Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Complete Book 3 Collection (non-Japanese animation, TV series)

The short version: I love this series and really enjoyed most of this season. My post is heavy on the fangirly joy, and there are, as usual, a few spoilers.

Now for the (really) long version.

Synopsis:

This is the third and final season. The Fire Nation has taken over the Earth Kingdom, but Aang and his friends believe they still have one last chance to win: the Day of Black Sun. During the solar eclipse, Firebenders will lose their Bending, making them vulnerable to attack. Several members of Aang's group gain new abilities and get extra training, and Aang still has plenty of allies to stand at his back. It should be simple to win against the Fire Nation. Unfortunately, the invasion on the Day of Black Sun fails and most of Aang's allies end up as prisoners.

Now, Aang's only chance is to learn Firebending and defeat Firelord Ozai before Sozin's Comet, which will give all Firebenders unimaginable power, arrives. Aang doesn't know anyone who could possibly act as his Firebending teacher - until Zuko offers his help. Aang and his friends turn Zuko down at first, and it takes a while for them to learn to trust him.

Even after Aang has begun his Firebending studies, he worries that he won't be able to beat the Firelord. Most Avatars receive years of training in the various elements before declaring that they've mastered them, and Aang has had less than a year to learn Waterbending, Earthbending, and Firebending. If Aang doesn't face the Firelord, however, there may not be a world to save after Sozin's Comet leaves. Aang, a peaceful person at heart, doesn't want to kill anyone, not even Firelord Ozai, but what choice does he have?

Review:

I love this show so much I could easily write pages and pages about this final season, but I'm going to try to rein myself in. (Ha ha.)

I was trying to decide which was better, the second season or the third season. I think, in terms of scenes that made me go all squealing fangirl, the third season wins, with the jaw-dropping awesomeness of the second-to-last episode weighing heavily in its favor.

Because I really could write pages and pages about this season, I think that I'll just give you a quick list of some of the things I enjoyed instead, plus a bit about why I enjoyed them.
  • Episode 4, “Sokka's Master” - Because, for once, Sokka gets to be more than just the guy who makes jokes and has the occasional really good idea. He's still funny in this episode, but he also gets to be in a really fantastic sword-fighting scene.
  • Episode 5, “The Beach” - It's crazy that this episode would make it onto my list of favorites from the season. A description of it makes it sound like a lame filler episode – all the Fire Nation regulars get together, go to the beach, and end up attending a beach party. The thing that I love about this episode is that it shows Azula completely, hilariously out of her element. Plus, this episode was the first time Mai looked at all like an interesting character to me.
  •  Zuko trying to join Aang and his group. He was so bad at figuring out what to do and how to convince everyone he was now good without Uncle Iroh there to guide him. He was cute and also kind of sad, berating himself and practicing what he would say in front of a frog (badger-frog?).
  • Mai growing a spine and betraying Azula. Like she says, she loves Zuko more than she fears Azula, even if Zuko did just break up with her. I admit it, I was, as the co-creators of this show would put it, a “Zutara” fan for much of the show – I wanted Katara to end up with Zuko. If it hadn't been for this moment, I would have been seriously displeased by how things ended, relationship-wise. The best thing about Mai's betrayal of Azula was that she didn't do it because Zuko asked her to, but rather because she wanted to, even though she was pissed at him.
  • Zuko reuniting with Uncle Iroh. Oh my goodness. Dante Basco, Zuko's voice actor, did an excellent job in this part. Like I've said before, crying scenes tend to be how I judge whether voice actors are truly good, and this was wonderful and so emotional.
  • Episode 20, “Sozin's Comet, Part 3: Into the Inferno” - I started listing each of the things I loved about this episode as separate bullet points, and then I realized that it was best to just say that I loved this entire episode, period. In this episode, Azula completely cracks, and it is chilling. I know that, technically, Aang's fight with Ozai should have interested me more, but all I really wanted to see was Zuko's fight with Azula. I think it was one of the most beautiful and amazing fights in the series. It was on a grander scale than most fights in the show, but it still seemed possible and believable in the Avatar world. The combination of the music (so gorgeous!), the visuals (crazy amounts of fire, in a fantastic-looking color combination – Azula's blue versus Zuko's orange), and the emotional intensity resulted in something I could watch again and again. I've seen that fight 3 times now, and it's just as good each time. It's amazing how the two of them have changed over the course of the show. Azula used to be the one who was in control, while Zuko was wild and guided by his rage. In this fight, it's reversed, only worse because Azula isn't just angry, she's unbalanced.
There is so much to love about this season. I will admit, however, that it's not entirely perfect (gasp!). In a show that tries so hard to make so many of its characters complex and anything but black-and-white, I found it strange that Firelord Ozai was essentially a cardboard bad guy. Yes, he was cute as a toddler, but that's about it. It bothered me that Aang was more conflicted about the thought of killing Zuko's father than Zuko was. Zuko kept referring to Ozai as “my father" (rather than using distancing language, like "Ozai" or "the Firelord"), indicating that there might be some deeper emotions there, but nothing ever came of those little hints.

I was also not really happy with the final episode, for a lot of reasons. While I thought Zuko and Azula's fight was grand on a scale that still fit with the feel of the series, Aang and Ozai's fight felt like it was on too big of a scale, like it would have fit better in a superhero movie. Also, in season 2 it was stated several times that Aang couldn't win his battle against the Firelord by relying only on the Avatar state...and then he spent most of the final battle against Ozai in the Avatar state. Had he not stopped himself, he would have won while in the Avatar state, too. I don't know that the show's rules were necessarily being broken, or even bent, but I wasn't entirely comfortable with how the fight went. It felt somehow inconsistent.

I was amazed when, in the commentaries, the co-creators mentioned that episodes 20 and 21 were originally supposed to be one episode, rather than two, because, even split into two episodes, I felt that they tried to cram too much in. I would have appreciated just one more episode. Even though a lot of loose ends were tied up, there were a few that were left dangling – Toph was never reunited with her parents, Zuko got to ask his father where his mother was but the answer was never shown and there was no indication of whether he ever found her, and Azula's post-fight fate wasn't shown.

Ah well, that's what fan fiction is for, so I guess I'd better start hunting for some good ones to read. Plus, in a couple years I may have Legend of Korra DVDs to look forward to. The original characters will probably only show up in flashbacks or brief cameo appearances, if at all, but there's still a chance that some of my questions will be answered. I'm crossing my fingers that Legend of Korra will turn out to be at least as good as Avatar: The Last Airbender. It has some big shoes to fill.

Extras:

If you like audio commentaries, you will love this boxed set. Every disc includes commentaries, but the really great thing is that the disc with the final 6 episodes of the series includes audio commentaries for all 6 episodes.

This boxed set also includes a bonus disc with "The Women of Avatar: The Last Airbender," pencil test animation for various scenes from the final episodes, and what I think was the Avatar: The Last Airbender panel at San Diego Comic-Con. As far back at the first boxed set, I wanted some sort of behind-the-scenes extra featuring the show's various female voice actors. I have to say, though, that "The Women of Avatar: The Last Airbender" was kind of boring. Plus, it included comments from what looked like a few random Avatar fans, which I felt was a little pointless. The pencil tests were...okay...but they just emphasized how little I still know about how animation is done. One of these days, I'd like to see an animated series/movie extra that shows, step by step, how animation is done, because I had a hard time picturing at what point in the process those pencil tests would fall. The video from San Diego Comic-Con was better than I expected.

Watch-alikes and Read-alikes:
  • The Fire Rose (book) by Mercedes Lackey - This book would probably work best for adults or older teens. Those who liked Avatar's four elements Bending setup might like the magical system presented in this book (which is actually the first book in a series - the books all have different characters but are set in the same world). This book stars an elemental magic user who can control fire, as well as a woman who later becomes his apprentice. I have written about this book.
  • The Black Gryphon (book) by Mercedes Lackey - This book, the first in a fantasy trilogy, is, like Avatar, set during a time of war. I added it to this list because I remember that the leader of the "good" side was, like Aang, a peaceful person who hated the thought of killing others.
  • Last Exile (anime TV series) - A steampunk sci-fi adventure series. Something about Zuko and Azula's relationship (and Azula's mental breakdown) made me think of this series, which also features a warped brother-sister relationship.
  • Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit (anime TV series) - Those who need something that's fast-paced overall may want to steer clear of this one, since it takes a while to really get going. However, if you stick with it, it's a truly lovely show. It takes place in some kind of pseudo-historical fantasy setting. A young prince is possessed by a being that many believe is a demon that will bring a horrible drought to the land. A female bodyguard tries to watch over the boy, and the two become almost like a family. Near the end of the series, the young prince is faced with the knowledge that he may have to sacrifice himself to save everyone else in his country. Those who liked watching Aang grow into his role as the Avatar as he tried to figure out what to do about the Firelord may want to try this series. I have written about both the anime and the book upon which the anime was based.
  • Rurouni Kenshin (manga) by Nobuhiro Watsuki; Rurouni Kenshin (anime TV series) - This is an action series with several characters who are based on actual figures in Japanese history. The main character, Kenshin, is similar to Aang, in that he would prefer to live a peaceful life. Several times during the series, his determination not to kill others is sorely tested. Can he protect those he cares for without taking another person's life? I really enjoyed the manga, although the battle scenes tend to be over-the-top. I've only just started watching the anime. Both the anime and manga are very, very long.
  • The Vision of Escaflowne (anime TV series) - It's been a long time since I last saw this, so I may be off-base in suggesting this as a watch-alike. I seem to recall it basically being a mecha anime for people who don't usually like that sort of thing, with heavy fantasy elements. It has romance (although I remember this part of the story not ending in a way I liked or found satisfying), action, and, if I remember correctly, a character who goes crazy. Azula's crazy laughter made me think of this show.
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (book) by J.K. Rowling - I actually thought of this series as a read-alike a few days after publishing my post on Avatar's second season. Avatar's four kingdoms remind me of Harry Potter's four Houses, and both series star boys who are tasked with saving the world from a power-hungry villain.

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