Harry Potter has changed the game for children's entertainment. Since the boy wizard started captivating young minds, material produced for kids ceased having to be mindless commercials for some ancillary product. Harry showed that kids liked complicated stories that would grow with them and fully formed worlds where they could escape the everyday, putting themselves in the shoes of adventurers their own age with concerns they shared. Well, the concerns they shared once the heroes of their favorite stories were done saving the world.
Avatar, the Last Airbender debuted on the Nickelodeon television network in 2005. Its first season, billed as "Book 1: Water," ran for 20 episodes. They were split up over five previously available DVDs, and Avatar, the Last Airbender: The Complete Book 1 Collection brings those discs together in one handsome trifold case, along with a sixth disc of all-new bonus features. The show has become a successful franchise for Nickelodeon, reaching an audience beyond the children's market with crisp animation and layered storytelling. Its creators, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, have created a new mythology that doesn't talk down to its audience and so never insults its oldest viewers; at the same time, by never ceasing to entertain, Avatar avoids causing its youngest to feel left-out.
The Avatar world is a blend of Asian folklore, anime, and martial arts adventure. It is built on a balance of elemental magic. Different tribes over the globe worship earth, water, fire, and air. The most powerful mystics are called Benders, and they can manipulate their specific elements for all manner of tasks, be it for agriculture, fighting, or just having fun. In every generation, there is also an Avatar, one individual who can draw on the lineage of previous Avatars and control all four elements. In order to maintain the balance of existence, these Avatars are on a rotating cycle. If one Avatar is a water bender, the next one will be an earth bender, and so on. The last known Avatar was a fire bender, and his successor was to be an air bender. Only, the intended heir to the title disappeared one-hundred years ago, and since then, the Fire Nation has been waging war on the other tribes, and they have all but wiped out the Air Tribe.
In the inaugural episode of Avatar, the Last Airbender, a pair of siblings from the Water Tribe that lives at the South Pole accidentally stumbles upon an iceberg that has a twelve-year-old boy and his giant flying bison frozen inside of it. They set the pair free, and so the adventure begins. The boy is Aang, the long-lost Avatar. His bison is Appa, a loveable but fierce creature that looks like something out of a Hayao Miyazaki film. (Appa is also part beaver; all the animals in Avatar are hybrids of some kind.) The girl who finds them is Katara, the last water bender on the South Pole. Her brother is Sokka, an awkward teenager who dreams of being a warrior. They have lost both their parents to the war with the Fire Nation: their mother is dead, and their father is leading a Navy fleet in battle. Katara is without a mentor to teach her to use her skills, and once Aang's true identity is discovered, they hatch a plan to travel to the North Pole so that the master benders in the Northern Water Tribe can give both her and Aang some tips. Of course, Aang wants to do fun things along the way. Being twelve, the idea of surfing giant koi fish is irresistible.
The new team barely gets started before their journey turns into a pursuit--of them. Zuko is the disgraced prince of the Fire Nation, banished by his father the Fire Lord due to insubordination, forbidden to return home until he finds the Avatar. What was once a fool's errand has now become a reality for the angry young man. He bears the scars of his altercation with his father quite literally: his left eye is permanently burned. Zuko travels with his Uncle Iroh, a legendary warrior who suffered a humiliating defeat in the war and is now himself disgraced. Having lost his only son, he views Zuko as his own and tries to steer the hot-headed boy towards manhood and success. Iroh is a light-hearted sort who isn't afraid to have some fun and admire the ladies even when serious business is at hand.
Avatar, the Last Airbender is essentially a quest story. Aang and his crew are heading towards the North Pole and enlightenment so that Aang can fulfill his destiny and free the world from the iron fist of the Fire Nation. Where Avatar, the Last Airbender succeeds and other series fail is that DiMartino and Konietzko have an overarching plan for the series. While the telling is episodic, the points the kids hit on the map are not just random events that fill space in order to draw the series out longer. Instead, each adventure adds to the story. We learn more about the characters and they learn more about themselves. New allies (Momo, the bat/lemur found at the abandoned Air Temple; the spirit of the forest that Aang helps achieve peace so it will stop terrorizing a village, etc.) and villains (Admiral Zhao, a Fire Nation soldier with delusions of grandeur who competes with Zuko to capture Aang) are added to the cast the further it goes. On top of that, rather than remain exactly as they were in the first episode, all the principal players are different at the end of Book 1. They have all grown.
From episode to episode, disc to disc, Avatar, the Last Airbender never stumbles. It is consistently funny, touching, and exciting. Each school of bending is based on real schools of martial arts, and the benders move in realistic ways even when they are tossing fire or water around. The animators have choreographed the stunts and mapped out their camera movements to take full advantage of the limitless opportunities animation provides. They don't have to break their own reality by introducing digital effects into scenes with real people, the drawings are all in one style; even when they do use CG for mechanical elements, it's fully integrated. The result is more gripping than most live-action adventure films.
In many ways, the animation is the real star here. Produced in America and finished in Korea, the quality never falters the way ongoing shows usually do. It's all consistent, it always looks fantastic. The animators' ability to capture the nuances of comedy and drama conveyed by the voice acting talent is on par with Pixar's, and so each and every installment of Avatar, the Last Airbender has moments of laughter, heart, and genuine exhilaration.
In keeping with that formula, Avatar, the Last Airbender: The Complete Book 1 Collection goes out with a bang. Finally nearing their destination, the kids visit the Northern Air Temple before moving on to the North Pole. The last three episodes take place in the Water Tribe village there, and Admiral Zhao makes his big move. The battle is intense, and it comes with actual consequences. The show's creators tie up their first story with a satisfying conclusion, but leave enough things open that there is plenty of story waiting to be told in Book 2.
I say bring it on!
Disc 1 has four short features explaining what martial arts discipline was chosen for each school of bending and why. Live-action demonstrations are juxtaposed with clips from the show, and it's your first real hint of how involved the making of Avatar, the Last Airbender is.
Disc 2 has my least favorite feature, showing actual footage the show creators record to illustrate what they want from their animators in particular scenes. It gets a little obnoxious, plus shows scenes from episodes that are on disc 3. No major spoilers, but still...
Disc 3's featurette is about the very talented voice actors. Most of them are kids, but Zuko is an older man and there is also one guy who does all the sounds for Appa and Momo.
Disc 4 has a short bit where DiMartino and Konietzko answer viewer questions and goof around for the camera. Additionally, you can watch the full pencil animatic for episode 15. While the animated storyboards take up most of the screen, the finished episode runs in a boxed-off picture in the lower right, only turning off for one scene in the show that was cut before being fully animated. The voices were recorded, however, and so this deleted scene can now be seen in its early pencil stage.
Disc 5 steps up the game, and there are audio commentaries for all four of the episodes that finish off Book 1. On episode 17, the commentary is by the sound designer and the voice of Appa and Momo. They discuss some technical aspects, but they run out of things to say rather quickly and there are long pauses where nothing is said at all. The other three episodes feature the co-creators and the head writer, and these commentaries are more involved, discussing the various levels of detail that go into the show. It's not the most spirited of commentaries, but there is interesting information.
Disc 6 has four features. The real prize is the never-aired fifteen-minute pilot. It's a showcase sequence establishing the characters and the action style. There is a commentary by DiMartino and Konietzko explaining everything about it; the only downside is that you can't turn the commentary off and watch it with the original audio.
There are then three documentaries. The shortest is the three-minute "Behind the Scenes" which covers ground already gone over on other extras. Next is a six-minute piece, "Inside the Sound Studios." This shows the foley department adding effects. Last is the twenty-five minute tour "Inside the Korean Animation Studios." The Korean team is far more than hired hands following orders, but a more integrated part of the creative process. This shows us some of the production areas in the studio and compiles subtitled interviews with a lot of the key animators.
The box for The Complete Book 1 Collection has an episode guide insert with disc-by-disc breakdowns on one side and a decorative-style map of the Avatar world on the other.
Trailers and commercials appear at the start of the five main DVDs, but you can skip them individually by using the "next" button.