Gabby Hutchinson Crouch on a kids’ TV series that is everything the bloody awful film wasn’t.
Sokka, Katara and Aang prepare to bend some air.
Lately I’ve taken up a slightly strange crusade: trying to get as many people as I possibly can to watch Avatar: The Last Airbender. No, not the M Night Shyamalan movie, we’re pretending that never happened. The Nickelodeon cartoon series. It’s on Netflix, and on DVD. Like an incredibly specific Jehovah’s Witness I will pop up when somebody expresses being at a loss for a new show to watch, asking, “Have you heard the good news about Aang?” So here’s why you, and any kids you might have to hand, should wrap your eyeballs around this Emmy-winning series.
The series is set in a fantasy world in which some people are able to manipulate either fire, air, water or earth to their will. Only one person – The Avatar – can manipulate all four elements and maintain harmony in the world. The Last Airbender sees the Avatar reincarnated as a 12 year-old Airbending boy, Aang, who is sweet natured, cheerful and utterly unready to take on any major foes, which is unfortunate because basically he has a few months to stop the apocalypse. See, the Fire nation have gone a bit… totalitarian, and have invaded the rest of the world – oh, and already wiped out all of the rest of the Airbenders looking for Aang. Yeah, the cartoon starts off with genocide, but then so does Star Wars, so I’m pretty sure that’s all fine. As in Star Wars, you have a naïve Chosen One, a reluctant hero with a rag-tag gang of loyal friends who pick up allies along their journey. By the end of the series there’s a large group of characters that you care deeply about and couldn’t bear anything bad to happen to.
The first series sees banished Fire Prince Zuko and his uncle as main antagonists, chasing Aang from pole to pole, but from early episodes you get the feeling that Zuko’s no out-and-out baddie. Even early episodes mark the start of one the best, most unhurried and logically progressing redemptive arcs I’ve seen in a long time. Zuko is my daughter’s favourite. His story is practically a hero’s journey of its own. Later, another great antagonist is introduced – Zuko’s Machiavellian sister Azula. Azula is properly powerful and sinister, and it’s refreshing to see a teenaged female villain who is driven by sheer lust for power, rather than a broken heart or a need to impress a boy. Azula is doing this for Azula. Which brings me to…
It’s properly feminist. The show starts with Waterbender Katara berating her brother for his sexism. Sokka quickly learns, from his sister and from the women he meets on his travels, that girls are his equals, his teammates and his friends, and apologises for his previous behaviour. The show is full of great female friendships, on both the heroic and villainous sides. Girly, maternal Katara and unapologetically tomboyish Toph form a firm friendship, and Azula travels with her own girl gang. We see disabled girls, girls of colour, poor girls, rich girls, girls in love, girls happy to be single, girls kicking arse, girls having fun, girls having adventures and finding romance on their own terms – basically, girls being given equal representation, importance and agency as boys. And the boys are all so cool with it. They all love having brilliant female friends.
The point of the whole series is that it’s not really about good vs evil. The “goodies” have serious flaws – even Aang himself can be a jerk at times – and the “baddies” almost always have an element of good in them; they’ve just lost their way, or been consumed by a lust for power and glory and committed genocide. While the morality of the characters is complex, the storyline and the characters’ goals are always very clearly set out.
Having characters that can manipulate elements leads to some pretty bloody amazing battles. The show’s creators based each bending technique on an existing Chinese martial art – the different fighting moves are animated beautifully in exciting action sequences.
Even the filler episodes are so great. In fact, they’re some of my favourites. The penultimate episode serves as a clip show of sorts, reminding the audience of the journey Aang’s made… but does so in the form of a terrible amateur dramatics production that the Gaang have to sit through, disguised in fancy dress as themselves. A running gag about an unfortunate cabbage salesman becomes funnier and funnier the longer it goes on.
A sequel series, The Legend of Korra, has just finished in the States. It’s set around 70 years after the end of Last Airbender and tells the story of a new Avatar – a teenaged girl. Woohoo, female protagonist! I’ve only watched the first two series so far, but you should probably watch that, too. The way they’ve moved the world on since the end of the first adventures is really interesting.
There Was Never A Film
Nope. Nobody made a film using an oddly pasty Katara and Sokka, or made an absolute pig’s ear of the story or the world in which it’s set, meaning nobody could have been put off the brilliant cartoon by a terrible film. Right? Right. Good. Thank you for your time.
Gabby Hutchinson Crouch is a comedy writer, mum & nerd. She writes for BBC Radio Comedy and Huffington Post UK, and once saw Dawn French coming out of a toilet.