Avatar: The Last Airbender is a children’s cartoon created by Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino but, as many shows have proven before, being on a children’s network does not negatively affect quality. The only place for animated shows in the west that are not comedies is on a children’s network and, as a result, they sometimes end up with more serious tones, more fleshed out characters or more impressive animation than you would originally expect. So is Last Airbender worth your time once you hit puberty? Well, I certainly think so but if you’re unconvinced, let me explain why.
The story of Last Airbender centres around a 100-year-long war in a world where people can control (or bend) one of the four classic elements: water, earth, fire or air. Aang, the main character, is the most recent incarnation of the Avatar, the only person in the world who can bend all four elements and the person who is supposed to keep the peace. This means that he, and several friends he makes on the way, must travel around the world to master all four elements and defeat the fire nation.
This is, in essence, a simple magical destiny story – someone has been given special abilities by a higher power and must now fulfill their destiny to heroically save the world. However, The Last Airbender keeps away from this trope by making the Avatar something deeply rooted in this world; Aang, as the hero, is nothing particularly amazing since there have been thousands of years’ worth of Avatars before him. This gives the sense that, while what the characters are doing is important and they are amazing people, they are not super-heroes and ending the war is not the greatest event ever to take place in this world. Instead, it just feels much more grounded, like it’s merely one of the many amazing stories that have happened throughout history.
They also flesh out Aang’s character by showing how he didn’t want to be the Avatar; he ran away when he found out and got himself frozen in an iceberg for 100 years, allowing the war to continue without his interference. Aang’s friends, a group that eventually refer to themselves as Team Avatar, are also crucial to stopping the war; these are normal people with just one form of bending or none at all. This brings a sense of humanity, not only to Aang but to all of the characters by making them feel like actual people who fell into saving the world.
Speaking of the world, the one that provides the setting for Last Airbender is incredibly interesting and richly ingrained in east Asian and Inuit culture. The Water Tribes, Earth Kingdom, Fire Nation and Air Nomads are based on ancient Inuit, Chinese, Japanese and Tibetan cultures respectively and each one incorporates their element into their way of life. Many of the places and landmarks seen throughout the show are breath-taking, such as a temple built underneath the edge of a cliff or a city in a dormant volcano; whenever the characters are on their way to somewhere new, you feel great anticipation for whatever they will find and I was never disappointed.
The world of The Last Airbender is awesome and manages to feel real while also having many outlandish fantasy elements. Bending is a huge part of the world and, much like the countries, it draws influence from Asian culture, incorporating movements and concepts from real-life martial arts. This means bending avoids looking silly since characters do not just wave their arms around and shoot fire from their hands. To emphasise that this is not the Earth that we know, animals consist of combinations of real creatures, such as Platypus Bears or Elephant Koi. This makes the world feel different in a fun, quirky sort of way while also keeping a nice sense of familiarity.
The art and animation of Avatar: The Last Airbender also goes above and beyond as it is stunningly beautiful. The show has a very realistic art style with all the characters and animals being proportioned like actual living creatures, making the animation more difficult as a result because cartoony squash and stretch would look very out of place. However, the animators rose to the challenge and created one of the most visually impressive shows ever to air on a children’s network. This is a great example of why it is a bad idea to look down on a kid’s show, just because it is made for a children’s network does not mean it’s poorly made. Last Airbender’s animators and artists put a huge amount of effort into making every frame of the show a work of art and to undersell that because it’s ‘for children’ is, in my opinion, completely unfair.
As I’m sure you can tell, I’m a huge fan of this show. I think the animation is great, the characters are well-written and lovable and the story is deeply interesting. It was hard to fit all my praise for this show into one article and I’m sure I won’t be able to resist writing tonnes more about various aspects of this show and its sequel: The Legend of Korra. It will come as no surprise to you that I highly recommend Avatar: The Last Airbender; it stands up even seven years after its release and appeals to both adults and children alike.