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Avatar: The Last Airbender

Entry updated 10 July 2019. Tagged: TV.

US animated tv series (2005-2008). Nickelodeon. Created by/executive producers: Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Writers include Michael Dante DiMartino, Aaron Ehasz, Elizabeth Welch Ehasz, Tim Hedrick, Bryan Konietzko and John O'Bryan. Directors include Lauren MacMullan, Ethan Spaulding and Giancarlo Volpe. Voice cast includes Rene Auberjonois, Dante Basco, Jack DeSena, Jessie Flower, James Garrett, Grey DeLisle, Mark Hamill, Jennie Kwan, Lex Lang, Ron Perlman, Zach Tyler Eisen and Mae Whitman. 61 23-minute episodes. Colour.

On an Earth-like planet, but with unfamiliar continents, there are four nations named after the classical Elements: Air, Fire, Water and Earth. Some members of each nation can bend that element to their will (see Telekinesis) and thus are called airbenders, firebenders and so on. One person, the Avatar, has power over all four elements: their purpose is to keep the world in balance. When an Avatar dies their spirit is Reincarnated into a newborn bender of another nation.

A century before our story begins, Fire Lord Sozin (Lang/Perlman) decided to share the Fire Nation's prosperity with the rest of the world by making them all part of the Fire Nation (see Imperialism and War). He was opposed by his friend Roku (Garrett), the then Avatar: Sozin left him to die on an erupting volcano. Twelve years later Sozin wiped out the Air Nomads, intending to kill the new Avatar, Aang (Eisen); but he, unhappy with his life, had fled, circumstances leading to his Suspended Animation inside an iceberg. A hundred years later the Fire Nation, now ruled by Fire Lord Ozai (Hamill), awaits the arrival of a Comet that greatly increases firebenders' powers, so enabling them to finally subjugate the other nations.

Aang is discovered and awoken by the young waterbender Katara (Whitman) and her brother Sokka (DeSena) of the Southern Water Tribe: Aang realizes it is his responsibility to defeat Ozai. The three tour the other nations so Aang may learn to bend the other elements: in pursuit is Prince Zuko (Basco), who wants to capture the Avatar and so end the exile imposed by his father Ozai.

Aang is childish but spiritual, Katara smart and sensible, Sokka comic but capable; as the series progresses they are joined by blind Toph (Flower), an earthbender with a blunt temperament; warrior girl Suki (Kwan) and, eventually, Zuko, now sickened by Ozai's plans – his sister, the powerful but increasingly unstable Princess Azula (DeLisle), takes on the Fire Nation's hunt for the Avatar. There are many adventures until the showdown, with Aang having a growing crisis of conscience – everyone expects him to kill Ozai, which goes against his pacifist beliefs: however, he learns he can remove Ozai's firebending talents, leaving him alive but powerless.

At first glance the show might seem anti-science, with the most spiritual nation being the technologically under-developed Air Nomads, whilst the antagonists, the Fire Nation, are far and away the most advanced: their factories cause Pollution, they have battleships, armoured tanks, airships – and a giant drill that bores through an "impenetrable" city wall (see Technology). However, the one Scientist we meet – the Mechanist (Auberjonois) – is an Earth Kingdom national blackmailed by the Fire Nation: once rescued, he works to strengthen the Avatar's forces.

Unusually for western animation, all the world's inhabitants are inspired by the native populations of the Pacific rim and India (see Race in SF), whilst the storytelling draws upon many elements of eastern philosophy (see Metaphysics) and traditions: also impressive are the high number of strong female characters (see Feminism). The show matures as the series progresses, being fairly dark at times; it is also very funny, though the Humour sometimes reminds adults that the target audience is ten or under. Avatar is a landmark in western children's animation: intelligently written, with reasonably deep characterization and thoughtful storylines – Politics play as large a role as Monsters. It has been an immense influence on subsequent animation and won a 2007 Primetime Emmy and a 2008 Peabody award, amongst others.

A live-action remake is planned for 2020 release; there have also been Comics, Graphic Novels and a sequel, the excellent The Legend of Korra (2012-2014). The live-action film The Last Airbender (2010), directed by M Night Shyamalan, is emphatically not canon: it was based on the first season and intended to be the first of a trilogy, but its poor reception killed that plan. The whitewashing of some of the leads was the main criticism (leading to the coined neologism "racebending"); some odd performances and odder story choices were also unhelpful. [SP]


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