Avatar the Last Airbender is easily one of the best shows on television. The animated Nickelodeon program combines kung-fu, Eastern mythology, and good old-fashioned children's story adventure for an all-ages quest that is as engrossing and smartly written as any of the more buzzed about live-action serials currently on the air.
Set in a world that is neither past nor future, a mythical land that resembles our own, Avatar picks up the story a century into the rule of the Fire Nation. In this fantasy, humans are divided into four tribes based on the elements: earth, air, water, and fire. Very special humans are "benders," individuals who can control these elements and bend them to their will using a kind of internal force. The Avatar is a being who comes along in each generation and can control all four elements, and he or she is meant to unite the various tribes. In a case of natural selection creating a system of checks and balances, each new Avatar must come from a different tribe, rotating equally so that no one set of people has power any longer than the other. Just as the Fire Nation was making its bid for world domination, the Avatar of their people passed away, triggering the Avatar from the Air Nation. A 12-year-old boy, Aang was accidentally frozen in the ocean, taking the Avatar power out of play and allowing the bad guys to rule.
The series began with Aang being found by some kids from the water tribe, and so far it has concerned itself with Aang's simultaneous paths of learning to use his powers while also beginning an early campaign to end the tyranny of the Fire Nation. Designed as a trilogy of seasons--or as they are called, "Books"--the creators of the show are creating a full story with a beginning, middle, and end. We are now in Book 3: Fire. The rebel armies are waiting for a solar eclipse to launch their largest attack. Since Fire people draw their energy from the sun, this blackout will leave them weak and vulnerable. Most of Book 3 so far has been about Aang and his crew--Earthbender Toph, Waterbender Katara, and comedic sidekick Sokka--traveling toward the battle site while Aang still works on his skills, and the people, adventures, and lessons they encounter along the way. Currently, everyone believes Aang is dead, a secret the kids are working hard to keep. Only Zuko knows the truth outside of their circle, and he has sent a deadly assassin after Aang to make the lie a reality.
Nickelodeon releases a new Avatar the Last Airbender DVD every five episodes or so, after the shows air on cable. Thus, Book 3: Fire, Vol. 2 is the second collection from the third season, and it contains episodes 6 through 10.
* Chapter 6: The Avatar and the Firelord: An episode expanding on the back story of the conflict, this is a parallel narrative where both Aang and his rival, Zuko, the conflicted crown prince of the Fire Nation, explore the history that defines them--Aang through the visions shown by the visiting spirit of the previous Avatar Roku and Zuko through the secret journal of his great grandfather, Firelord Sozin. Best friends as children, Roku and Sozin were at odds as adults, and it was Sozin who started the great war. It's an excellently told mythology episode, with lots of heavy moments and new information, as well as an awesome battle with dragons over a fiery volcano.
* Chapter 7: The Runaway: On a stop at a Fire Nation city, the blind Toph reveals that she can beat a shell game with the same sensory skills that get her through life without sight. She, Aang, and Sokka get caught up in the thrill of gambling, despite Katara's warnings that they will attract too much attention. This turns out to be true, with Zuko's deadly emissary showing up just in time to engage them in a ferocious battle. Amidst this, the kids also learn a little more about their individual functions within the unit.
* Chapter 8: The Puppetmaster: A chance encounter with an exiled Waterbender from Sokka and Katara's tribe momentarily restores Katara's connections to her roots. This woman, Hama, teaches her some new bending techniques, but Sokka can't shake the suspicion that something is wrong and Hama is maybe connected to the mysterious disappearances that have been happening on nights of the full moon and that the locals blame on the "Moon Man."
* Chapter 9: Nightmares and Daydreams: Four days ahead of the eclipse, Aang and company arrive at the rendezvous point. While waiting, Aang is plagued with nightmares, both humorous and horrifying, about the forthcoming fight. To conquer these visions is to conquer his doubts. The dream sequences are fun and creative, with lots of excellent designs and storyboards.
* Chapter 10: The Day of Black Sun, Part 1: The Invasion: Yikes, these guys love long, complicated titles! The ragtag fleet of rebels, led by Katara and Sokka's father, arrive at the checkpoint and preparations are made for the infiltration of the Fire Nation Palace so that Aang can take on the Firelord. The troops are made up of a lot of the more colorful characters we've met over the first two seasons, bringing them back for another go-around. I think it's cool in this episode how a lot of the war machine technology is based on nature and powered by bending abilities rather than on sudden advances in machinery. The start of the invasion has a lot of great action, and the episode ends on a major cliffhanger.
In addition to the solid writing, Avatar the Last Airbender also has amazing animation. The character designs, with its roots in classic Asian folklore, are colorful and inventive, and the overall animation is smooth and consistently executed. The work here is several steps ahead of the limited animation of most Saturday morning and syndicated shows, with a small touch of anime style to make it contemporary. Even the digital effects used for the battle vehicles is more integrated than it has been in earlier seasons. It's still obvious, but not as jarring
Read reviews of The Complete Book 1 and The Complete Book 2.
Made for television, Avatar the Last Airbender is animated at a full screen aspect ratio. As should be the case with contemporary TV animation being transferred to DVD, the picture quality is top of the line. There is no compression, no loss of color, the Avatar discs always look fantastic.
Episodes can be played all at once, or chosen one at a time.
Only one English soundtrack is available, a fairly effects-heavy and well-balanced Dolby Digital stereo track.
Two paper inserts come with Book 3: Fire, Vol. 2: a single-sheet giving an episode guide on one side and advertising other Avatar DVDs on the other, and a six-page color comic book exclusive to the DVD releases. The comic in this installment is the second of four parts, so the story will be complete when you have all four of the Book 3 discs. They may be a limited special feature, however, because I purchased my own copy of Book 3: Fire, Vol. 1 so I could catch up before I covered this disc, and I did not receive part 1 of the comic. Bummer.
Episodes 6 and 10 both have commentaries featuring show creators Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, composer Jerry Zuckerman, and sound editor Benjamin Wynn. The commentaries can be accessed either through the special features menu, or you are prompted to choose them if you watch the episodes individually. These are informative, jovial tracks, with the creative partners and friends all talking about what goes into the show. Warning, though, there are very minor spoilers in the chapter 10 commentary about where some characters are going in the next volume. Come on, guys, think ahead! Not everyone is watching this on TV before watching it on DVD.
Two Nickelodeon trailers play as the DVD loads, but each can be skipped by hitting your "next" button.
Highly Recommended. Avatar the Last Airbender - Book 3: Fire, Vol. 2 is yet another amazing collection of one of television's most outstanding shows. An all-ages animated adventure, Avatar chronicles the quest of young Aang, a mystical master of the four elements, to end the tyrannical reign of the Fire Nation over the world. Mixing kung-fu adventure with mythological fantasy, this is smartly crafted entertainment that is funny, dramatic, and exciting. This second installment from the in-progress final season advances both the overall story and the characters, and it looks fabulous all the way through.
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.