Learning How to Bend: Some Avatar Observations

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When I was asked to write about the Avatar cartoon this week I was a bit hesitant, but I’m not one to back down from a cartoon challenge. While the other guys are touting their Avatar love loud and proud with deep thoughts, what you’re going to get from me is a view from the outside onto what is a well-loved cartoon series. I might need to be educated a bit.

I was most certainly aware of Avatar, The Last Airbender before I got this assignment but I had never watched an episode. From what little I had seen, I knew it was about a bald kid that knew kung fu and had some sort of magical power…like if Charlie Brown had a skill besides feeling sorry for himself. Despite my lifelong love of cartoons, I’m going to play the “I’m old” card for why I never sat down and watched Avatar. The show came out in 2005 when I was busy getting a house, getting married, and otherwise trying to figure out what an adult is really supposed to do, so time to explore new cartoons was limited. It also doesn’t help that Avatar was on Nicktoons, a channel I don’t really frequent because it has disappointed me in the past. So that’s my excuse for why I’m not an Avatar fanboy, but now that I’ve started to remedy that problem, here’s what I’ve learned about Avatar.

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I have nothing against it, I just missed the age cut-off.

It’s not anime but it is

While reading about Avatar and how it came to be, I was surprised to find it is not a rehash, port, or otherwise conversion of some existing anime cartoon. Avatar is original and American, so thus, technically, not anime…but yet it is. As was brought up already during this International Love Avatar Week, everyone thinks Avatar is anime already, and perception is reality. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. Avatar looks like anime and sounds like anime, so it is. But unlike some, I don’t think being anime is a bad thing. I don’t have any problem with anime. If there’s anything negative about it, it’s that the series’ creators might not get the props they deserve because people just assume it’s foreign and dubbed.

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I can certainly enjoy a flying buffalo as much as the next manchild.

The flying buffalo is cool, the big eared monkey is not

I went on Netflix and watched a few episodes from various seasons to get my crash course in Avatar. One of the first characters I fell in love with was the giant flying buffalo with a beaver tail. I never caught the name of this creature but it seems like he (or she) is a general utility vehicle for the main characters. The buffalo can fly, float, walk, eats a lot of hay and is otherwise quiet and calm. That I like. The little lemur-monkey thing on the other hand is easily the most annoying character on a show with too many characters as it is. I can see that this little guy is there for some comic relief and is probably loved by every fan of the show, but in the episodes I saw he acted like little more than a shallow plot trigger. If you took out the flying monkey I don’t think the cartoon or story would suffer.

Elemental kung fu is pretty awesome

One of the best aspects of Avatar is the fighting. I’m an action guy so if there’s guns, explosions, or fighting, I’ll give it a shot. Avatar is all based on various martial arts but with the added bonus of manipulating the elements, called “bending.” The elemental bending adds some extra oomph to the whole kung fu thing and it looks great because the fight scenes are well blocked and colored. The concept of controlling rocks, fire, water, and wind around to beef up your punches is pretty killer but I think at times it feels like a bit much. When I came into this thing I thought the bending was some sort of black art that only a few people were privileged to have – kind of like being a Jedi – but then I find out that just about everyone can bend the elements, which was somewhat disappointing. When more people can do the special move than can’t, it makes that power seem a little less impressive and dramatic. I watched as a Fire Lord made giant waves of fire but then saw his little peon guys shoot fireballs too. I also don’t know why Fire is the badass element out of the four but whatever…you need a bad guy, right?

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I certainly wouldn't mind learning how to perform a few of these moves myself.

It’s hard to play catch-up

When I booted up the Netflix to watch these episodes, I picked a few episodes from the beginning, the middle, and the end, so I didn’t necessarily watch any episodes in order…and that was a mistake. Avatar has such a rich and winding story that it was really hard to jump in midstream and feel comfortable. There are a lot of characters that come and go besides the three main kids and that can often be confusing. Who’s that old man? Is he important? Wait, he can bend rocks too? Do I need to remember him later? Those are questions that often entered my head. For the most part it seems each episode presents a problem that is solved within the half hour but the story seems to assume you already know a lot about each character, so it’s hard to feel invested in all of them. This is probably another reason why I never got hooked on Avatar. Even if the cartoon was on when I was channel surfing and gave it a few minutes, I’d be confused and move on. Sorry, I need my cartoons to be short and sweet. Sure, there can be an overall story arc between episodes but that story shouldn’t be so complex that you can’t become a fan at half time. While watching I was reminded about one of the last cartoons I really loved, Samurai Jack. Samurai Jack had a simple story of Jack trying to get back to his own time but each episode had a clear beginning and end. You could watch any one episode and leave happy even if that was the only episode you watched. I can appreciate a well-crafted story but I have my limits.

It has a good ending

All too often cartoons outstay their welcome. Despite the Avatar story being long and sometimes complicated, the whole thing has a beginning and an end. I watched the last 90-minute episode and was happy that it ended the way it did with everyone being happy and order having been restored to the world. Every character did their thing and it was a great journey. Great. Wonderful. Let’s not beat a dead horse. The cartoons I love all jumped the shark at some point, so it’s nice to see a cartoon have some restraint and know when to call it quits…and Avatar seemed to do that when they were on top. I think handling it like that is the biggest reason why people are excited about the new Avatar cartoon coming out this week.

I don’t think you’ll find me sitting and watching Avatar on Netflix beginning to end anytime soon, but I feel like a better fan of cartoons because I watched a few episodes. No, I can’t name many of the characters but I do know that the Fire people are the bad guys, and the bald kid and his friends are the good guys. I also know that Avatar has some of the best fight scenes I’ve seen in a cartoon and that it is all well produced and presented. I can see why a lot of people got sucked into Avatar and that’s why I don’t really mind being part of this Avatar love-in. Carry on benders, carry on.

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Brian is a staff writer at TMA. He races Hot Wheels at RedlineDerby.com while watching cartoons with his kid. You can follow @morningtoast on Twitter.

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