Wednesday, April 28, 2010

M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender

So far the site's content has been pretty comic book heavy, so I'd like to switch gears to movies and animation for a minute.

Back in 2005, Nickelodeon premiered a new animated series called Avatar: The Last Airbender. The show, heavily influenced by Asian culture, depicted a world divided into four "nations," each in control of its own natural element: the Water Tribes, the Earth Kingdom, the Air Nomads, and the Fire Nation. Each nation has a set of individuals known as "Benders" who possess the power of elemental manipulation, granting them the ability to control and wield their nation's element as a weapon. According to legend, one Bender will possess the power of the Avatar, allowing them to master each bending art, starting with their native element.
The power of the Avatar is rotated among the elemental nations so no one nation has control over this power indefinitely. When an Avatar dies, their spirit is reincarnated into a member of the next nation in the Avatar Cycle. The Cycle changes according to the seasons, with each nation and element representing a different season: Autumn for the Air Nomads, winter for the Water Tribe, spring for the Earth Kingdom and summer for the Fire Nation.

When the series began, we were introduced to Aang, an airbender, just as he learns that he will be the next Avatar. Unable to cope with the responsibility, Aang flees from his home on the back of his flying bison, Appa. During their flight, Aang and Appa are confronted with a storm that forces them deep into the ocean freezing them in a state of suspended animation in a giant iceberg. Shortly after Aang's disappearance, Lord Sozin, leader of the Fire Nation, kills the current Avatar Roku, a member of the Fire Nation as well. Knowing that the next Avatar will come from the Air Nomads as dictated by the Avatar Cycle, Sozin and the Fire Nation launch a genocidal campaign against the Nomads. With no Avatar, no one will be able to stop the Fire Nation's quest for world domination. After being discovered by two waterbenders, Katara and Sokka, Aang is trained in the various bending arts and they assist him defeating the Fire Nation and restoring order to their world. 

I was late to the Avatar party. I would never have known the show existed if my brother-in-law, Robert, hadn't introduced me to it. Initially I was struck by the three key elements to the show's success. First, the series had a unique visual style, a combination of traditional American animation and anime (Japanese animation). This allowed the series to maintain a strong sense of East Asian influence, yet appeal to a larger North American audience unfamiliar with Asian art styles. Second, Avatar is very cinematic in both direction and scope. The camera angles, the meticulously choreographed fight sequences and the attention to detail in this fictional world were not something I found to be common in most Nickelodeon cartoons. They seemed to accomplish so much more and crafted a story that would rival anything found in most films. Although geared primarily towards children, the show is much more mature than most would think. Finally, the show teaches you a lot about friendship and family. You watch as the show's three main protagonists grow closer and very fond of one another as they move through their journey, willing to sacrifice their very lives for one another. You care about them and that helps you engage in the show on a deeper level than just entertainment.

I'll admit that I have yet to see every episode, most importantly I missed the series finale, it's highest-rated episode to date. I plan on going back and watching the DVDs, but what I saw I really enjoyed and think most people will if they give it a shot. If animation is not your thing (and it really should be), you'll be happy to know that on July 2, 2010, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender will hit theaters, a live-action version of the animated series. The final trailer was released this past Friday and I've added the video below. Check it out. Although I will always prefer the original source material, I have to admit the movie looks pretty good.

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