In this first season, Katara and her brother Sokka stumble upon a boy and his flying bison, both of them trapped in ice. The boy, Aang, turns out to be the Avatar, the one person in the world who is capable of mastering all four elements. The Avatar is supposed to keep the Four Nations balanced but, when he disappeared 100 years ago, the Fire Nation began trying to take over the world. Unfortunately, a comet is coming that will give Firebenders incredible power. Now 12-year-old Aang, who has so far only mastered Air, must somehow master the three other elements in time to save the world from the Fire Nation.
Avatars must master the elements in a certain order, just as they are reborn in a certain order: Water, Earth, Fire, and then Air. So, the next element Aang must master is Water. Katara is a Waterbender, but she hardly knows how to do any bending herself. They, along with Sokka, decide to seek out a Waterbending master at the Northern Water Tribe, which has so far not been hit as hard by the Fire Nation.
It's not a simple journey. For one thing, they basically have to travel to the other end of the world. For another, everyone in the Fire Nation is after them once word gets out that the Avatar is back. The exiled Prince Zuko is one of Aang's most determined pursuers, because he believes that capturing the Avatar will help restore his honor and prompt the Firelord, his father, to end his exile.
Aang and the others do eventually make it to the Northern Water Tribe, where, after a rocky beginning, Aang and Katara learn Waterbending. Unfortunately, the Fire Navy armada arrives as well. The Waterbenders have the advantage at night, when the moon is out, while the Firebenders have the advantage during the day. The balance is tipped in favor of the Firebenders when Admiral Zhao kills the Moon spirit, but one Water Tribe member's sacrifice brings the spirit back to life, and the Northern Water Tribe manages to win.
My very first exposure to this series was an "animanga"-type book - basically, word bubbles are added to screenshots from the show, set up to look like a graphic novel. It was terrible, and my first assumption of the series ("sucky wannabe anime") seemed to be correct. My second exposure to the series was M. Night Shyamalan's movie The Last Airbender, which was bad in a different way. However, it at least made the premise of the series seem a bit better, and the fights were pretty good. When my mom ended up in the hospital with pneumonia, I found myself at my parents' house spending a lot of time watching TV while I waited to see how things were going to go. One of the shows I watched was Avatar: The Last Airbender, and I got hooked. Unfortunately, there was no way for me to watch the show from beginning to end - I just had to make do with whatever happened to be showing that week.
Now I own the whole series, and I'm finally getting to watch it in order for the first time. I can see where M. Night Shyamalan got the bones for his movie, and I'm amazed that he thought he could fit an entire season of the show into a single movie. M. Night Shyamalan's movie was this season of the show, ultra-condensed, with a few changes here and there in an attempt to make up for some of the stuff that was cut out, and with all the humor and fun sucked right out of it. I shudder to think of what he will do if he is allowed to make more movies based on this series - I'm sure it will be one movie for each season.
Ok, moving on. I was looking at customer reviews of this show on Amazon and saw several reviews to the effect of, "I hate anime, but..." or "I'm adult, but..." First off, I always kind of wonder about "I hate anime" comments - what shows are people thinking of when they say this, and do they realize that there is huge variety of anime out there, intended for every age-group, in every genre including some many Americans have never even heard of before? It makes me wince to think of the number of people who base their opinions of anime on Pokemon, Dragonball Z, etc. - depending on who's watching it, the anime that gets TV time in the U.S. isn't necessarily bad (although I would like to take this chance to say that 4Kids needs to never be allowed to touch any anime, ever), but almost all of it has basically the same intended audience, young boys.
Anyway, those Amazon reviewers that thought they wouldn't like this show but did found themselves getting something that still has a tendency to be a little unusual in American animated TV shows: a show that is not only about its humor (and, admittedly, the fact that Avatar's humor is American humor, rather than Japanese humor, could be part of the reason those reviewers like Avatar better than whatever anime they've seen), and a show that has an overarching plot instead of just a bunch of one-shot stories. Avatar still has plenty of the humor you'll find in any kids' cartoon, but the humor isn't the point of the show. Instead, the humor creates light moments in a series that follows a kid and his friends who are trying to save their world.
Although I learned, during the week I spent watching this show at my parents' house, that it's possible to jump into this series at various points and sort of get what's going on (it probably helped a lot that I had seen M. Night Shyamalan's movie and therefore knew a bit about the world and the story), I still really appreciate being able to see it from beginning to end now. This way, I get to see how later episodes reference earlier events, and I get to see each character grow (character growth: also still rare in U.S. animated TV shows).
I like the series premise, the characters, and the action. I can't wait to see more of the show. Although, darn it, if I had waited just a little longer before buying the series, I could have bought it cheaper - a couple of seasons of this show are now available at my local Walmart for just $20 each.
The extras were nice, but I really wanted a lot more. They felt too brief, like they were designed to bit fit into a commercial break (maybe they were?). It was fun seeing the original pilot episode, which despite its somewhat rough-looking animation/artwork, had one particularly awesome scene that reminded me of Tekkonkinkreet. The pilot episode, by the way, is not Episode 1 in this collection - instead, I'm guessing it was a test episode created to show (executives? the money people?) what this show was going to be like, before everything about the series was completely figured out, so it differs from the series in a few ways.
I also liked getting a behind-the-scenes view of the work done in the sound studios, and the brief look at the Korean animation studios involved in this show was fascinating (by the way, they use some animation lingo which may not make sense to all viewers - it turns out that having watched Animation Runner Kuromi was really helpful to me in this regard). I did like getting to see the cast and crew, but it was an incomplete view - I couldn't help but wonder, "Where's the person who voices Katara?" Looking at my other boxed sets, I'm pretty sure she'll turn up in later extras, but it still felt odd. There's also some audio commentary for one of the episodes, courtesy of the guy who voices Momo, Appa, and other animal characters in the series (it hadn't even occurred to me that these sounds were the product of a human voice - I didn't know humans could make noises like that!) and one of the people who worked on the show's sound effects.
Coming up with a list of watch-alikes/read-alikes was a lot harder than I expected it to be. You'll notice that M. Night Shyamalan's The Last Airbender is not on the list. I didn't want to include that one, not even as padding.
Watch-alikes and Read-alikes:
- Naruto (manga) by Masashi Kishimoto; Naruto (anime TV series) - Another series with a hero who's a bit of a goofball (some may be put off by his tendency to act and speak before thinking). Naruto turns out to be incredibly powerful and does grow somewhat as the series progresses (the anime, by the way, is continued by the anime Naruto: Shippuden - both the anime and manga versions of this series are long). Those who'd like another series that mixes humor, action, and some occasional heavy drama might want to try this. If you can afford it, or if your local public library carries it, I highly recommend reading the manga over watching the anime. The manga starts off rough, but it ends up being much better than the anime, which suffers from Too Much Filler syndrome and (during Naruto: Shippuden in particular) severe pacing problems.
- Teen Titans (non-Japanese animation) - This is the only U.S. animated TV series I can think of that is in any way like Avatar. As far as I know, it doesn't have an overarching plot like Avatar, and character development tends to be more minimal. However, like Avatar its animation has Japanese influences, and it combines humor (to a greater degree than Avatar), action, and more serious developments (to a lesser degree than Avatar). The series focuses on a group of young superheroes. The one most likely to be familiar to people is Robin (once Batman's sidekick).
- Soul Eater (anime TV series) - This has absolutely nothing in common with Avatar in terms of its story and characters, but it might still appeal to fans of Avatar because of its mix of humor, action, and drama, its "save the world" storyline, and the importance that friendships and learning to work together plays in the series. The series focuses on meisters and their weapons, particularly ones that are still in training. Meisters are capable of wielding weapons, while weapons (which, like meisters, are people) have a great deal of power they generally can't make use of without their meisters. Meisters and weapons in training work together to capture 99 evil souls and 1 witch soul, after which the weapon becomes a Deathscythe, a particularly powerful weapon.