Friday, March 30, 2012

The Avatar is Back!

I don't think it's hyperbole to call "Avatar: The Last Airbender" the best American cartoon of the last decade, which takes place in a full, rich multi-cultural fantasy universe. It's one of those rare shows that does everything right, that borrows from other cultures while being respectful to them, is careful to give balanced portrayals of a variety of diverse characters, and most importantly tells a great story very well. It hasn't been an easy ride for fans, who have had to suffer through Nickelodeon sidelining other animated projects to turn out a risible live-action adaptation, "The Last Airbender," which crashed and burned amid a storm of controversy two years ago. However, the creators of the original show have returned with a sequel series, "The Legend of Korra," which premieres on Nickelodeon next month. The first two episodes are already online.

In the "Avatar" universe, certain people have the ability to "bend" one of four elements, air, water, earth, or fire, depending on which of the four peoples that populate the series they come from. Only the Avatar, who is meant to bring balance and peace when the nations are in conflict, and act as a link to the supernatural world, has the ability to bend all four elements. The hero of the first series, the Avatar Aang, has died in the seventy-some years that have passed since "Avatar: The Last Airbender" ended, meaning his powers and responsibilities are passed on to a new Avatar, a girl from an Inuit-like waterbender tribe named Korra. That's not the only thing that has changed. At the end of the first series, we were just starting to see machinery and vehicles reminiscent of the beginnings of the industrial age. By Korra's time, technology has progressed to the point where there are rudimentary automobiles on the road. The majority of the action takes place in and around Republic City, reportedly modeled after Shanghai in the 1920s.

We first meet Korra (Janey Varney) as a precocious toddler, but she soon grows up into an enthusiastic, aggressive seventeen-year-old, busting to get away from the remote, icy tundra where she's been training. She has mastered three of the four elements. The last one is air, which she needs to learn from the stoic airbender Tenzin (J.K. Simmons), one of Aang's sons. However, Tenzin is an administrator of Republic City, which was meant to be a model city where all four nations could converge, but currently suffers from organized crime, systemic poverty, and a brewing social uprising led by non-benders who call themselves Equalists. He can't leave in a time of so much turmoil, so Korra takes the initiative to run away from home and follow Tenzin to the city. Soon she's making new friends, new enemies, and getting into all kinds of trouble.

Korra is quite a bit older than twelve-year-old Aang, and likewise the series feels a little more mature and adult from the outset. The show has plenty of younger characters in the mix, namely Tenzin's trio of airbending children, who provide good comic relief. However, there are also many more adults to contend with, and I expect the storylines are going to get darker a little quicker than they did in the first "Avatar" series. Everything will still be kid-friendly enough for the Nickelodeon crowd, but "Korra" is probably aiming to be more accessible to teenagers and adults too. Korra herself should be appealing to a wide range of viewers, as she's the kind of rebellious, exuberant, and frequently very funny young heroine we don't see enough of.

One thing I'm afraid I'm not sold on right now is the show's visuals. The action scenes look great and the major characters and environments are all beautifully designed, but when you get down to the minor characters, there's a really pronounced reliance on familiar, bland Japanese anime types. The show looks more like an anime than ever and less like a Western cartoon. I miss the first series' balance between the two styles. The music, however, has had a noticeable upgrade, reflecting the move away from older, more traditional forms.

"Korra" should be a great treat for existing "Avatar" fans, but I'm a little worried that younger newcomers will have difficulty following what's going on. In the first episode, there are many references to Aang and other characters from the first series, and a lot of potentially confusing terminology is tossed around. Still, I think Korra is a strong enough character to keep everyone's interest, and the exposition quickly gives way to breathless action scenes and interesting present day conflicts. And if new viewers do want to get all the back story, it's the perfect excuse to go and get acquainted with "Avatar: The Last Airbender."

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