When I got my hands on the first season of Avatar for review last year, it was like a revelation. I wanted to know why I hadn't listened to my friends who had told me how good the show was. I only had myself to interrogate, because it was I who had stood in my own way, and I had no real answer. Only the frayed defense of, "When so many people like it that much, it's never as good as they say...is it?"
I've been waiting some time now for the second boxed set to come around, and Avatar the Last Airbender - The Complete Book 2 Collection is finally here. I am not sure I have more eagerly torn into a DVD package that came in my review pile any time this year.
For those of you who don't know, the rundown of Avatar is this: in a mythological world, humanity is split into four camps based on their worship and mystical use of the four elements. Most everyone from the Earth, Air, and Water tribes manage to get along, but the more destructive Fire tribe has always been the least friendly on the map. Throughout history, though, a balance was maintained through the Avatar. While each tribe had special members called "benders," who could manipulate the element their tribe commanded through a combination of magic and kung fu, the Avatar combines all four elements into one discipline. Keeping things fair, each tribe is represented in every four rotations of the Avatar (only one can be alive at each time), so that Water can never rule more than Earth, etc. Only, one hundred years ago, Aang, the last Avatar and an Airbender, disappeared at the tender age of twelve. In his absence, the Fire tribe became the scourge of the planet.
At the series' outset, Aang was found frozen by two Water siblings, Sokka and Katara (a Waterbender herself). Riding on Aang's flying Bison, Appa, the kids are on a quest to help the untrained warrior learn to use his powers. The epic cartoon series has been structured in three acts, or "Books," each one based around a particular element. The first book was "Water," and the theme for Avatar the Last Airbender - The Complete Book 2 Collection is "Earth." This means not just the change in focus in Aang's training, but also how the questers are traveling. They are now moving off the sea, heading over dry land and the various terrain that can be found beyond the ocean shores.
As a flat concept, Avatar the Last Airbender is nothing special, but in execution, it is head and shoulders above other children's entertainment being cynically churned out for a customer base that the entertainment industry believes will accept anything regardless of quality. The makers of Avatar have something more transcendent in mind than the usual toy cash-in, crafting stories that combine humor, exciting action, and real heart to ensure that children of all ages, from 5 to 50, will tune in repeatedly. The world they've created for Aang and his crew is beautifully realized, pulling in influences from Asian mythology, anime, fantasy stories, and the creators' own fevered brains to give us something of its own singular design. To bring it to life, they work with an animation team on this side of the world and in Korea, using both computer effects and traditional hand-drawn work. The images on the screen are exquisitely drawn, and the movement is vividly fluid. Unlike your average TV series, the
quality doesn't flag, either. This isn't a case where a lot of time is put into the first couple of episodes and then the rest are hacked out. Though some scenes may be shakier than others, as a whole, the look of Avatar is consistently excellent.
Nobly, the producers try to keep the scripts up to the same high standards as the cartooning. This isn't always easy, as the downside of the quest genre, particularly when coupled with the need to maintain a television schedule, means there are some episodes that could be seen as filler. Disappointingly, this is felt early in season 2, with the first couple of shows coming off as side trips, with one-off characters and not a huge advancement of the overall plot. (Think how Buffy the Vampire Slayer and X-Files would have a string of stand-alone episodes, followed by a group of interconnected shows that moved their core mythology forward, and you'll get an idea of how it's done here.) The starting goal is to find the city of Omashu, where Aang is supposed to find his Earthbending teacher. This turns out to be the highlight of disc 1, but things don't really take off until disc 2, when Aang meets Toff, a.k.a. the Blind Bandit, and who destiny has chosen as his real Earth teacher.
Toff is a twelve-year-old girl who lives with a rich family that has kept her existence a secret, and unbeknownst to them, she has snuck out regularly to engage in Earth Rumbles, a kind of Bending equivalent to professional wrestling. As the Blind Bandit, she is an unbeatable fighter. Toff sees the world with her feet, feeling the vibrations of the Earth in order to know how to move it. She's an excellent addition to the cast, well designed and adding an extra bit of contention to the group. She is even animated convincingly as blind, even with her heightened senses sometimes showing through.
In fact, it's nice to see how many great girl characters Avatar the Last Airbender - The Complete Book 2 Collection has. Cartoons are often so boy-centric, the girls are cursory tokens to get little sisters to watch over their big brother's shoulder. In addition to Toff and Katara, the crown princess of the Fire Kingdom, Azula, has gathered her cousins Mai and Ty Lee as an unbeatable trio of hunters who have picked up the trail of Aang and the others. As distinctive from each other as the heroes are from one another, they join the fray as fully realized characters and not just extra window dressing to advance the plot. Azula is actually the sister of Aang's other nemesis, the perpetually angry and adolescent Zuko. She is simultaneously trying to bring down the Avatar and capture her rogue brother, whose exile is becoming more harsh and existential as the series progresses. Not content to have villains who are just evil for the sake of it, just as the girls are not girls to fill out some kind of focus-group balance, the show writers are cracking open Zuko and Azula's family, showing why he is such a mama's boy, the effect of their father's ambition on the siblings, and why Azula is such a brat.
One of my favorite episodes of season 2 is actually chapter 7 (on DVD 2). Entitled "Zuko Alone," it steps away from the Avatar to show the bad boy on his journey to find himself. Riffing heavily on Kurosawa and Leone, Zuko rides into a small town on an ostrich horse (just one of the many bizarre hybrids the show uses regularly) and ends up playing the Clint Eastwood role in a drama between poor farmers and the bullies who take advantage of the men of the village being off fighting the war against the Fire Kingdom. Concealing his identity, Zuko gets involved in the tussle, and the young boy whom he befriends inspires a series of flashbacks that show us where it all went wrong for Zuko and reminds him of who he is.
The back half of the season is when the story really takes off. Discs 3 and 4, each with the standard five episodes (11 through 15, and 16 through 20), concern themselves with the kids and their journey to Ba Sing Se, the impenetrable city where the Earth King lives. Thanks to a side trip to a Miyazaki-like library in chapter 10, they now know the best time to strike against the Fire Kingdom to exploit its greatest weakness. It was also at this desert stopover that Appa was kidnapped, and so the mission takes on the added burden of less-easy travel and needing to find their missing bison.
Once they get to Ba Sing Se, things aren't as straightforward as they'd hoped. The ruling class is attempting to create a utopia, and so news of war is not permitted. Within this police state, there are many struggles. While some of the supporting players must combat the siren-song lure of the quiet life in the city walls, others grow and change in important ways. Return appearances by Suki and Jet from season 1 are significant in showing that no small detail lacks importance, and we can't assume any one-off character is one-off at all.
A fantastic "breaking the mold" episode is chapter 15, "Tales of Ba Sing Se." Split into multiple vignettes, we see each character on pause, trying to fit into their new home. This includes Katara and Toff bonding while getting makeovers, and Zuko going on his first date. Most touching, however, is General Iroh spending a day alone celebrating the son he lost in battle. It also fittingly serves as a tribute to Mako, the voice actor who played Iroh, who died shortly after completing his work on this season of Avatar.
This "Tales of..." episode is immediately followed by "Appa's Lost Days," a heartrending look at where the Bison has been since his disappearance. These quiet moments gear us up for the final four, which serve as another excellent conclusion to an Avatar book. It has plenty of action to keep the pace moving, but also terraforms the story in new and interesting ways. A satisfying conclusion it its own right, chapter 20 leaves a lot of dangling questions for the big finish.
We hear over and over these days about how television is in a kind of golden age with all of the great shows being produced for cable, and how that has challenged the regular broadcast networks to get in the game. Among the list of luminaries, we shouldn't forget Avatar the Last Airbender just because it's a cartoon. It fits the model for what is being heralded as the best of the best: a complex story plan told over many seasons, melding genres in new and interesting ways, and giving us characters that grow with each passing installment. Avatar the Last Airbender - The Complete Book 2 Collection is proof positive of the show's unflagging quality, full of comedy and drama, and a true must-have for adventure fans.
As with season one, Avatar the Last Airbender - The Complete Book 2 Collection comes to DVD in its original broadcast format of full screen. I have nothing to complain about. It's bright and lacking in any compression issues. Five episodes per DVD, twenty total on four discs, plus a bonus disc of material exclusive to the boxed set. You can watch them one at a time or choose to play them all.
Here we also maintain the strong audio quality from Book 1: A Dolby Digital mix that is well done. The mix is evenly balanced, with lots of subtleties in the dialogue and the excellently designed sound effects. There are also French and Spanish language tracks.
Essentially, the four main discs are the same exact discs that were released individually over the last year (and reviewed elsewhere on this site). This means the same extras. On DVD 1, we get a full animatic (a combination of pencil tests and storyboards coupled with the recorded dialogue) of episode 1, and on the other three discs, individual episode commentaries each featuring the series creators (Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko) and various members of the crew. There are two on DVDs 2 and 3 and three on DVD 4. The only thing missing here that was in the original releases is the serialized minicomic, "Divided We Fall." The only insert that comes with the box is a chapter/DVD breakdown, with a rather lovely postcard image on the other side.
There is, however, an animated comic book story called "Escape from the Spirit World" on Disc 5. Or, they call it a comic, but it really is more of a series of drawings with captions. Running for 13 minutes with only soundtrack music as audio, it doesn't have any of the language of comics, no word balloons or captions, just the dialogue as subtitles and pictures that move via a rudimentary animation style resembling Flash.
Elswhere, there is a 10 minute 15 second interview with DiMartino and Konietzko, the creators of Avatar, and director M. Night Shyamalan, talking about how he's going to ruin this great series by making a live action version of it. When is popular culture going to get past the idea that a movie version somehow validates the original release? If it's this good, leave it alone. Nothing in this standard pat-on-the-back suckfest (everyone in Hollywood is best friends!) has got me excited for Shyamalan's trilogy, as he's a pretty boring guy on camera and his own movies haven't been good in a while.
The second documentary has Konietzko talking to kung fu consultant Sifu Kisu about what styles of martial arts he uses for each type of bender to make them unique. "The Essence of Bending" (9:25) is interesting, I guess, but we essentially already got all of this on the first disc of Season 1. Much better are the three "Super Deformed Shorts," a series of four-minute cartoons that use the ultra cute anime style to tell funny side stories with the Avatar characters.
Though there are no trailers accessible from the menu of any of the DVDs, each disc has several Nickelodeon teasers that play as the DVD loads up. These are easily skipped with your "next" button.
Avatar the Last Airbender - The Complete Book 2 Collection is packaged in a foldable cardboard case with plastic trays, each set up to house two discs at once. The case then slides in a sturdy slipcover. It should nestle next to your Complete Book 1 Collection nicely.
Avatar the Last Airbender - The Complete Book 2 Collection continues to reach the heights set by the first season, making this one of the best overall series on television, and certainly the best animated show. Combining mythology, martial arts, and just good old-fashioned fun, it's an adventure tale that will appeal to anyone who likes to enjoy themselves by getting lost in an action-packed story. The middle part of a three-season trilogy, this one sees the characters growing and becoming more complex, and setting us up for the wild ride we're sure to get in Book 3. Due to the rudimentary extras, the DVD package this time around is a slight step down from the first year collection, but it's still well worth owning. Highly Recommended.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.