Book 0: Introduction
As an individual in their mid 20’s the animated Avatar franchise means a hell of a lot to me. Coming out right at the moment a kid becomes obsessed with the media around them, Avatar: The Last Airbender proved to be a piece of such enlightening entertainment that it has informed my tastes to this day. For this series feels like what the original Star Wars must have felt to young audiences in the 70’s: or to the individuals just a few years older, the first go round of Harry Potter books.
And while such pieces of monumental pop enchantment have been tarnished in recent years (whether through spurious story expansion or the creators spiraling out) Avatar has shockingly stood tall. Even through wretched live action adaptations and an ambitious (if uneven) follow-up the original is a pinnacle, not just of children’s entertainment, but of excellent craft in both the realms of television and animation.
The series, debuting in 2005 and running to 2008, was the brain child of animators Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. In the early 2000’s the two came together to pitch an idea that was kind out of left field for the time. A high concept, fantasy show aimed at children that brought together elements of the dominating pieces of pop culture of the time. Not only pieces of the aforementioned Star Wars and Harry Potter, but also elements of Lord of the Rings, anime, and classic cartooning that the duo loved so much.
This potent mix of influence was a big swing at the time, especially as animation in the US was struggling to find its feet during the 2000’s. After the broad success of animated projects in the 90’s things seemed to be on a downswing. The anime boom in Japan began to dry up due to a pinch in the economy, and American productions were searching for a definitive way forward.
Avatar was then an interesting choice for Nickelodeon, a channel that mostly worked in the realm of bizarro 11 minute cartoons. Here was an overtly anime inflected series with an intricate mythology, overt serialization and a full half hour run time. All elements that were rarities when Avatar went into production.
But Konietzko and DiMartino were canny showrunners, and learned the right lessons from the genre shows of the 90’s. There’s more than a touch of Buffy and the The X-Files in Avatar, as it weaves around a central group of characters and moves between stand alone parables and a rich main plot arch. That such complex storytelling was achieved from the standards of Nick is an astonishing achievement, even more so when you consider the fantasy mythology of the Avatar world might be the richest of the century so far.
And that’s why (matched with the re-release on Netflix) now is the perfect time to re-state the excellence of the series. To once again highlight its successes where so many others got lost in the woods, and chart its influence on the decade plus of animation since the finale. So join me as we go on this epic journey all over again.
- The contents of the reviews will be mostly spoiler free to accommodate the new comers in our midst, but there will be sections of future musings. Such moments will be cordoned off, and I ask that spoilers in the comments be marked as such.
- Most articles will cover two episodes at a time. However some will cover one when we get to big moments or three to blow through some of the chaff in the series.
- Articles will post on Tuesdays and Fridays at 11:05 AM Eastern time. See you on the 15th