More Than Just a Kid’s Show
Avatar: The Last Airbender Review
By Guy James
In late May 2020, Netflix released the 2008 Nickelodeon series Avatar: The Last Airbender. This release has brought fans together, old and new, to celebrate what may be one of the best animated series of all time. Back in 2008, Avatar: The Last Airbender was released on Nickelodeon as a kid’s show; however, the themes, character development, and conflicts are universal and ageless.
Too often we see adult heroes who not only refuse to show emotion, but also never struggle with hope or believing themselves capable of playing the hero. Our main character, Aang, is 12 years old, and because of his age: he struggles with believing in himself; he expresses fear and sadness; he admits when he doesn’t have an answer; and ultimately, he’s more relatable. The child hero is actually more realistic than his over-confident and over-competent adult counterpart. How often does our pop-culture adult hero stop to question himself, his morality, or his capability? The other characters in the cast range from their preteens to mid-teens; again, this allows for them to openly express emotion that would be considered “childish” for an adult character, but in actuality is more human. The child characters are all the more compelling when they show strength because that strength has been hard-fought and comes from a recognition and overcoming of weakness.
There are, of course, adult characters who drive the show’s narrative as well. And, often, experiencing the relationship between children and adults—however positive or negative—from the child’s perspective is sobering. Adults are too often hardened and dehumanized by the world around them—which is one they’ve created—to the extent that they forget they were once children too.
The show is set in a world divided into four nations, each nation populated by persons representing a specific element: water, earth, fire, and air. Each nation possesses benders among their normal populace; benders are people capable of wielding one of the four elements. The Avatar is like a Bodhisattva: a hero who can wield all four elements, a restorer of balance to the world, and who with each incarnation grows in power. Before the first episode begins, the world has been devastated by a 100-year war started by the fire nation for global conquest and the Avatar has long since disappeared (when the world needed him most).
The story world being set mid-war is incredibly important regarding how the characters interact with each other and how the writers handle the very adult topic of war. The show doesn’t shy away from mature themes and refuses to patronize its audience. Topics like war, loss, honor, morality, and discovery of self are not tip-toed around but are trod through.
Of course, there are times where the animation and humor takes a turn left for a goofy destination, but let yourself laugh instead of remaining hardened by the all-too-common cynical comedy of today.
Each episode of the show is like a parable; we as an audience grow and share learning experiences with Aang as he walks the path of self-discovery and trains so he can be the Avatar his world needs. There is no fat on each episode either; each scene is carved down to its pith, with not a minute wasted or that can be missed.
The show ran for three seasons at twenty episodes apiece and there wasn’t an episode I didn’t enjoy. I am lucky enough to have shared the experience with my father; after each episode or episode-binge session, we would happily discuss and reflect on the story. Once we had finished the series, both of us admitted that we were sad that the experience of watching a kid’s show was over. I think we deny ourselves valuable and fulfilling experiences because of preconceptions that may not be ours but have been given to us. I also think that if a kid’s show from 2008 still shines brightly among the rough of the hyper-saturated entertainment industry, it may be more than just a kid’s show.
ABOUT GUY JAMES
Guy James is the pen name of Guy DeMarco, a young writer on the rise. He can be reached with music ideas and story suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lead-In Image – Nickelodeon Animation