For those unfamiliar with the show, the storyline is set in a land populated by four tribes: The Water Tribes (there are both Northern and Southern clans), The Earth Kingdom, The Fire Nation and The Air Nomads. There's a reason that these tribes are named after the elements, and that's due to certain people from each tribe being able to ‘bend' the element after which they've been named. They do this by using telekinesis and martial art. There is one person who can bend all four elements, and that person is The Avatar. His job is to keep the peace between the four tribes and the Avatar's life is cyclical, meaning that each time an Avatar passes away, that Avatar's life essence moves on to a member of the next tribe in line. A new Avatar has to learn how to bend each element in the same cyclical order and, once trained, can enter the ‘Avatar State' wherein they gain the knowledge of their predecessors, but should The Avatar be killed in ‘Avatar State' then the cycle ends, and that's it, the cycle ends. Got it? Good, because you'll need to know all that before moving into the series. Though it is nicely explained early on in the show, it's best to get that out of the way with for the purposes of writing a review.
Enter into this world Aang, a new Avatar, an Air Nomad who was trapped in ice and frozen in time while Sozin, the ruler of The Fire Nation, waged war against Aang's people. A century passes and two teenagers from The Southern Water Tribe, Katara and Sokka, come across Aang and free him. They wind up taking him to the Northern Water Tribe where they hope that he'll be able to master ‘water bending' because, well, what better tool to use when fighting a Firelord than water? Meanwhile, a Firelord named Ozai has replaced Sozin. While this is going on, minions of Ozai search for Aang, as does Ozai's son, Prince Zuko, but for different reasons. As this story, which makes up the first season, comes to a close we move into the second season where Toph Beifong teaches Aang ‘Earth Bending.' Zuko and his uncle, Iroh, take refuge in the Earth Kingdom, knowing that Ozai's people are after them, and things get only more complicated when Zuko's sister, Azula, shows up on the scene. In the third storyline, Aang and his allies use the advantage offered to them during a solar eclipse to attack The Fire Nation, but it doesn't go as planned, leaving Aang in a most difficult spot where he has to question his own moral code, while trying to master ‘Fire Bending' and decide how and when to ultimately deal with Ozai.
There's more to it all than just those two paragraphs' worth of information, of course. Plenty of sub-plots help to nicely flesh out the characters and the situations that they deal with. The series is definitely a lot more ‘mature' than you'd expect for a series that was clearly geared towards a younger audience. It deals with adult issues like morality, the effects of violence and war and even philosophy. Self-confidence and the importance of that attribute also plays a large part in what the series manages to rather cleverly and earnestly explore. All of this makes for occasionally heady but always rewarding viewing and by the time it's all over with you've witness a lot more than just ‘cool anime fights' and colorful characters running about a strange world. The series stays appropriate for kids, of course, but it dives deeper into different themes and concepts than almost all of its North American ilk and is all the better for it. It's a nice mix of not-so-mindless escapism and high concept thought-provocation.
Production values are really strong across the board. The show is very stylish and beautifully rendered, taking full advantage of the limitless possibilities offered by animation and really running with it. The character and background design work is excellent, there's a lot to take in here and the fight scenes move with an impressive amount of kinetic energy even if the level of detail in the series never reaches the heights provided by other animated series (though by Nickelodeon standards, this scores pretty high marks in that regard!). The score is perfect, wonderfully complimenting the emotion and drama inherent in aspects of the storyline and heightening the tension of the action set pieces just as nicely. Mae Whitman, Dee Bradley Baker, Mako, and Dante Basco all do a great job as the voice actors handling the principal characters.
Avatar: The Last Airbender was finished in standard definition and just like the transfers on the previous Blu-ray release, what we've got here is a collection of AVC encoded 1080p transfers upscaled from a standard definition source., spread out across nine 50GB discs. Given that, these transfers are decent but show obvious limitations. Expect to see some ringing and noticeable banding in spots as well as occasional issues with compression and macroblcking. These aren't overpowering but they are there and most will notice them. Still, there's good to be noted as well. The colors look very good, occasionally quite beautiful, and while detail never rises to the heights of a proper high definition presentation, it definitely does look nicer than past DVD editions did. For an upscale, this presentation is decent enough.
Audio options are offered up in English language 24-bit DTS-HD 2.0 Stereo as well as French and Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, with subtitles provided in English SDH only. Bass isn't as strong as you might want to be during some of the more epic action set pieces but there's good fidelity here. Dialogue stays clean and clear and the tracks are all nicely balanced and free of any hiss or distortion.
Extras, all of which mirror the past Blu-ray release, are spread across the discs in the set as follows:
BOOK ONE: WATER
Disc one contains the Behind The Scenes Kung Fu Featurette which is a five-minute piece where Sifu Kis talks about the way that martial arts are portrayed in the show and their importance to the storyline. He also talks about how elements of Tai Chi are used in the different elemental bending techniques that the series makes use of. This disc also includes a minute-long credits sequence for the show and a four-minute featurette called The Making Of Avatar: From Real Life To Animation where series creators Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko talk about the making of the show and reenact some sequences from it.
Disc two contains Behind The Scenes: The Voices Of Avatar which is a five-minute piece where we get to know some of the voice actors employed in the series and hear from them about what it's like having to bring certain characters to life. The three-minute Ask the Creators Featurette sees DiMartino and Konietzko spend three-minutes talking about what goes into making the series and answering questions about their creative process. This disc also holds the Original Uncut Animatic For Episode # 15: Bato Of The Water Tribe, a twenty-five-minute piece that presents the entire episode in format on the main screen with the finished episode playing at the same time in a smaller window on the bottom of the screen. It's quite interesting to see how the animation process evolves from these rough animatics to the finished broadcast version.
On disc three we get Behind The Scenes With The Avatar Cast & Crew, a quick three-minute piece that recaps some series' highpoints and offers some quick info from the cast and crew on this era of the show. Also included on this disc is the Avatar Pilot Episode With Audio Commentary which presents the entire test animation done for the pilot episode with commentary from DiMartino and Konietzko who speak in quite a bit of detail about the series' process, what went into getting the look of the series down, and how the show evolves from script to finished product. The Making Of Avatar: Inside The Sound Studios is a six-minute look at what goes into the series' sound design work, while The Making Of Avatar: Inside the Korean Animation Studios is a twenty-six-minute segment that is hosted by Konietzko who brings us on a literal tour of JM Animation, the studio responsible for bringing the visual side of the series to life.
This disc also features audio commentaries for the following episodes: The Northern Air Temple (with sound designer Benjamin Wynn and voice actor Dee Baker), The Waterbending Master (with co-creators Mike DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko and head writer Aaron Ehasz), The Siege Of The North Part One (with DiMartino and Konietzko and Ehasz) and for The Siege Of The North Part Two (again with DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko and Ehasz).
BOOK TWO: EARTH
Disc four contains another original uncut animatic episode, this time for the twenty-five-minute The Avatar State and again, if you've got an interest in seeing how the animation moves along in the process, it's quite interesting to see. Once again, we get the finished version playing alongside the animatic version, albeit in a smaller window towards the bottom of the screen. We also find audio commentaries for The Blind Bandit (with DiMartino, Konietzko and director Ethan Spaulding) and for The Chase (with DiMartino, writer Josh Hamilton and director Giancarlo Volpe).
Disc five contains audio commentary tracks for the following episodes: Journey To Ba Sing Se: Part One The Serpent's Pass (with DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko with co-writer Josh Hamilton), City And Walls Of Secrets with DiMartino, Konietzko and background layout supervisor Elsa Garagarza).
An Interview With Creators And M. Night Shyamalan starts off the sixth disc. It's a ten-minute piece where DiMartino and Konietzko chat with Shyamalan about both the animated series and the live action adaptation that Shyamalan was responsible for directing. The nine-minute The Essence Of Bending With Bryan Konietzko And Sifu Kisu is a second chat with Kisu that covers how real world martial arts elements are adapted into the show, sometimes more realistically than others, and to what degree these practices effect the series. The Avatar Super Deformed Shorts section contains three brief stories related to the show, running between three and five minutes each: Bending Battle, Swamp Skiin' Throwdown and School Time Shipping. These are amusing enough and a nice inclusion here. Also be on the lookout for Escape FromThe Spirit World: Animated Graphic Novel, a thirteen-minute featurette that is literally what it sounds like… an animated comic book story. There's no dialogue here, instead we get word balloons and what not on the screen, but there's a musical score behind it all. It's essentially a motion comic.
Disc six also holds audio commentaries for Lake Laogai (with DiMartino, Konietzko and writer Tim Hedrick), The Earth King (with DiMartino, writer John O'Bryan and storyboard artist Joaquim Dos Santos) and for The Crossroads Of Destiny (with DiMartino and Konietzko).
BOOK THREE: FIRE
The seventh disc has audio commentary tracks for Sokka's Master (with DiMartino and Konietzko and Sifu Kisu), The Beach (with Konietzko, director Joaquim Dos Santos and writer Katie Mattila) and for The Avatar And The Firelord (with Konietzko and DiMartino, sound designer Benjamin Wynn and composer Jeremy Zuckerman).
Disc eight has commentary tracks for Day Of Black Sun (with Konietzko and DiMartino joined by sound designer Benjamin Wynn and composer Jeremy Zuckerman), The Western Air Temple( with Konietzko and DiMartino) and for The Southern Raiders (with Konietzko, DiMartino, voice director Andrea Romano and actor Dante Basco.).
Featurettes on the last disc include The Women Of Avatar: The Last Airbender, which is a nineteen-minute piece that explores the importance of Katara, Toph and Azula to the series by way of interviews with voice actors, crew members and fans of the series. We also get Book 3 Finale Pencil Test Animation, an eleven-minute piece where Konietzko and DiMartino discuss and show off some early artwork and animation work. Also found here is Into The Fire Nation At San Diego Comic-Con, a thirty-six-minute panel interview/discussion hosted at the convention wherein the series' creators are joined by a few cast and crew members to discuss the history of the series.Disc nine also holds commentary tracks for The Ember Island Players (with Konietzko, DiMartino, actor Jessie Flower and actor Jack De Sena) and Sozin's Comet Part One (with Konietzko and DiMartino).
It's also worth mentioning the packaging here. Nickelodeon has done a very nice job in this department. Each one of the ‘books' is presented in its own individual steelbook with some nice, original artwork on it from Caleb Thomas. When laid out beside each other, the art on the steelbooks forms a ‘triptych' and it's quite impressive! The artwork on the back of the steelbooks focuses on three specific characters (Katara, Toph and Aang) and presents some nice portraits of each one. The steelbooks also feature some very nice embossment. These three steelbooks in turn fit inside a sturdy slipcover. It's quite a classy and attractive way to package this release. Included inside the slipcover alongside the steelbooks is a booklet containing an excerpt from The Rise OF Kyoshi.
This set is limited to 20,000 units.
Avatar: The Last Airbender The Complete Series (Steelbook Edition) offers up the entirety of the excellent animated series in decent, if never reference quality, shape and with a host of extras. There isn't really much here outside of the packaging to make those who own the previous Blu-ray set want to upgrade… but to be fair the packaging is gorgeous. The series itself, however, is excellent. A legitimately great family-friendly series that can be enjoyed by all ages. Highly recommended!