Sunday, December 22, 2013

Avatar: The Last Airbender is Stunning in it's Technical Perfection

Photo Credit: absoluteanime.com
Bear with me here. I know cartoon television shows aimed at kids eating Lucky Charms on a Saturday morning don't usually attract critical attention. Especially Japanese anime-styled cartoons. But by ridding yourself of prejudice regarding the appropriateness of viewing a lighthearted, solidly un-hip kids show, you may walk away thoroughly impressed. On several key technical dimensions, this show simply blows everything else away (including big-budget, high-concept cable and internet offerings).

A few takeaways:

1. Dialogue: More and more I'm coming to the conclusion that, outside of particularly skilled artistic circumstances (Tarantino etc.), good dialogue requires the periodic joke or comment that puts the viewer off-balance. Typically this means breaking out of the stiff formality of mundane plot-furthering dialogue and having characters say something that's believable from a real-world perspective. Similar to breaking the fourth wall, dialogue that makes me think "I would respond in a similar way" heightens focus and spurs reflection in an intellectually rewarding way. Avatar does this all the time.

2. Humor: Viewers who have difficulty enjoying anime--or cartoons in general--might not appreciate Avatar's humor. The comedy style in anime (and to a lesser extent American cartoons) is quite well-defined with fairly strict conventions regarding certain emotional symbols and visual devices. Avatar adheres to these conventions, but employs humor that is slapstick and creative, offering a refreshing break from the dark- and dry-humor that dominates most narrative shows these days.

3. Story: Simply incredible. The show is built around a band of travelers seeking out various spiritual masters scattered throughout an ancient world. The protagonist, a sort of "chosen one" type figure, is a kid who was frozen in ice, seeking to correct the damage that's been done in his absence by an unconstrained militaristic empire. Exploring an impoverished world at war allows for a really interesting take on the moral ambiguity of truly desperate people willing to do anything to survive. A rich historical background is revealed gradually throughout the show.

4. Characters: Every single episode furthers each character's development. And, amazingly, bit characters develop fast and actually return. This is one of the most unique and refreshing aspects of Avatar. The show is built around three seasons but one main story. Each show is variable in it's weighting towards furthering the plot, but in no way does it split between "monster of the week" episodes (to borrow X-Files' formula) and mainline plot episodes. Almost every character is pretty original, which is a feat.

5. Philosophy: Avatar mostly concerns the training of young warriors in various magical martial arts disciplines. What's impressive is the way Avatar infuses real-world philosophy and spirituality into its zany cartoon world. Brahminism, Shinto, warrior folk religions, various branches of Buddhism (Tibetan Buddhism is represented by the "air" caste which resides in cloistered mountain monasteries) are all readily apparent.

6. Correct Use of Aww: This is a pretty new concept that's been popularized by the internet. Employing cute animals to trigger the emotion of "aww" is quickly developing to rival in importance the old mainstay artistic categories like humor, drama, and action. Animals are important devices because their endearing ignorance and purity is used as a foil: when things get too serious they pleasurably jolt the viewer and make everything light-hearted. While related to humor, cute animals are something different. Avatar uses animals and the concept of "aww" to great effect.

7. Style: Most great cartoons try and carve out a unique style, and Avatar succeeds in a curious way. The animation isn't unique at all, but the show still conveys a strong sense of style through creative world-building. The setting is essentially a fictional amalgamation of stylized Asian indigenous cultures. The series winds its way through a detailed anthropological exploration of architecture, clothes, spirituality, and martial arts styles. Additionally Avatar is filled with quirky stylistic easter eggs that add depth and texture over many episodes. For example, most every animal in the show is a comical combination of two real-world animals, like a "pig bear" or "cat owl". It's just incredibly weird.

8: Deepness of Theory: I don't really know how to describe this aspect of the show, but it's the #1 thing that stood out to me when compared to other great cartoons. It's sort of like the combination of a) logical consistency within the fictional world and b) attention to detail. The magic/martial arts they invent in the series involve the ability of certain individuals to manipulate elements using specific martial arts techniques. In most cartoons, magic and superpowers are used only in order to have cool action and maybe a bit of character development. This almost always leads to there existing logical applications of superpowers that never show up on camera. Avatar fully explores the limits of the fictional world they've constructed, so if you say "well if you can control water why don't you manipulate blood," this actually pops up in the show. Maybe call it "logically extensive world-building" or something.

9: Good Vocabulary: The advanced concepts and general lack of dumbing-down is great.

In general the core idea of merging fantasy magic with Asian martial arts techniques is a damn good one, and allows for tons of creativity. But that's not entirely why the series succeeds. The idea of world-building within one culture and then dividing it up into four sub-cultures all based around simple-to-understand elements (and the commonly-understood emotional associations with these (e.g. air = free, fire =  rage etc.)) makes a basic model of culture that facilitates the exploration of differences. The main themes of Avatar: war, diversity, importance of history, duty, honor, violence vs. nonviolence, importance of family and love, exceptionality vs mediocrity, competition between freinds etc. are all complicated, but Avatar flawlessly navigates this terrain. Not bad for a Saturday morning cartoon.

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