Avatar: The Last Airbender

Rating: ★★★★★

This sort of show isn't usually my sort of thing, but that's probably because this class of wholesome for-the-family fantasy journey adventure shows is filled with lazy crap that fizzles and flops and generally tries to wring as much attention as it can for as little content as possible.

Avatar isn't like that. Whereas I'm usually left lamenting how a great premise was destroyed where it could so easily have flourished, here I'm left amazed at how easily it could have all gone wrong, but didn't. Imagine if this same concept -- a learning journey for a young sage -- had been handed over to the impulses that made Pokemon. We'd be treated to endless 'encounter' episodes, the content of which has no impact on the rest of the story (instead, seemingly standalone encounters and events reappear and shape the plot much later on). Aang would constantly be failing to make progress on mastering elements, so the series can continue (instead, while sometimes blocked, Aang makes incredibly rapid progress, truly demonstrating himself to be an innate world-class talent, and the show moves urgently towards its climax). Zuko would be a comedic foil, always showing up in pursuit of Aang and always being defeated (instead, Zuko has his own compelling redemption arc, and spends long periods away from Aang).

There is a lot of attention to detail in the show, which is absolutely a way to win me over. Background characters are shown with scars, lampshading their war against the Fire Nation. Each nation has their own martial arts style which reflects the character of their element, and they move accordingly. Earthbending is a solid, grounded stance, its practitioners block rather than move out of the way. Firebending is aggressive, always moving forward, keeping up the pressure. Waterbending is smooth, shifting, but building momentum. And airbending, the style demonstrated only by Aang, is characterised by evasion. Wherever you strike, he simply is no longer there.

More than anything, I was impressed by the show's heart. It would be the easiest thing in the world to describe the Fire Nation as an empire devoted to an evil element, which must be crushed. The show not only didn't do that, it repeatedly reprimanded taking this view towards enemy nations. Not merely with tokenism -- one nice firebender which briefly challenges the perception -- but in interaction after interaction. From Aang's memory of an old Fire Nation friend, to Iroh, Zuko's redemption, the many human moments among background characters, and even Azula's final heartbroken unhingement. The message is hammered again and again: your enemies are not monsters, they are people. Treat them like people.

Yet while emphasising that we are all the same, the show celebrates differences, and truly treats as equal those who are often merely pitied. Toph, a blind character, is better defined by her staggering competency, to the extent that other characters often forget she cannot see. She is tough, self-assured, and sometimes a brat. Aang is vegetarian, and nobody -- especially Aang -- makes a big deal out of it. Countless characters are quietly accepted and acknowledged without it seeming soppy or preachy.

Most surprisingly of all, in this family-targeted adventure piece I find myself liking the protagonist. This almost never happens, villains are usually so much more complex and interestingly motivated. Yet the Fire Lord is just bad, his plot amounts to little more than naked self-aggrandisement (like many real villains) and he's not that interesting. And on the other hand, Aang is deep and convincingly moral. He cares for his friends, he cares for the natural world, and he has a deep and admirable distaste for violence. He struggles, visibly, with conflicts within himself, but shows the native wisdom you would expect of someone who is a reincarnation of the great sage. Even for the Fire Lord, so obviously and wastefully malevolent, Aang would not strike to kill. The show managed to convey all of this without making Aang insufferable, because where others would have him speak his values, laying them out in a sermon, Aang simply is virtuous, and everything he does falls out of his character.

This is extremely good. I'm certain I will rewatch it at some point.