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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 21, 2010

Every Day Is Special

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

Avatar: The Last Airbender

When the M. Night Shyamalan live-action movie The Last Airbender came out, it made enough money that there'll certainly be a sequel. But devotees of the series were disappointed in the many pointless changes Shyamalan made in a story that was beloved by millions -- who formed the core of the movie audience.

I hadn't seen the Nickelodeon anime TV series it was based on, called Avatar: The Last Airbender. (Purists will insist that it is not "anime" because it was not made in Japan, but as far as I'm concerned, if a movie or TV series uses anime-style characters and animation -- complete with using Chinese characters for all writing on the screen -- it's anime, regardless of where it was produced.)

But this past summer, our daughter -- a fan of good anime and an enthusiastic admirer of Avatar: The Last Airbender -- got her mother and me to commit to watching the entire series: three seasons of it, with more than sixty 22-minute episodes.

We began it out of love for our daughter. We continued it because it was never less than entertaining. And at the end, we understood and agreed with her devotion to the series.

The storyline is mystical fantasy/sci-fi. The world was divided into four kingdoms, of Air, Water, Fire, and Earth. Powerful "benders" whose power worked with each element were nurtured within the kingdoms, so that Water Benders could make great waves, strong currents, and walls, knives, and projectiles of ice; Fire Benders could ignite anything and hurl fireballs or, in some cases, lightning bolts; Air Benders could make winds and dance upon spinning globes of air; and Earth Benders could rip fissures in the ground, hurl boulders, or launch new crags of stone upward out of the ground.

Most people in each kingdom were ordinary folk, not benders at all. And each kingdom had its own culture, religion, and form of government.

Binding all together was an entity called "the Avatar." Drawn from Buddhist beliefs, in which an avatar is a divine being, born into this world already fully enlightened, the Avatar of the title is the helper and healer of mankind. When one Avatar dies, his spirit is born as a baby in the next kingdom in turn. He contains in himself, therefore, the collective wisdom of all the Avatars from all four kingdoms -- he is the only person who can Bend all four elements.

A hundred years before the TV series begins, the Fire Lord -- head of the Fire Nation -- launched an unprovoked attack on its neighbors, with world domination as its goal. It happened just after the most recent Avatar died, so there was no one to stand in their way as the new Avatar grew up and received his (or her) training.

It was well-known that the next Avatar was due to be born in among the Air Nomads, a group of pacifist, vegetarian people who did no harm to anyone. The Fire Nation wiped them out -- all but the young child Aang, the Avatar, who, unable to resist, simply disappeared.

Since then, the Fire Nation has expanded its boundaries and waged incessant war on the surviving Earth and Water Kingdoms. Two children of the Southern Water Tribe, would-be warrior/comedian Sokka and his sister, Katara, the sole remaining Southern Tribe Water Bender, discover the Avatar frozen inside an iceberg.

Katara brings Aang out of his hiding place and he realizes that without meaning to, he has left the world defenseless for a century. As long as he was alive, no new Avatar could be born. Now he must master the other Bendings (he is the last of the Air Benders and is already quite accomplished) in order to prepare to confront the Fire Lord and put an end to the Fire Nation's world-wrecking ambitions.

In other words, it is pretty standard fantasy material, though the forms that Bending take are quite creative and intriguing. It is also pretty standard to infuse fantasy worlds with a religious system more or less modeled on existing or ancient religions, and fantasies that include a lot of Eastern martial arts are pretty thick on the ground.

What sets Avatar apart from the run-of-the-mill fantasies is the characterization. Character is hardly the strong suit of animated film -- it's one of the things that set Pixar's movies apart from all others. Usually it's just nice vs. mean (it rarely rises to the level of "good vs. evil"), with each character having only one trait to distinguish him or her.

Instead, most of Avatar's characters have a complicated story arc, learning and growing over time. Yes, Sokka is almost always used for comic relief -- but he, too, learns how to become the great warrior he always longed to be, and while his plans almost never work out as intended, he is the character most likely to have any kind of plan at all.

Aang is loveable but tormented, and he makes childish mistakes that sometimes have far-reaching consequences. Katara longs for love -- especially the love of Aang -- but she is also a fierce fighter and contemptuous of those who relegate her to child or helpless-female status.

By far the most interesting character, however, is Prince Zuko, the disgraced heir to the Fire Lord. In order to redeem himself in his father's eyes, Zuko is grimly determined to capture the Avatar himself, thus removing the last serious threat to the Fire Nation's ambitions. Zuko is accompanied through most of the story by his Uncle Iroh, a powerful Fire Bender who is trying to instill in Zuko the love of peace he came to after his greatest -- and most terrible -- victory as a commander of the Fire Nation armies.

Zuko's sister, the powermad Azula, and her two friends, depressed cynic Mai (who becomes Zuko's girlfriend) and the disarming (literally) Ty Lee, become dangerous foes to the Avatar's party as well. But the Avatar is also joined by new allies, most notably the blind Earth Bender Toph, who "sees" through her feet, interpreting tremors in the ground with astonishing detail.

The complexity of the story is astonishing for any television series -- it is as involved and intertwined as the storyline of Lost, but without any of the confusion that marred that poorly planned if brilliantly executed series. Avatar: The Last Airbender is so well-conceived that even the digressions (with a few exceptions) are all woven into the intricate tapestry.

Anime animation tends to be fairly primitive -- Saturday-morning level animation, where only one or two bits of any frame are in motion. But within those limitation, the animators of Avatar did a brilliant job of making the Bending look convincing and magical, while the characters are brought to an astonishing level of lifelikeness.

The result of good writing (usually), good animation (within budget limits), and good voice acting (sometimes rising to real excellence and never less than charming) is a story that was funny, exciting, and emotionally involving.

All through the series, but especially in the four-episode final sequence, there are moments of real emotional power, inducing tears of woe and tears of relief and happiness.

But the series creators are not above parodying their own work. One advantage of a multi-year series is that the earlier parts have already aired -- and created a community of fans -- while the later episodes have yet to be written.

So it's a delight when, near the end of the final season, the Avatar's party happens to attend a Fire Nation community's presentation of a play ... about them. Of course, to the Fire Nation the Avatar and his friends are a joke and a danger -- think of Charlie Chaplin's anti-Hitler comedy -- yet it causes them to question themselves and their own weaknesses.

Meanwhile, though, the parody play-within-a-TV-series brings up many issues that exercised the fans over the years, including certain much-hated episodes and much-ridiculed aspects of some characters. So besides being funny and perceptive in itself, the episode was also something of a clap-on-the-back to the fans, introducing them to the inner circle, so to speak.

We did not watch the whole series in a row. For a while in the summer it was two episodes a night. Then, after long lapses because of travel, we watched the last seven episodes last Friday and Saturday. I was left ravaged by the experience, but also thrilled: The series exercised all my emotions, but also filled me with a sense of its rightness.

The series doesn't require you to accept the pacifistic beliefs of Aang -- in fact, when, near the end, he consults the older Avatars (aspects of himself!), the advice he gets is a consistent justification of violence and even killing when that is necessary for the good of mankind.

And when, in the end, Aang finds a way short of murder but far more demanding on himself, the audience approves it, not because killing in defense of a nation or the world is rejected, but because we know that it would have devastated Aang himself to resort to ultimate violence.

Now the executive producers (read "writers and creators") of Avatar: The Last Airbender are preparing a new series based on the life and challenges of the next Avatar, presumably after Aang has grown old and died. It is surprisingly rare for the creator of one work to come up with a sequel that matches it in power and excellence, but if anyone can, it's Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko.

Because the series was created for Nickelodeon, it can never show actual death (though many die); sometimes this leaves a bit of ambiguity, though adults should realize that when it looks like it should be death, it is.

The benefit of its Nickelodeon origin is that it is completely watchable by families viewing together. Adults, you will not only stay awake, you will enjoy yourself and never once think that death might be better than watching one more moment (as many of us feel during Sponge Bob or other nauseating children's programming).

It truly is a family bonding experience, and from then on will give you a shared culture. In-jokes from the series have already been cropping up within the family, and the moral dilemmas have led to serious discussion.

We are also united in hating the gross misunderstandings that Shyamalan's version showed. It is astonishing that he could want to make a feature film of this great series -- and then treat the story with such contempt. But then, Peter Jackson did no better as he added his own childish, cliched incidents to Lord of the Rings while cutting out some of the heart of the original.

It always baffles me that movie makers have such blind arrogance that they can take great works of art by other people and then add in their own "ideas" to "improve" them.

One thinks of some moron redoing the Mona Lisa with more cleavage, so she'll be "more attractive to the audience"; or turning the horns on Michelangelo's statue of Moses into flowers, thus removing the symbol of divine revelation; or adding a new "comic" motif now and then throughout Ravel's Bolero because the original is so "relentless" and "boring."

If you're going to adapt a brilliant original into a different form or medium, treat it with respect. You may need to cut or combine incidents in order to make the film version fit within the allotted time, but there is no excuse for adding new material


The weather's finally turning cooler -- but, oddly enough, this can mean that it's better ice cream weather than the hottest part of summer.

After all, during the heat of summer -- especially as relentlessly overheated as this past one was in Greensboro -- we can be reluctant to leave the air-conditioning of our house to venture forth.

In the old days, pre-A/C, ice cream came as a blessed relief. Now, though, going to an ice cream store means needlessly going out into the heat! And as for buying ice cream in bulk and bringing it home, a hot summer can mean a distasteful episode of melting and refreezing, which can ruin an anticipated ice cream treat.

So don't forget that some of Greensboro's best cold-treat shops -- Baskin-Robbins 31 Flavors, Cold Stone, Bruster's, and the brilliantly authentic Italian gelato shop, Gnam-Gnam -- are open for business.

Gnam-Gnam in particular is constantly bringing in new flavors of the owners' invention, as well as other desserts and meal entrees. If you haven't tried their sandwiches and soups, you've been missing out. But the main reason to visit their shop in the same center as Fresh Market on Lawndale north of Pisgah Church is and always will be the absolute best frozen desserts you can get within driving distance of our city.

The fact that Gnam-Gnam is not yet a chain is simply a reason to pity people in other cities.

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