Time Machine: Avatar the Last Airbender and Meaningful Animation

I was glossing over the recent “Freshly Pressed” on WordPress.com today, and I stumbled across the wonderful Mike DiMartino‘s blog with the article “You Really Want to Know What Happened to Zuko’s Mom?” (Yes, I really do, Mike.)  As a huge fan of Avatar the Last Airbender, seeing that article instantaneously brought back the nostalgia of watching Seasons 1-3 multiple times over with my sister, using Avatar characters for my art project, and discussing the story endlessly with my friends. Mike and Bryan are such incredible writers to have conjured a whole world full of characters, places, and culture that has not only become beloved to children and adults alike, but has stayed with most of them for more than five years afterwards. Actually, after that glorious paragraph of “sap,” it would be a crime to not pull out a Time Machine to see what really makes Avatar the Last Airbender a staple in the world of animated TV; but don’t worry, unlike last time, I’m not spamming the entire post with youtube videos.

(For those who don’t know anything about “Avatar the Last Airbender,” a good place to start would be Episode 1, (which is available on sites like Netflix, and of course Nickelodeon) or if you really are that lazy (it’s really your loss!), the wikia will probably give a good overview and everything else you’d ever want to know.)

Avatar the Last Airbender’s magical touch comes not from all of the intricate bending wicked-coolness, but the way it treads the fine line between mature, adult-oriented themes and a wide-eyed child’s entertainment. In order to become artful in such a task, the story and characters really need to become everything to the show.  This quality is one I find to hold for most critically acclaimed animated media, from The Lion King and works of Pixar, to Hayao Miyazaki‘s Studio Ghilbi releases. Avatar the Last Airbender, like the aforementioned titles, is able to take a basic adventure story that is engaging all by itself and add a layer of nuanced character traits on top, which not only elevates the story to something that’s meaningful to the adults, it doesn’t sacrifice the youthful appeal of the medium and underlying story. However, Avatar‘s hallmark is really the ability to integrate the thoughtful and heavy moments with the comedic and light seamlessly.

Beyond the adventure of following Avatar Aang and his friends on their journey to defeating Fire Lord Ozai and saving the world, we have the story of a young boy faced with the daunting task of having to grow up far faster than he would of liked.  This is the real legacy and personal journey for Aang throughout the series.  He spends Book One coming to terms with the fact that indeed he’s the Avatar and the last Airbender known; in the second he learns what conflict, pain and loss truly mean beyond his own trials and tribulations; and in the third, he learns the meaning of enlightenment, justice, and righteousness, and how it’s not always a transparent thing.  Aang’s growth throughout the series hasn’t been one that people would associate with a young 12 year old boy. His was a transition from having a sort of “dream-like” invisionment of reality, to accepting the complications that come with living in this world and understanding people.  Life and morality isn’t black and white, and it’s certainly far from orderly.  People may be self-centered, but there are times when humanity’s merits rise from underneath the selfishness, and people band together for the greater good, for their community, and for their family and friends. Sometimes the development towards that theme is subtle, other times, it’s extremely clear; what is consistent however, is that the development is always meaningful to the story, to Aang the Avatar, and most importantly, to Aang the person.

Don’t think that nuances of this epic are just relegated to Aang, as nearly every character, both protagonist and antagonist alike, is multi-dimensional.  That includes the animals. —No, I am not kidding; even Appa the Sky Bison has character.  Honestly, I really don’t know how the writers were able to keep the story engaging and focused even as they leisurely explored the backstory and motivations of so many characters.  We see characters struggle with abandonment, self-loathing, fear, distrust, and loneliness, and grow into different people; not necessarily better, but different. In particular, Zuko, who started out as a mere antagonist, has grown to such a tremendous degree to not only become one of the heroes, but one of the most beloved, developed, and nuanced characters on the show.  Some may argue that Avatar the Last Airbender is as much about Zuko as it is Aang.

Zuko and Aang really have parallel destinies in this show, and the way you slowly see their relationship change from mortal enemies to friend and confidant is breathtaking.  Their pathways to maturity dance around each other, a kind of entanglement that’s only revealed when you think about the issues and dilemmas they encounter rather  than the physical scenario.  I can only give credit to the writers for really making these two young adult characters truly meaningful.

1083551_1343166148050_fullI could spend an eternity dissecting each piece of Avatar that has allowed it to supersede the label of “just entertainment,” but first and foremost, the one element that really separates this story from all the rest is how extremely relatable the characters are. Despite having to save the world and learning different bending styles, discovering the complexities of society and human motivation, and dealing with everything else in life that comes with being teenagers (including the carefree elements,) the growth and story of Aang and his friends is something that nearly everyone can relate to; it’s so fundamentally human, it speaks to nearly every age.  It’s for that reason we come back, episode after episode, season after season to root for them.  In a way, we’re just rooting for ourselves.

(Images Via: Nickelodeon)

7 responses to “Time Machine: Avatar the Last Airbender and Meaningful Animation

  1. Wonderful writeup on one of my personal favourite shows. I agree that the power of Avatar’s narrative lies in its ability to resonate with audiences young and old by achieving a balance between levity and poignancy. I have written extensively on the show on my own blog (as well as pieces on Ghibli and Pixar movies), would love to hear your comments:


    Liked by 1 person

    • You have a wonderful site of your own, and I very much enjoyed reading it. I would also like to apologize for the wealth of gramatical errors that were in my piece when you first read it. I’m glad you liked it anyway!


  2. That screen cap of Zuko and Aang doing dancing dragon dance is one of my most favorite motion animation in TLA along with blind bandit ep 😀 Did you read the avatar comic book related? (the promise and the search),,,
    Beside Hayao Miyazaki’s film , nowadays I enjoy Mamoru Hosoda’s film (ex: summer wars, wolf children) 😀



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