FOR KIDS! (Mature Storytellers Only)

| August 26, 2011

 

– James Hart

                       

Recently I’ve found myself turning the TV to Nicktoons quite often. Now that isn’t a sentence I am comfortable with, mostly because of the grueling commercials for Hot Wheels and Cabbage Patch dolls that come with adoption papers, but unfortunately there is a show so great that I’m willing to endure this punishment… for nothing more than reruns of episodes I’ve seen… at least twice.

I wasn’t turned on to Avater: The Last Airbender until well into it’s second season. I lived alone at the time and I was in constant need of something to watch so I gave it a shot. What I found was—doing my best to ignore my nostalgia for the shows of my own childhood—the best cartoon show ever made.

It’s a kid’s show that has attracted a huge fanbase, including adult fans like I’ve never seen, and has even had an episode written by JJ Abrams and Damon Lindelof. So what is it that makes this show different.

From here on out Avatar: The Last Airbender will be referred to simply as Avatarbecause it deserves the title far more than Jim Cameron’s flashy, derivative cash cow—seriously, look up the word, it’s a smart title for Avatar and a lazy one forAvatar.

Avatar is a concise, character-driven story, set is an imaginative world. Where other cartoon shows tell simple stories, usually in an episodic format, with lessons that are superficial, Avatar never takes the easy road. Sure some of its storytelling is not as subtle as other shows—a symptom of its target audience—the lessons themselves are not unlike the complex and classic lessons of the modern epics. Characters are multifaceted, even the side characters, and their relationships are never as simple as they would be in a lesser show.

Let me give an example. Uncle Iroh (voiced by the legendary actor Mako) is generally used as the comic relief in the show. Especially in season one when his nephew Zuko is trying to find and kill our hero, Iroh mostly just shows up to either make a joke or calm Zuko down. He is one of the most beloved characters in the show because of this lightheartedness, but his character is much deeper than should be necessary in a children’s show.

The episode titled “The Tales of Ba Sing Se” is a series of vignettes that focuses on character traits and relationships that mostly go unaddressed. The first story is a very short anecdote about the two girls in the show, Katara and Toph, spending an afternoon together. The two characters don’t interact much in the show and Toph is usually characterized as a tough fighter, but when Katara takes her out and girlies her up a bit Toph gets made fun of by the locals and we see a crack where their once was solid marble. It’s a beautiful and touching story that most cartoons would never take the time, nor have the balls to tell. But that doesn’t hold a candle to Iroh’s tale. Where the first story is touching, the second story is moving. The Tale of Iroh simply follows Iroh during a day when there’s nothing else going on. He goes to the shops and buys a picnic basket, he runs into a small boy who’s crying and sings him a little song called ‘Leaves from the Vine’ to cheer him up, he moves a flower from the sun into the shade to keep it from overheating, and when a young man tries to mug him he teaches the man a better fighting stance and sends him on his way. But then it takes a turn. This normally fun and wise character arrives at the grave of his son with the picnic basket and offers up a melencholy gem—“if only I could have helped you”—and then begins to sing ‘Leaves from the Vine’ as he cries. End of story. The episode goes on and some of the other stories are more fun and uplifting, but simply put, cartoons don’t do this. This is serious character drama directed at kids because it respects them.

                           

‘The Tale of Iroh’ is dedicated to Mako, who unfortunately passed away not long after recording season two.

This might be a good time to point out how often I’ve talked about “cartoons” and “shows for children” like there’s really something horrid, and how many times I’ve implied that their audiences aren’t smart enough to enjoy anything better written. I want to make it clear that I don’t believe that. In fact, that’s a big part of why I think this show is so special, why I wish it had been around when I was little, and why I think that every kid from now till judgment day ought to have the opportunity to watch it because it refuses to condescend to them. Avatar tells beautiful and complex stories to kids in a mature way. It assumes that they know death and pain and betrayal as well as love and fun and hope, and it assumes that they understand them as more than just facile constants and rather as multidimensional, intangible, and subjective emotions. Perhaps the lesson Avatarteaches us adults is that children are just like any other human being, they crave stories and characters with real soul to them; people, imaginary as they may be, that they can love.

I had a whole paragraph here explaining how wonderful Zuko’s character arch is but if I haven’t convinced you by now I probably wont. However, let me say that Zuko’s redemption rivals that of Ben Linus and Darth Vader. There: hyperbole hyperbolized.

Now lets talk about the production quickly because that’s the other side of this well-crafted coin. The animators closely studied a number of different martial arts do give the fighting a grounded and accurate feel that makes the action in the show something like a realistic Samurai Jack. It not only calls back to the great martial arts films but also to some of the greatest animes in cinema history—note how much Appa looks like Cat Bus from My Neighbor TotoroAvatar was created among a havoc of anime inspired American cartoons, but where all the others borrowed the visual style and the cheap animation in a way that felt prompted by a fad, Avatar embraces this fusion style as a form of art, and as such it is often breathtaking.

I feel like after all this trying to defend the show’s maturity I should reiterate just how kick-ass it is. The stakes here are high and our heroes are more than willing to do what it takes.

I unabashedly love this show and I think that anyone who can put away their expectations and their hiccups about it will love it too. Do whatever you have to do. Watch it alone, in the dark, with the sound very, very low if need be. No one ever has to know you’ve seen it but I’d bet that if you give it a shot you’ll find yourself slipping me notes and cornering me in empty rooms to talk about your newfound secret passions.

And if you’re reading this and you’ve got kids then do them a favor and buy them lots of legos because it teaches them problem solving and creativity. And then when you’ve done that show them Avatar.

Every episode of the complete three season Avatar Saga is on Netflix streaming and the sequel series Avatar: the Legend of Korra is expected to air next year. There is a live action adaptation but we’re better off pretending there isn’t.

About the Author:

James grew up in a house where Friday night was Movie night, which meant that he’d watched more movies than anybody else his age before he was even old enough to watch the rated R ones. He’ll watch just about anything, though he tends to avoid the horror movies without a sense of humor. Among his favorite movies are: Alien, Fargo, True Romance, Ed Wood, and Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. He’s a die-hard LOST fan and a Brown Coat. As a writer, story usually comes first for James. Memorable characters and sharp dialogue are the things that separate the classics from the chaff. That said, he does his best to keep having fun at the movies. He’s seen plenty of critics who would once have accepted summer blockbusters as entertainment become jaded and nit-picky. Sure James loves the art of film and storytelling, but fun comes first, the fun that he had watching Raiders when he was little. Also, E.T. scares the pants off him.
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