Sokka and chews him out for being a jerk. She does grow a tremendous amount as a character during the first season, but to describe her as I did two years ago was probably a little unfair of me.
I was absolutely dead on about Zuko. He is still my absolute favorite character in the series, especially after the second viewing with the foreknowledge about how his character arc progresses throughout the rest of the series. Although, I believe now that I was unfair in calling him an “inherently evil” villain. This may be chalked up to the fact that I assumed that he would be the primary villain for the rest of the series and so assumed he was ultimately evil, despite his complexity and sympathetic nature. Or maybe it was the fact that I was underestimating the show because it was a kid’s show and again assumed that such a complex character arc wouldn’t or couldn’t happen. I don’t remember. All I know is that a second viewing of the show revealed new depths to Zuko’s character and I gained a new appreciation for his plight. His obsession to regain his honor is completely relatable and keeps him from being a typical villain even in this early season. The parallels between Aang and Zuko also became much more apparent to me on second viewing as they’re both trying to regain their honor in a sense. Zuko feels he’s a disappointment to his family and is trying to get back into his father’s good graces, even to the point of thinking he can earn his father’s love. Aang also feels he’s a disappointment; he feels he’s disappointed the entire world by running away from his responsibility, but he doesn’t know if he has what it takes to be the savior of the world. That’s a huge responsibility to put on a 12-year old, and they address that and how hard it is for Aang to deal with that! This is all a part of the episode “The Storm” which is considered by many to be the best episode in the series. I don’t know if I think it’s the best episode of the show, but it’s certainly up there in the upper echelons of great Avatar episodes.
Probably the opinion that changed the most over the course of the second viewing was my take on how the show was “written for kids.” After seeing the show again, I no longer have that particular problem with the show’s writing. I think one of the problems I had at the time was how light-hearted the tone of the show was. I didn’t feel a light-hearted tone was appropriate because I felt it clashed with its huge, epic storyline. I don’t know what I was smoking at the time (my last stash of teen angst, no doubt), but I think that the light-hearted tone is one of the shows greatest strengths. It’s what propels it into great television show material because the light-hearted tone gives the show balance. It has the serious dramatic moments that are fantastic, but it’s balanced out with humor and fun which sets it apart from other fantasy shows, most of which are oh-so-serious, especially in this day and age. I can’t believe I didn’t even mention Sokka in this review, because watching it again, I thought he was easily one of the funniest parts of the show even in this first season. I will admit that a good deal of the humor falls flat in the early part of the season but you can see improvements in the writing in the span of mere episodes. By the fourth or fifth episode, the laughs come fast and furious.
I also find it interesting that I thought that the filler episodes had no plot or character development and hurt the story of the show. I completely disagree with myself now. I thought many of the so-called filler episodes were a lot of fun and very well done. I said I thought the episodes focused more on the morals than the characters or story. I don’t understand how I thought that because, yes, while there were episodes where the kids learned a lesson, they were lessons that not only furthered the development of the characters’ arcs most of the time, they were also lessons that came from conflicts that arose very naturally from the characters’ predicaments. Most of the episodes were also a lot of fun! These episodes were the ones where the writers not only gave spotlight to the characters, but also to the humor. Episodes like “The Warriors of Kyoshi,” “The Fortuneteller,” and “The Northern Air Temple” were a lot of fun, and contained many hilarious moments. Even “The Great Divide,” an episode that many people feel is the worst episode of the whole series and one that I really didn’t like on first viewing, I didn’t mind that much on the second viewing. It is one of the more problematic episodes, but I found there was much more good about the episode that I didn’t appreciate it when I first saw it. I liked how Aang really earnestly tries to solve the problems between these two feuding tribes and does his best, even though in this case he’s way out of his league, and I thought Katara and Sokka taking the sides of each tribe against each other and doing exactly what Aang didn’t want them to do was really fun to watch. Despite some of the problems of the episode, I think the good definitely outweighs the bad. And as for the “filler” episodes overall, my opinion has changed completely in that regard. Many of those episodes had interesting things happen in spite of what I said in the previous review. They were filled with great character moments, fun stories, and most of them did ultimately push the plot forward.
The last thing I would like to address is the love story between Sokka and Princess Yue, which was what I expressed the most grief about to my friends and in the comments of my original review. After a second viewing, I still had some problems with it, but it didn’t bother me nearly as much. What still bothered me about that particular plot point was the way Yue kind of strings Sokka along. She’s betrothed to someone else, and yes it’s to someone she’s not in love with, and yes she’s just a teenager who thinks this guy she just met is super neat, but how can you give this really great guy hope that he has a chance with you to the point where you two are going on dates and then spring on him that there’s another guy that you’re betrothed to after stringing him along for several days? That’s just cruel and I can’t get behind a character who does that. But overall, the writers actually do a good job, for the most part, of showing their relationship develop and, most importantly I think, show that this isn’t the greatest love story ever told. It’s two teenagers who have the hots for each other and they’re trying to figure out how to deal with that. When Yue eventually sacrifices herself and they have to say goodbye, it’s not tragic because it’s the culmination of this great love story; it’s tragic because the story ends before it can truly begin. It’s not about the love that was there, but the love that could have been there, but never was. It’s something that even adult TV shows don’t really address and shows exactly how great of a show Avatar: The Last Airbender is as it’s a show that consistently dares to go where more “adult” shows don’t even tread.
Therefore, what I would like to do right now is retroactively change my rating of this first season of Avatar: The Last Airbender:
Final Rating: 8.5/10
I wish I could give this season a higher review, but I do want to acknowledge the fact that it is the weakest season and there are problems. It’s not a 9, but it’s better than an 8. But that’s okay. Overall, it’s a fantastic first season that shows improvement even over the course of the first several episodes. This is a show that I would recommend everyone to see as it is one of the few shows that succeeds in being a show that anyone and everyone can enjoy! Next week: On Film Criticism!