In 2005 as Nickelodeon was putting to bed classics series' such as "Rugrats" and "Hey Arnold," and shows such as "Drake and Josh", "Spongebob Squarepants", and "The Fairly Oddparents" were becoming the new face of the network, a little show began its three year run that seemed to mix traditional anime elements of mysticism and martial arts, with Western "cartoon" sensibilities. It's hard to believe, a decade later, that "Avatar: The Last Airbender" (or "Avatar: The Legend of Aang") only lasted 61 episodes on a network that has devoted years to shows of far lesser quality. Perhaps though, it's viewers such as myself, who wrote the show off as "childish" and "disposable" simply for the network it happened to air on as the reason (I'll be honest upfront, I've only recently begun to explore the world of "Avatar" and still can't get a definitive answer whether it was cancelled or ended intentionally) why it came and went rather quickly but has managed to leave a respected legacy.
"Avatar: The Complete Series" captures the three seasons of "Avatar" known as Books (referring to three of the four elements playing a vital role in the series: Water, Earth, and Fire) into a complete set giving viewers a one-stop place to follow the journey of Aang from beginning to end. The brainchild of creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino, who followed up the series with "The Legend of Korra", "Avatar" focuses on the uniting of the four nations (Earth, Water, Air, and Fire) by the efforts of Aang, a 12-year old boy who is the last of his kind, an Airbender who possess the ability to control the four elements. Drawing instant comparisons to the Dalai Lama, Aang is the newest reincarnation of the Avatar, a spiritual focal point of his world. Voiced by Zach Tyler, "Avatar" instantly sets itself apart from the whacky hijinks of your standard "cartoon" by employing a respected voice cast that includes Mae Whitman, Dee Bradley Baker, Mako, and Dante Basco, as well as a laundry list of guest stars including but not limited to Mark Hamill, Jason Isaacs, Clancy Brown, and George Takei.
While the character design and most base level tone of the show does suggest a child friendly show, "Avatar" is at its minimum a series an entire family can enjoy. While a younger audience is going to appreciate the show's efficiency in relaying a relatively straightforward hero's journey adaptation, an older audience will find much to glean from "Avatar's" intelligently crafted world and consistently engaging scripts. If you've never seen "Avatar" and/or are only familiar of the series from the dreadful M. Night Shyamalan's live action abomination, dispel such ideas from your brain and approach this rare animated series that pushes viewers to think just a little harder than they should about what they are watching. "Avatar" combines traditional adventure in a world of Eastern mysticism; the different realms and peoples/cultures contained within the series confines are an amalgamation of many familiar Eastern cultures and philosophies. The different nations/elements all represent distinct martial arts fighting styles that many would recognize from any number of vintage kung-fu movies and "Avatar" leans heavily on this notion to make it's action simultaneously familiar and unique, a contradiction it manages to effortlessly succeed at.
It's no easy task to summarize what "Avatar" is at a deeper level. On the surface, it is a show that sounds entirely superficial and hackneyed. What makes "Avatar" work is its willingness to refuse settling for mediocrity in execution. It's a show, despite airing on Nickelodeon, does not pander to a demographic that wants saccharine, disposable, quotable and marketable entertainment. While "Avatar" is a property that has been marketed, there's not a single piece of merchandise that could summarize the series' deeper values and core ideals; "Avatar" is not a series with a catchphrase. It's a show that manages to touch on themes of genocide and self-doubt without overtly terrifying an initially young target audience. It's a show that's willing to let a character start as a villain and redeem himself over the course of the series, sending a powerful message of we are not bound to a destiny or fate, we are all capable of change. It is a show that offers a protagonist who has otherworldly powers, yet struggles with a possible destiny of having to exterminate the Fire Clan leader to bring peace to a world, a tremendous contradiction in many ways.
If there's one real misstep when it comes to "Avatar" is the end animation quality just doesn't live up to the quality and depth of the story and vocal performances. The animation is definitely serviceable and a step-up from most Nickelodeon shows of its time, but the deeper one gets into "Avatar" the more complex the animation, one wishes it was producing. A lot of that may very well be attributed to the time "Avatar" came out and it being an untested property; juxtapose "Avatar" to the animation quality of its follow-up "The Legend of Korra" and you can see where the confidence by the studio in the creators resulted in an end product that approaches a more cinematic quality. Nitpicks aside, "Avatar" is a hallmark of 21st-century television animation and its legacy should endure for years to come; it's well worth both an investment of time and money for quality wide-appeal storytelling like Aang's saga doesn't come along too often.
I'll be controversial here and say the transfer, presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio is noticeably dated and simply rehashing previous releases (which are nearly a decade old now) doesn't do much to give merit to this release. There are some mild compression artifacts as well as some minor aliasing issues. Colors are muted and overall, the animation doesn't age nearly as well as I remember. This is due in part to the original production value, but also aged, pre-digital TV, non-HD transfers. I have to believe a higher quality transfer doesn't exist that could be used if not for a full Blu-Ray release of the series, at least a better quality DVD release. The show still remains a quality piece of animation and is often times beautiful in presentation when coupled with its very competent, respectable storytelling efforts.
The Dolby Digital English stereo audio track, like the transfer holds up well for a nearly decade old presentation. Dialogue is clean, clear, although clearly rooted in a television presentation, in a world that wasn't as HD prevalent, let alone broadcast on a digital signal. That said, "Avatar" is still an ear pleasing program and the audio presentation gives a more than reasonable stage for some solid vocal performances and engaging sound design work. Books One and Two feature Spanish and French audio.
The collection contains a number of extras across the three "books." On Book One, there is a behind-the-scene featurette, a "Making of Avatar" featurette, "Ask the Creators" featurette, as well as an uncut animativ from "Bat of of the Water Tribe." On episodes 1, and 17-20, the creator along with cast and crew gather for commentary tracks. Book Two contains another uncut animatic from "The Avatar State" along with interviews with the creators and "The Essence of Bending with Bryan Konietzko and Sifu Kisu. Creator, cast and crew gather once again for commentaries on episodes 6, 8, 12, 14, 17, 18, and 20. Finally Book Three features a featurette on "The Women of Avatar" as well as a San Diego Comic Con featurette "Into the Fire Nation." Original pencil tests for the finale are included as well as commentaries on episodes 4-6, 10-12, and 16-21.
Given the nature of these original releases, these aren't as comprehensive or retrospectively focused as one might desire; that said, the commentaries are a very welcome addition and worth checking out.
There is do arguing that "Avatar" was a phenomenal show that transcended its on-paper roots as a Nickelodeon animated series. Smart, insightful and thrilling, it captured the spirit of Eastern philosophy and the martial arts epic in a way that appealed to young souls and wisened elders. The Complete Series release is a disappointing, rehash that will only be of value to those completely unfamiliar with the show. It does little more than recycle nearly decade old discs in new cases, when it should have been the unveiling of a new transfer; it's tough to say if "Avatar" will ever see the light of day on Blu-Ray where a high quality transfer would obviously debut; that said, if you don't already own the series, this is as definitive release as you can get. If you've previously bought the series either as individual volumes or season sets, you already own it all. Recommended.